One year can make a world of difference in football. A year ago, Andre Villas-Boas was the manager of Chelsea, a club that had never won the European title.
Just imagine what football might be like several years from now.
That's the challenge here today. It's impossible to know exactly which clubs will be successful next week, much less next year. Even so, here are my choices for the world's top 10 clubs in 2020.
Why 2020? It's a nice, round number, and it's far enough away that many of today's top stars will be either retired or nearing the end of their careers.
To compile this list, I considered not only footballing factors, but also economics, history, demographics and potential for the future. Some of the clubs you'll know well. Others might not be quite as familiar.
Once you've read through my selections, be sure to add your thoughts in the comments below
The stalwart European giants
These clubs have ruled as giants of the game for decades. It's hard to see them going away. Ever.
Let's start with Barcelona, the winners of the UEFA Champions League in 2006, 2009 and 2011, and semifinalists last season. Currently a world powerhouse, Barca have built a fearsome squad on the strength of a top-class youth academy, La Masia.
Late last month, Barcelona's entire team was made up of academy players for a short time during a match (via ESPN FC). These are not just any players, either. They have names like Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, undoubtedly some of the world's best.
The academy produced all three Ballon d'Or finalists in 2010. As long as La Masia keeps producing world-class talent, Barcelona will remain strong.
Next, naturally, is Real Madrid, the other half of the most vital rivalry in football today. Simply put, the rivalry with Barcelona will not allow Real Madrid to stand pat. Real will have to keep up, and at other times, Real will force Barcelona to keep up.
Besides, this is no humdrum team. Real have won more European Cup/Champions League titles than any other club. These days, their best player is superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. There's no telling who their next Galactico might be—only that there will be one, or even several.
Manchester United lost the title to big-spending neighbors Manchester City last season (more on the latter momentarily), but remain England's richest, most famous and most successful club. Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson will have retired by 2020 (at least we think so), but it's hard to imagine the Red Devils falling behind the competition, either domestically or in Europe.
Much depends on the appointment of the club's next manager (could it be Pep Guardiola?). Meanwhile, the club's debt is another concern under American owners the Glazer family. While still high, that number fell last month to its 2005 level (via Daily Telegraph).
All together, United's brand and future remain strong.
The same can be said for Bayern Munich, the giants of Germany. Borussia Dortmund (more on them later as well) won the Bundesliga the last two years, but Bayern remain the country's richest and most powerful club.
The Bavarians flexed their financial muscles with the signing of Javi Martinez for an astounding €40 million last summer (via Goal.com). That was an impressive sum, but the important point here is that the Martinez signing served as the exception for Bayern, not the rule. Bayern can spend big money, but it's rare for the club to do so.
In other words, Bayern tend to act responsibly in financial matters, Martinez's transfer fee aside. Bayern also happen to be European giants with a rich history. That's a powerful combination, and one that bodes well for the future.
As we'll see, those traits are common to German teams. For now, though, a word on Italian giants AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus.
All three possess rich histories and maintain significant spending power. In recent seasons, however, Italian clubs have seen their spending power reduced. The Italian economy recently entered the second year of recession (via Bloomberg), and the effects are being felt by the country's clubs.
Economies can change quickly, but for now, Italian clubs seem to be falling behind their continental rivals.
The "other" fiscally responsible club
Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga the last two seasons with a squad built on a budget modest for elite European standards. This season, manager Jurgen Klopp has Die Schwarzgelben competing with—and beating—Europe's best in the Champions League.
All this has been built with a prudent fiscal strategy based on Germany's "50+1" principle of club ownership. Like almost all German clubs, Dortmund are owned principally by the fans (for more, see this article from The Guardian).
Unlike wealthy individual owners (and we'll see plenty of them momentarily), fans are more likely to keep in mind both the club's financial health and on-pitch competitiveness. Dortmund won the Champions League in 1997, and in their current incarnation, seem a likely choice to do so again soon.
Germany's economy currently ranks as the largest in Europe by some distance (via BBC). The country's biggest clubs should continue to benefit from the collective prosperity of the country.
And with the Borussia Dortmund in sound shape, the team should remain competitive for years.
The nouveau riche
By 2020, Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations should be fully in place. By then, clubs will find it more difficult to spend large amounts of money to buy a place at the table among the world's elite.
And yet clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have already pretty much done just that.
Unless Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) or Sheikh Mansour (Manchester City) become bored with their clubs, Chelsea and Man City will likely remain at or near the elite level.
Chelsea's situation presents a few potential issues. Abramovich will mark 10 years of Chelsea ownership in 2013, and it's unclear how long he will remain in the picture. He could, however, hold onto Chelsea for decades. If he does, the club would benefit from a bit more restraint in his treatment of managers.
With their Premier League title in 2011-12, Manchester City raised the stakes in the Manchester Derby to a new level. Neither club can afford to back down now, quite literally. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see whether the Manchester Derby becomes as influential to Europe's balance of power as that of Barca and Real.
Finally, PSG face a unique problem in France, where tax rates have risen sharply on high earners in recent months (Reuters via Huffington Post). The country's highest earners now owe the government 75 percent of their earnings. That rate is supposedly temporary, but it could cause elite players to look elsewhere for their club football.
Even so, it's not out of the question for PSG's mega-rich owners from the Qatari Investment Authority to pay the players enough to cover the difference.
David Beckham recently played his final match for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. He might have just started a footballing revolution.
It's admittedly a stretch, but here's the imaginary scenario over the next eight years.
Los Angeles becomes a soccer destination. Beckham showed it's possible for players to be successful on the field and as crossover media stars. Others follow. Though it remains mostly a pre-retirement option, it becomes hip after Beckham's success.
Southern California offers a wonderful climate and plenty of potential exposure across multiple media. The league improves steadily, and thanks to the so-called Beckham rule (officially the designated player rule), teams can pay elite players competitive salaries (via USA Today).
MLS passed the NBA in 2011 as the United States' third-most attended league in terms of average game attendance (via Sporting News). That means more people, on average, watched matches with David Beckham and Landon Donovan in 2011 than games featuring LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
MLS is still a young league, but it has immense potential in a giant American economy (still the world's largest for now). As America's population changes, especially with further Hispanic immigration, the general public's sporting tastes will change.
As two-time defending MLS champions and former home to the game-changing Beckham, the Galaxy are uniquely poised to take advantage. If and when the New York Cosmos rejoin the league, the club's history might make it the most sought-after American destination. For now, though, it's Los Angeles.
The wild card
The U.S. economy remains the world's largest for now. But according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation, China will surpass the U.S. by the end of 2016 (via The Guardian).
China is a huge country with a huge population and a huge, potentially explosive economy. Within four years, it could have the most powerful economy on Earth. That doesn't mean much directly for football, but as the economy keeps growing, prosperity will spread, even in a Communist country.
That's where football comes in. We really don't even know how powerful China might become, but the country's potential is almost scary. By 2020, China and its football clubs could have unrivaled resources and spending power.
This year, Shanghai Shenhua surprised the world by signing former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba for big money (via BBC Sport). Drogba followed former French international forward Nicolas Anelka to the Far East, and with more money flowing into the Chinese league, more stars will likely follow.
China has the potential for explosive in the coming years, and football clubs there could eventually have unrivaled resources. The trick is convincing players to head east.
In addition to the Italian clubs mentioned above, several other possibilities remain.
Ajax have a strong youth system and a decent amount of money to spend, at least in Holland. With a rich history, the Amsterdam club should remain around the fringes of the elite.
Arsenal have struggled in recent years, famously failing to win a trophy since 2005. But the club could be poised to take advantage of FFP regulations once they're fully implemented. Few clubs are run more frugally, but success has recently been elusive.
Shakhtar Donetsk are owned by one of the richest men in Europe. This season, the Ukrainians finished ahead of Chelsea in their Champions League group. Is more success coming?
Like Chelsea and Manchester City, Zenit St. Petersburg are backed by big money. Unlike those clubs, Zenit play in Russia. The Russian league is significantly less popular than the English Premier League, and for players, Russia is a much tougher sell than England.
Going forward, Zenit must also refrain from disrupting their squad with big-money transfers.
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