Every country has its so called ‘big clubs’ and its ‘sleeping giants’. The big clubs often splash the cash, they have the best players and they win the most trophies. The sleeping giants are a more curious case though, as they are the clubs with the potential to challenge the established big clubs. It is often the case that sleeping giants are clubs that were once great but have fallen away, whilst some have never reached their potential.
There are a few ingredients which qualify a club as a sleeping giant. They are most often traditionally big clubs who have suffered a fall from grace, dropping down the league and sometimes out of the top league. They are clubs who have everything in place to be a top club, but just haven’t made it happen in recent years whether that be down to ownership problems or just a failure to click on the pitch.
Some of these clubs still find themselves in the upper reaches of their domestic league whilst others are as low as the fourth tier, nevertheless, all are well below the level they are capable of. These are clubs worth watching out for, with the support and infrastructure to host a major football club. These are the top 15 sleeping giants in soccer:
15. FC Kaiserslautern
Despite Kaiserslautern being home to a population of fewer than 100,000 people, the city is immensely passionate about their soccer. The small city has a 49,780 seater stadium which, until recently, was regularly filled. Kaiserlautern have spent seven of the last nine seasons in the German second division, hence the drop in crowds, but the club’s huge support when successful shows they have the potential to challenge the top clubs in the Bundesliga. Kaiserslautern are 114 years old, and since their establishment they have won the German championship four times, and three domestic trophies.
14. AS Cannes
Giants may be pushing it, but historically, AS Cannes have been a very respectable side in France and were Ligue 1 regulars up until the later 1990s, when several of their most prominent players departed the club. With a star-studded list of former players including the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Gael Clichy, Sebastien Frey, Johan Micoud, Jonathan Zebina and more, the small city of just over 73,000 have won the Coupe de France once and finished as the league’s runners-up once. Following financial meltdown in 2010, the club temporarily ceased to exist before returning to Group C of the French Amateur League, where they compete with the reserve sides of the teams they played regularly in the past.
13. Newcastle United
Situated in the North-East of England, Newcastle United have some of the most passionate and fiercely loyal supporters in Britain. Despite dropping down to the Championship in 2009, the fans maintained their average attendance of 50,000, putting them just outside the top 10 for average attendances in Europe, ahead of the likes of Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, PSG, Juventus and Liverpool. Currently fighting for survival in the Premier League, Newcastle used to be one of the best teams in the Premier League, but since finishing as runners-up twice in the mid-90s, they have rarely challenged England’s top teams; there is certainly the potential for a major club in the city.
A remarkable stat from Italy is that Juventus are the best supported club in every city in the country with the exception of two. One is Florence, where Fiorentina reign supreme, and the other is Turin, the actual home of Juventus. In Turin, Torino are the most supported club. In a city home to just shy of one million people, the majority support the city’s less successful side. Torino play at the 28,140 capacity Stadio Olimpico di Torino, which they used to share with their neighbors Juventus. The club have won the Serie A seven times, finishing second seven times, played in 13 Coppa Italia finals, winning five and played in three European finals. However, since the mid-1990s the club has declined, spending time in Serie B and rarely challenging the upper reaches of the league.
11. Real Betis
One of two great clubs hailing from the city of Seville, along with fierce rivals Sevilla, is Real Betis. Despite Sevilla being the more successful of the two in recent years, Betis maintain an equal footing in terms of the popular support. In recent seasons, both have averaged attendances of just over 30,000, often with only a couple of hundred fans separating each sides averages. Betis play in the superb 52,500 seater Estadio Benito Villamarin, giving them plenty of space should their crowds pick up once more in the future. The team is remarkably inconsistent, having finished seventh in La Liga in 2013, they finished bottom in 2014, seeing them relegated and playing in the Spanish second tier this season.
10. Rangers FC
One of the most historic teams in world soccer, Rangers were founded 143 years ago and since then they have won the Scottish division 53 times, winning the Scottish Cup 33 times and the Scottish League Cup 27 times, as well as regularly competing in Europe and winning the European Cup Winners Cup in 1972. The club has a famous rivalry with Celtic, called the Old Firm Derby and play in the 50,947 capacity Ibrox Stadium. Rangers were liquidated in 2012 and forced to drop down to the fourth tier of Scottish football. The league’s average attendance is 509, yet Rangers maintained an average attendance of 50,000, over 48,000 higher than their closest competitor. Rangers have been promoted twice since then, and could return to the SPL if they win the Scottish Championship play-offs. They still have incredible support but may struggle to ever return to their previous heights given the lack of money in Scottish football.
9. Sheffield Wednesday
Sheffield Wednesday haven’t been a Premier League team for 15 years now, having fluctuated between the third and second tiers of English football in recent years. Despite their lack of success on the pitch, the Owls did manage to maintain impressive attendances. At their 39,732 capacity Hillsborough stadium, Wednesday regularly saw crowds of over 30,000 until 2010, when they began to drop, and their current average of 22,000 is their lowest for some time. The club have to compete with fellow current under-achievers Sheffield United for support, but in a city of over a half a million, the sixth biggest in England, there is certainly enough support for a top team.
Historically one of the Dutch ‘big three’ along with Ajax and PSV, Feyenoord have somewhat fallen by the wayside over the last 15 years. Although they regularly compete at the top of the Eredivisie, they have not won the league since 1999, and have only won one domestic competition since then as well. Feyenoord, like a number of Dutch sides, are no longer the European forces they once were as well. Former European Cup, UEFA Cup, Intercontinental Cup and Intertoto Cup champions, today, Feyenoord are more used to losing their best players to midtable Premier League teams. With a capacity of 51,000 and an average attendance of 45,818, higher than Chelsea, Napoli or PSG and in a city of 610,000 people, the club certainly has the potential to challenge once more one day.
7. Fortuna Dusseldorf
Currently hovering below the midway point of the 2. Bundesliga, the second tier of German football, Fortuna Dusseldorf have struggled for over two decades now. In 2004 they were playing as low as the fourth tier and have only spent one season in the Bundesliga in recent years. Given that the city of Dusseldorf is home to more than 590,000 people, they undoubtedly have the potential to be not just a top flight team but a top team. The club regularly challenged for trophies in both Europe and Germany from the 1930s-80s but has had no success in recent years. They play at the striking Esprit Arena, capable of holding 54,600 people, but currently average 34,000; should Dusseldorf improve on the pitch, they should comfortably fill their ground.
6. Leeds United
Despite having successful spells in the late 1960s-early 1970s and the early 1990s, Leeds have actually never really achieved as much as they should have given their predicament. With a population of 750,000, Leeds is England’s fifth biggest city. What’s more, Leeds are the only club in the city and face little competition for support in the local region. Despite winning the league in 1992, Leeds have not been in the top flight for over 10 years. A series of unwelcome owners has prevented the club from ever reaching its potential. Elland Road can hold 37,890, but rarely gets close to that these days; should Leeds return to the Premier League it could do once more.
5. RC Strasbourg Alsace
Strasbourg are a club which have been plagued by the same troubles that Alsace as a region has been. The club has changed nationality, and as such, leagues, three times over their 109 year history. With the exception of the very small club FC Mulhouse, Strasbourg are the only football club in Alsace, a region with a population of 1.8 million people. Given such a wide reach, Strasbourg have the potential to become a major force in France but currently play in the third tier of French football.
4. Inter Milan
It seems bizarre to talk about Inter Milan as sleeping giants, they won a treble under Jose Mourinho only five years ago, but so steep has their decline been since then, that the tag is a fair one. Despite the Serie A not being at its strongest right now, Inter lie in eighth place, well off reaching Champions League qualification and with their current squad that should come as no surprise. The 18 time Italian champions still have an impressive fan base, but averaging just 37,000 at the San Siro is a huge drop and a reflection of their poor form. Given the size of the club, it is surely only a matter of time before Inter rise once more.
3. Hamburger SV
Historically one of Germany’s finest teams, Hamburg look almost certain to be relegated from the Bundesliga for the first time in the club’s history. A frightening reality, given that Hamburg are the only team in Germany to hold that record. Six time German champions and two-time European champions, HSV have not challenged at the top of the Bundesliga for over a quarter of a century. Despite the club’s appalling form, they have tremendous unwavering support from their fans, averaging over 53,000 this season, putting them in the top 10 of European attendances. Should the right leadership come in at HSV, they are easily capable of reaching great heights domestically and in European competitions once more.
2. AC Milan
Much like Inter Milan, AC Milan are one of the traditional titans not just of Italian football but European football. Seven-time European champions, they are the second most successful club in Europe behind Real Madrid, and have won a total of 45 trophies in their history. They won the Serie A in 2011, but have dropped like a stone ever since. Long gone are the days of Dida, Cafu, Nesta, Stam, Maldini, Gattuso, Pirlo, Seedorf, Kaka and Shevchenko, which made up Milan’s star-studded line-up only 10 years ago. Today, their modest squad are remarkably under-performing, as the club find themselves in 11th place, below half-way in Serie A and a staggering 37 points behind Juventus.
1. Hertha Berlin
Berlin has always been a footballing anomaly. The German capital and home to over 3.5 million people, Berlin has failed to produce a genuinely successful football team. Not since 1931 has the club lifted a league title, and in the last five years the club has bounced between the Bundesliga and the 2. Bundesliga. Unlike in Munich, Dortmund, Bremen and other major German cities, Hertha have been unable to capture the hearts of many of Berlin’s inhabitants. Despite being Germany’s capital, Berlin is relatively poor compared to many other German cities. However, should Hertha endear themselves to the people of Berlin, their potential with such little local competition, is staggering. Their home is certainly prepared for such an event, the magnificent 74,475 Olympic Stadium.
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