That plan proved unworkable, but Trepca officials eventually found seats for the team on a flight from Slovenia back to Kosovo. From there, the team was to travel to Turkey, then to Denmark, before finally flying to the remote Faroes, a cluster of Danish islands north of Scotland. There, in the North Atlantic, their Champions League journey will begin.
Just 24 days after Cristiano Ronaldo’s two goals helped Real Madrid beat Juventus in the Champions League final in Cardiff, Wales, the competition returns this week on a handful of obscure stages. Ten champions from the lowest-ranked European leagues — San Marino, Malta, Estonia, Andorra, Northern Ireland, Wales, Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands, Armenia and Kosovo — will open the tournament with home-and-away ties.
For these clubs, which include not only Trepca ’89 and Vikingur but also clubs like Hibernians of Malta and the Northern Irish champions Linfield F.C., their Champions League experience can end before most of the true contenders have returned from summer break.
The earliest Champions League qualifiers are often a forgotten footnote of the world’s richest club competition. A preliminary round was introduced for the smallest teams when the European Cup was revamped and renamed the Champions League in 1992; it now includes a three-stage format, followed by a playoff round for entry into the group stage.
But although reaching that lucrative group stage is nearly impossible for Europe’s minnows, the prize money they receive merely for participating can have a transformative effect.
“The qualifiers have a special meaning, especially clubs and countries overlooked higher up in soccer,” said Mike Harris, chairman of The New Saints F.C., the Welsh champion.
Although Wales hosted the most recent Champions League final, its league is virtually part time. The New Saints are the only team that employs full-time players, largely thanks to Champions League money.
According to the Welsh Premier League, The New Saints received £16,000 ($20,360) for winning their league last year. But the club earned €260,000 ($291,000) from UEFA for that championship, plus €540,000 ($604,000) for advancing to the second qualifying round of the Champions League.
Harris said the cash infusions were helping “bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots.” But some argue that this money — a share of the Champions League’s booming revenues — is instead undermining competitive balance in smaller national leagues.
According to Mark Pitman, who writes about Welsh soccer and its finances, The New Saints’ reward for reaching the first qualifying round of the Champions League is five times the salary bill of almost every other Welsh club.
“When T.N.S. qualify for the Champions League,” he said, referring to The New Saints, “they have already paid off their wage bill. They will be the dominant force in the league, sign the best players, weaken the opposition. They have the monopoly.”
Similar powerhouses are being created in other leagues, with both Champions League money and the smaller rewards available from the Europa League. F.C. Santa Coloma has won four straight titles in Andorra, and the past 10 championships in Malta have been won by three teams.
The New Saints have won the past six titles in Wales, and the race for European riches has caused several of their domestic rivals to go bankrupt.
“No one considers winning the league anymore,” Pitman said. “T.N.S. won the league by 27 points. Everyone else plays for the three Europa League spots.”
Linfield of Northern Ireland is another champion in a part-time league. It will host San Marino’s champions, La Fiorita, on Wednesday in Belfast.
“Potentially, the Champions League qualifiers is a year’s budget,” said Roy McGivern, the Linfield chairman. If Linfield can advance past La Fiorita, an even more lucrative — if politically charged — matchup against the Scottish champion Celtic awaits.
According to McGivern, the team’s annual budget is about £500,000 (about $636,000). Beating La Fiorita would net the club as much as £1 million (nearly $1.3 million) once television money was taken into account.
“It does set the club up,” he said of a UEFA payday, adding that Linfield’s failure to qualify for five years had allowed other clubs to pull away. If Crusaders F.C., the Northern Ireland champion the past two seasons, had won a third straight championship, McGivern said, “it would have been a massive boost from them. It was important to break that.”
The club’s European prize money also correlates to the number of full-time players it can afford. Linfield currently has none. Even the team’s coach, the former Manchester United striker David Healy, works part time.
“The reality is, the crowds aren’t so big, and European money kicks it to the next level,” McGivern said. He joked that “Chinese money hasn’t reached Northern Ireland yet.”
For two leagues new to the riches of European soccer — Gibraltar, now in its second year of the Champions League, and Kosovo, about to embark on its first — the effect of UEFA money is in its infancy.
“My advice,” McGivern said of what Kosovar teams like Trepca ’89 should do next, “is reinvest the money. Use the opportunity to dominate your domestic league. You are in such a strong position.”
Yet for Ramadani and his Trepca ’89 squad, reaching the Champions League has not yet been tainted by thoughts of profit and dominance. The goal for Tuesday’s match against Vikingur, Ramadani said, is “not losing,” if only to ensure that the return leg in Mitrovica will be well attended.
“We will bring 18,000 people,” Ramadani said. Maybe then the players will realize what they have achieved. “This is a big thing,” he said, “and we need heroes.”
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