featured FM Challenges

FM21 Challenges: (1) Restore Fallen Domestic Giants

Christmas has gone, years go by, yet from a football point of view, certain things never change. At this point we normally begin to see the runners & riders in title races around Europe emerge as the champions begin to be crowned in leagues in both North & South America. It is also the time of year for Football Manager aficionados to rejoice as the latest edition of Sports Interactive’s brilliant game makes its way onto screens around the world.

Yes folks, FM21 has arrived and with it, there are a huge amount of challenges to satisfy one’s appetite. At Heart of Football, we have studied from A to Z all of the playable leagues to find FM fanatics some challenges that you will love to take on. In this first of a series of five FM21 Challenges pieces, we look at certain clubs who were once amongst their country’s largest yet have now fallen on hard times. Your mission is to restore these ten clubs to their past glories.

Panathinaikos FC (Greek Super League)

The first fallen giant is Panathinaikos FC of the Greek Super League. The Greens as they are colloquially known are Greek football’s second most successful club behind bitter rivals Olympiacos FC having won 20 Greek titles and 18 Greek Cups. However, most noteworthy has been Panathinaikos being the only Greek club to reach the final of a European club competition. That occurred in 1970/71 when the Athenian giants reached the European Cup Final at Wembley. The late great Johan Cryuff and his Ajax team proved too strong. However, Panathinaikos’s achievement was impressive, especially considering Greek football was still amateur at that time.

Despite still being one of Greek football’s giants, The Greens have fallen on hard times recently. Their last Greek title win came in 2009/10. All three of their main rivals – AEK Athens, PAOK and most prominently Olympiacos – have captured Greek titles in that same timeframe. Panathinaikos have recently encountered financial difficulties and were even given a UEFA competition ban for Financial Fair Play breaches in 2018. To highlight the strength of their decline, the club even managed to finish a previously unthinkable 11th place in the 2017/18 Greek Super League.

Being one of only three clubs alongside Olympiacos and PAOK to never be relegated from Greece’s top flight, Panathinaikos are a strong institution in Greek football. Can you lead The Greens to a period of dominance? Extra points if you can lead Panathinaikos to a European trophy of some description. Your starting transfer budget of ₤182,766 proves how tough a challenge this will prove. Equally, whilst negotiations are ongoing on the construction of a new stadium, you currently have to play home games at the Athens Olympic Stadium, paying a princely ₤222,000 per year in rent.

Rapid Bucharest (Romanian Liga II)

Think of Romanian football and two names instantly spring to mind: the country’s two most successful clubs in terms of titles, Steaua Bucharest and Dinamo Bucharest. Both of these clubs also made a strong impression outside of Romania in the 1980s with strong performances in the European Cup. Steaua famously beat FC Barcelona in the 1986 final before losing to AC Milan in 1989, while Dinamo reached the 1984 semi-finals where they fell to eventual winners Liverpool FC.

However, another name in Romanian football which should not be forgotten is Rapid Bucharest. Formed in 1923 in the Grivita neighbourhood of Bucharest, Rapid – or Feroviarii (The Railwaymen) as they are colloquially known – are most famously known for a glory era experienced during the 1990s and early 2000s. During this era, the club won two of their three Romanian titles in 1998/99 and 2002/03. The first of these came under the management of veteran Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu. In addition to three league titles, Rapid have also won 13 Romanian Cups throughout their history, joint second with Dinamo Bucharest on the all-time list.

In recent seasons however, Rapid have fallen on hard times. The original club was declared bankrupt in December 2016 after numerous years of financial problems. However, a phoenix club was formed for the 2017/18 campaign in Romania’s fourth tier. Instantly, the new Rapid won two consecutive promotions and now stand just one promotion away from a return to Romania’s top flight once more. The club is set to move into a new stadium for the 2021/22 campaign, so what better way to christen this than to win promotion back to the top flight? Can you re-establish Rapid as a Romanian force? There is zero transfer budget and very little spare room on your wage bill.

Torpedo Moscow (Russian Football National League)

Our next destination is Russia and its second tier Football National League (FNL). Like many second tiers across world football, the FNL has more of a natural feel about it, away from the big money at the top of a domestic pyramid. However, that is not to say that it does not possess big name clubs currently a shadow of their former selves. The most prominent example is Torpedo Moscow. Formed in 1924 by the AMO automotive plant, Torpedo are colloquially known as The Car Factory Workers. 

Torpedo would go on to become one of the Soviet Union’s most successful clubs. In terms of Soviet Highest League titles won, Torpedo are ranked fifth overall, behind only Muscovite rivals Spartak, CSKA & Dynamo and Ukrainian heavyweights Dynamo Kyiv. When it came to Soviet Cup triumphs, Torpedo did even better, their six wins and nine runners-up finishes ranking them third overall, only behind Spartak and Dynamo Kyiv. Until Lokomotiv Moscow’s emergence in the late 1990s Torpedo were considered the fourth biggest Moscow club behind Spartak, CSKA and Dinamo. 

Barring a Russian Cup win in 1993 and four consecutive top-four finishes in the RPL between 1999 and 2002, Torpedo’s fortunes have plummeted in the post-USSR era. Relegation from the RPL in 2006 (their first ever relegation) was followed by financial difficulties throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s. Since this historic relegation in 2006, Torpedo have only played one season back in the top flight (2014/15) which ended in an instant relegation and have even had spells playing in the regionalised Russian fourth tier.

However, there is optimism once more. In 2017, one of Russia’s richest men, billionaire Roman Avdeev, acquired the club. Torpedo returned to the FNL for 2019/20, and were only denied a shot at promotion to the RPL due to the ongoing Covid pandemic curtailing last season when they were well-positioned to go up. Having invested heavily in the playing squad, off the pitch Torpedo are also making strides. Their historic home venue, the Eduard Streltsov stadium, is currently undergoing a major facelift, with the renovated arena due to reopen in 2023. 

Can you return Torpedo to the top flight and establish them in time for the Streltsov’s reopening? Torpedo also make for an intriguing save for other reasons; they are the only big Muscovite club based in Southern Moscow (CSKA, Spartak and Dinamo all being based in north-west Moscow and Lokomotiv being based in north-east Moscow). Equally, backed by wealthy owners, there is scope for Torpedo to re-emerge as a force in the RPL. Can you even dethrone Spartak, Lokomotiv, CSKA and Dynamo and become Moscow’s top club?

FC Alania Vladikavkaz (Russian Football National League)

Staying in the Russian FNL, a second fallen giant challenge from this league is available – Alania Vladikavkaz. Based in Vladikavkaz, the capital city of the Russian federal region North Ossetia-Alania, the Red-Yellows were founded back in 1921. Having spent a large period of the USSR era in the second tier, the club won promotion to the 1991 Soviet top tier, the final year of the league’s existence before the country’s dissolution. Alania managed to survive with an 11th place finish and were founding members of the first edition of the Russian Premier Liga in 1992.

This began the club’s golden era, as they finished second in the 1992 RPL. Just three seasons later in 1995 they surprisingly won the league, the only major title in the club’s history. This was achieved under the management of Valery Gazzaev, who 10 years later in 2005 led CSKA Moscow to a treble of Russian Premier Liga, Russian Cup and UEFA Cup. Alania almost retained their title the following campaign, yet lost out to Spartak in a championship playoff as both sides were tied for points at the end of the 1996 season.

Since 1996 though, Alania have endured a sharp decline. Relegation from the RPL occurred in 2005 as Alania have bounced around the divisions since, financial problems and a past bankruptcy playing a part. Since 2014/15, Alania have stabilised in the regionalised third-tier Professional Football League (PFL). In 2019/20, the club finished second in their section, missing out on promotion. However, due to second-tier club Mordovia Saransk not obtaining a participation license for 2020/21 due to financial difficulties, Alania were promoted to take their place.

Can you now stabilise Alania in the second tier and lead them back to the big time? The Leopards have zero transfer budget to spend and are maxed out on their wage bill. Expectations are only to avoid relegation though, so no huge pressure. For this and the aforementioned Torpedo Moscow challenge, it is worth reminding interested gamers of the foreign player limits of Russia’s second tier. Russian FNL clubs are allowed a maximum of five foreign players in their squads and a maximum of three in their starting eleven. Players from Belarus are exempt from the foreigner rule.

FC Pro Vercelli 1892 (Italian Serie C – Group A)

The next challenge comes courtesy of Italy and more specifically, the third tier Serie C – Group A. Like in Spain, the first round-robin national championship in Italy (Serie A) took place in 1929. Amongst its founding members included some famous names, Juventus, Milan, Inter (then under the name Ambrosiana), Roma, Lazio, Torino and Napoli. However, one name viewers may not be too familiar with is that of Pro Vercelli.

Based in Vercelli, a town of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants in the Piedmont region, Pro Vercelli were one of Italy’s most dominant clubs in the first three decades of the 20th century. After winning their first Italian championship in 1908, they retained it the following season in 1909 and then won three in a row between 1910/11 and 1912/13. Their final championship to this day was won in 1921/22, their seventh in their history. This puts them seventh in the overall standings for titles won in Italy behind Juventus, Inter, Milan, Genoa, Torino and Bologna.

Pro Vercelli have declined a lot since the glory days, dropping into the second-tier Serie B in 1947/48 and not returning for 64 seasons. Even when they did, it was only for a single season before dropping back to the regionalised third tier. Can you bring Serie A football back to Vercelli for the first time since 1934/35? You are maxed out on your wage bill, yet have a ₤274,150 transfer budget to spend.

Queen’s Park FC (Scottish League Two)

When one thinks of Scottish football, two clubs instantly dominate any conversation; Glasgow’s two giants, Celtic FC and Rangers FC. The Old Firm have, since the inception of the 20th century, dominated Scottish football, winning 105 Scottish titles between them since the first national championship in 1890/91. The dominance of the Old Firm is such that Celtic currently have 54 titles, Rangers have 51 titles and the next highest ranked teams are Aberdeen, Hearts & Hibernian with four titles each. 

However, there was at one stage a third giant from Glasgow. Founded in 1867, Queen’s Park are Scotland’s oldest club. They made a name for themselves in the 1870s and 1880s by winning several Scottish Cups, and being very competitive in the English FA Cup. Back then, Scottish sides were invited into the FA Cup and Queen’s Park, or The Spiders as they are commonly called, proved successful. In 1884 and 1885, they reached the final of the FA Cup, both times losing to Blackburn Rovers. By 1900, Queen’s Park had won 10 Scottish Cups, the last of which in 1893. Still they staggeringly rank third behind Celtic and Rangers for cup wins.

Until November 2019, Queen’s Park had a policy of amateur status, with their players not receiving any salary for playing matches. However, following a club meeting, the decision to abandon their amateur status was approved by a majority 91% of supporters. A variety of factors were cited in this decision, such as the loss of now Liverpool star Andrew Robertson for zero compensation fee to Dundee United in 2013 due to the club’s amateur status, and a sense that a failure to adopt professionalism would see the club left behind.

Now that Queen’s Park are into their first season as professionals, can you unlock their potential? Just how far up the Scottish pyramid can you take them? To the top flight? Or even challenging for honours such as the Scottish Cup once more?

Stade de Reims (French Ligue 1)

First contested in 1930 as a fully national competition, France’s Ligue 1 now sees itself firmly entrenched as one of Europe’s so-called ‘Big Five’ leagues alongside England, Germany, Italy and Spain. Despite this, French club sides have not fared well when it comes to European club competitions; in fact only two, Olympique de Marseille (1992/93 Champions League) and Paris St Germain (1995/96 Cup Winners’ Cup) have won a UEFA club competition. However, in the 1950s, a modest team emerged onto the European football scene with their performances – Stade de Reims.

Founded in 1910, Reims first won promotion to Ligue 1 in 1945/46. This proved a catalyst for their greatest period which also proved to be one of the best periods for a club in French football. Les Rouges et Blancs won their first Ligue 1 title in 1948/1949 and proceeded to win a further five titles over the next 13 years (1952/53, 1954/55, 1957/58, 1959/60 and 1961/62). The club were finalists in the first ever edition of the European Cup in 1955/56. After overcoming AGF Aarhus, MTK Budapest and Hibernian FC, the club lost 4-3 to Real Madrid in the final. Reims went on another magical run in the 1958/59 edition, reaching the final again before succumbing to – yes, you guessed it – Real Madrid again by a 2-0 scoreline.

Since their last title win in 1962, Reims has endured a rollercoaster ride between divisions, even at one stage playing at level six of the French football pyramid. Recent seasons have seen a resurgence. A four-year spell in Ligue 1 between 2012 & 2016 was then followed by three years back in Ligue 2 between 2016 & 2018 and promotion back to Ligue 1 for 2018/19. After the 2019/20 Ligue 1 season was curtailed early due to Covid-19 pandemic, Reims, under the management of David Guion finished sixth. This qualified them for the 2020/21 Europa League, their first participation in a UEFA continental competition since 1962/63.

Can you return Reims to the top of French football? Expectations are to be competitive on your return to Europe by reaching the Europa League group stages. Can you put a stop to the seemingly endless modern dominance of French football by PSG? Extra bonus points if you can win a European club competition.

1 FC Kaiserslautern (German 3. Bundesliga)

Whomever one chooses to play as on FM21, one has to keep an eye on the German 3. Bundesliga. It is a league full of many famous clubs, some of which were former 1. Bundesliga clubs until very recently. These include the likes of TSV 1860 Munich, Hansa Rostock, Dynamo Dresden and FC Ingolstadt. However, amongst them, one name arguably stands out above all – 1. FC Kaiserslautern.

Roten Teufel (Red Devils) were founding members of the first ever Bundesliga in 1963/64 having previously won two German championships in 1951 and 1953. In the modern era, the south-western club has also had some memorable moments, the most noteworthy coming under the management of Otto Rehhagel in 1997/98. After having won promotion to the top flight from 2. Bundesliga the previous season, many predicted Kaiserslautern to finish mid-table at best. However, Rehhagel’s side stunned Germany by winning the 1. Bundesliga title.

Recent times have not been too kind to Kaiserslautern, however. Since 2006/07, the club has only had two seasons in the 1.Bundesliga and for the 2018/19 season suffered an historic relegation into Germany’s third tier where they currently reside. Can you revive the Red Devils? There is no transfer money available, while first season expectations are a top half finish with an expectation to win promotion to 2. Bundesliga at the end of 2021/22.

Cruzeiro Esporte Club (Brazilian Serie B – CEC on the game as FM do not have the license)

It would not be a FM teams-to-be guide without including challenges from South America. One of this year’s versions comes from the city of Belo Horizonte in the shape of Cruzeiro Esporte Club. Formed in 1921, Cruzeiro have won four Brazilian Serie A titles (1966, 2003, 2013 and 2014), Six Copa do Brasil titles (1993, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2017 and 2018) and two Copa Libertadores titles (1976 and 1997). Legendary players such as Ronaldo and Rivaldo have famously donned the colours of Raposa (The Fox).

However, 2019 saw the club endure arguably their worst ever season. Part way through the campaign, after news broke during a TV documentary of reportedly controversial internal club governance in addition to reportedly concerning financial problems, results began to tank for Raposa. After defeat on penalties to River Plate in the last 16 of the Copa Libertadores on 31 July, Cruzeiro then only won five league games out of the remaining 26 in Serie A. The final matchday, a 2-0 home defeat to Palmeiras, saw the club relegated to the second tier for the first time in their history.

Can you revive Cruzeiro’s fortunes? It will be tough, the club are expecting an instant return to Serie A. This is the target despite a club balance of minus ₤1,831,418, no spare wage room and zero transfer budget. Other expectations are that you lower the average age of the squad by signing players aged 23 or under and develop players using the club’s youth system. Brace yourself for a long save here! Brazilian Serie B clubs are restricted to a maximum of five foreign players in their squad.

Royal Antwerp FC (Belgian First Division A)

Our final fallen giant challenge to take on comes from Belgium. Despite the Belgian national football team’s current strength, the Belgian First Division A tends to be seen as in the shadows of the neighbouring Dutch Eredivisie. Nonetheless, the league is continuously improving, with its UEFA coefficient being on the verge of ranking it as one of the eight best leagues in Europe. The last time both Belgium’s domestic league and national team had such a strong reputation simultaneously was in the 1980s. Back then, the national team reached the 1980 European Championships Final and semi-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. In addition, club sides such as Anderlecht and KV Mechelen won European club competitions.

When listing strong Belgian club sides, Anderlecht and Club Brugge tend to be the two mentioned most frequently, but Royal Antwerp FC are also a club with a long and famous history. Formed in 1880, with the football sector starting seven years later, Antwerp are actually Belgium’s oldest football club, being christened with the nickname The Great Old. Antwerp have won four Belgian titles (the last being in 1956/57), three Belgian Cups (the last coming this summer) and were runners-up to Parma in the 1993 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final. Despite all of this, many in the modern era mostly remember Antwerp being a feeder club for young loanees from Manchester United between 1998 and 2013 due to a long partnership between the clubs.

Can you revive Antwerp as a domestic force in Belgium and even win a European trophy such as the UEFA Europa Conference League (which starts in 2021/22) or even the Europa League? A transfer budget of ₤913,834 and ₤150,000 per week is free on your wage budget for new signings. The board expect a title challenge in 2021/22, so you have a season to get your feet under the table at the start.

30 years-old sports fanatic from near Wigan, United Kingdom. Season ticket holder at Wigan Athletic in the second tier English Championship. Alongside Heart of Football, writes for Its Round and Its White. Passionate about all football, English Premier League, English Football League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and other European and World football leagues, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and International Football. Favourite Moment: Being at Wembley Stadium in May 2013 to watch Wigan defeat Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup Final.

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