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Hands up how many of you watched a live Champions League match on the television this week? Not many? Thought not, and there’s a reason for it. The group stages of the Champions League are an almost complete waste of time. If you were sitting slumped in front of the couch this week thinking this, you’re not alone. The crowds are staying away. Just 5,750 people bothered to turn out to see Juventus grind out a 0-0 draw against FC BATE, whilst 14,000 watched Dynamo Kiev beat Fenerbahce and a mere 22,783 were at the Camp Nou to see Barcelona get beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk. What all of these matches had in common was they were almost completely meaningless. The imbalance of power in European football is now so great that all of the groups were more or less tied up with a match still to spare. If the Champions League wants to keep its place as the premier club competition in world football, it’s going to need to change, and quickly.
The group stages of the Champions League were a sop, handed on a plate to the big clubs by UEFA under the implied threat of a breakaway Super League. The big clubs like these group stages. They guarantee them three home matches’ worth of revenue, but even that’s not the primary benefit for them. The biggest clubs have spent tens, if not hundreds of millions of pounds on their teams. They know fully well that the group stages allow them the opportunity to correct any results that go against them. Chelsea were completely outplayed by Roma and held to a draw in Romania by CJ Cluj, but they’re still through to the next round. Internazionale won just two of their six matches, losing to Panathinkaikos and Werder Bremen on the way, but they’re still through. Arsenal were well beaten in Porto and won only three of their six matches, but they’re through too. So it is that the last sixteen has a shoulder-droppingly familar look to it, and that’s just how the big clubs want it. The irony, of course, is that the proposed Super League was never going to happen. If it had been feasible, the clubs would have done it, but they simply don’t have the infrastructure to make it happen. There’s no great desire for it to happen. A breakaway league would have led to the complete ostracisation of the clubs that joined it from the rest of football. They’d have been stuck playing each other and no-one else forever. Yet, in what looked at times like a fifteen year long game of poker, they managed to maintain their bluff.
The lack of competition at this stage of the Champions League isn’t the only problem that it faces. There is an inherent flaw in its very concept – whereas, say, the FA Cup has over a century of tradition behind it, lending it an authority that almost defies rational analysis, the Champions League still feels strangely manufactured. The media and the clubs try to build up “rivalries” (think back to when it seemed that Chelsea were playing Barcelona every season), but Champions League matches are played in an atmosphere that is devoid of any genuine context. The interest of the neutral supporter is critical, and no-one seems terribly interested in the usual cabal playing against each other year after year, especially when the football isn’t particularly competitive. We’re now at the point where it looks as if the fans are starting to lose interest. Ask an English supporter that doesn’t support Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool who they want to win the Champions League and the chances are that they’ll either shrug their shoulders or say, “Anyone, so long as it isn’t another bloody English club”. Even in Italy, where 70% of the population claim some sort of allegiance to Internazionale, Milan or Juventus and it would, therefore, be safe to assume that interest in the Champions League would be massive, the ardour doesn’t seem to be there, even when the supposedly “big” guns are in town. Inter’s crowds for their three group matches didn’t rise above 35,000, whilst Juventus could only muster 25,813 for the visit of Real Madrid and Roma couldn’t break the 40,000 barrier for the visit of one of the tournament favourites, Chelsea. The truth of the matter is that many Champions League crowds at this stage of the competition wouldn’t look out of place in the Championship.
There is something that UEFA could do to enliven the Champions League, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a very fashionable idea. It’s time to strip things down to basics. It’s time to scrap the mini-leagues and get back to the drama, tension and heart-ache of cup football. There are 338 clubs playing in the UEFA Cup and the Champions League this season, and every one of them has a UEFA coefficient, from Liverpool (118.996) down to SS Murata of San Marino (0.082). The bottom 164 of these teams play in a Preliminary Round, leaving 82 clubs to join the top 174 in the First Round of the new European Cup. These 256 clubs then play a round of knock-out matches, of which the losing 128 go into the UEFA Cup, with the winning 128 staying in the European Cup. It’s then six rounds to the final of each competition, which would fit neatly into the season from the Autumn through to the end of May. Fourteen matches to the final for the biggest clubs, compared to the twelve matches that the top seeds play now. There would be no need to seed the competition, and interest would be generated by match-ups that had never been seen before. The status of the UEFA Cup would also be boosted by the chance that some properly big clubs could be forced into it.
Of course, the biggest clubs wouldn’t go for it because it would remove their safety net. “The fans want to see the best players!”, they would cry, seemingly oblivious to the fact that what we actually want is exciting, all-or-nothing football. The bigger clubs would still get all their home matches and the ties would between the very biggest clubs would be boosted because of an increased rarity value. As with the phantom Super League of the 1990s, it won’t happen because it won’t suit the big clubs, who don’t much like being ninety minutes away from elimination from European football. Particularly not in September or October. If they don’t like the possibility of being drawn against each other in the First Round, then tough. In a draw with 256 clubs in it, its far more likely that they will draw a smaller club than a club the same size of them. It’s called the luck of the draw. For the forseeable future, though, nothing much is going to change. There are too many snouts in the trough with too much to lose. Therefore, you can expect to continue to see Europe’s biggest clubs battering seven bells out of teams with wage budgets a twentieth of the size of their own in front of smaller and smaller crowds and in front of smaller and smaller television audiences. Welcome to the brave new world of European football.
Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
I must be the only person in the world who doesn’t hark back to the grand knockout days when teams like Bruges, Malmo and Panathinaikos, none of whom can really boast a single player of international note, got to the final. Cup Competitions are only treated with reverence and affection in England, where we have the FA Cup – and that’s because of the history, because ultimately a trophy won without a guarantee that the victors have played the best sides is meaningless. I don’t want to see a competition where the Italian and English champions are paired with each other in the first round, leaving the Estonian and Belgian champions a free run in the other half of the draw. Yes, the first round stages of the Champions League can be dull, but I offer two observations: firstly, it’s because the best teams are not playing each other, it’s because no-one is interested in seeing dead rubbers against poor opposition, and it changes once you get to the second round; and secondly, the latter stages of last year’s FA cup, with WBA, Barnsley, Cardiff and Portsmouth as the leading protagonists hardly set the world ablaze in terms of excitement or quality.
Fact is, football is a meritocracy, and when you’re dealing with a competition to find the best, it’s the biggest teams playing against each other that people want to watch – it’s different from the motives you have for watching your local team. I didn’t watch Man United v Aalborg because it was a meaningless game, with one team playing half a team of reserves, and the other, with all due respect, insignificant in European terms. No-one is going to watch the World Club Championship either, and it’s not because Manchester United are there, but because no-one else of any note is (with the possible exception of Al-Ahly). If you want to make the competition more exciting, I’m afraid the answer is to reduce the number of teams, but have them all come from England, Germany, Italy, France, Holland, Spain… You can have whatever format you want then, but is that what people want?
Anyone with any sort of feeling for the game longs for a return to the old European Cup format, but never before have I seen the case argued so fluently and powerfully. Brilliant post.
[…] King over at Two Hundred Percent offers an excellent alternative to the boredom that is Champions League (and heck, even UEFA Cup) group stages. One of the better […]
I concur with Pete. A superb argument, what the latter writer has pointed out is that football has changed.
The idea of a small team from a less elustrious league is in many ways very exciting. However, since the bosman ruling these are total mis matches, with many of the big teams like manchester united using group matches to give opportunities to second string players, and still comfortably winning.
The fact is that football has become stagnant, with the same small group of teams becoming dominant. However, the answer to this problem is not to revert back to the old system. what Uefa and Fifa need to do is look at new means of legislation and competition design/format.
My suggestion would be to link qualification to the uefa competitions to international team success. when you look at the fifa rankings of european sides; Spain top the tree followed by the Netherlands, Germany, England and Portugal- with more obscure nations such as Croatia and Denmark making up some of the following places. We currently have 3 leagues supplying 4 teams each to the champions league, if you were to use my system you would see England drop a team from qualification to the competition which would put far more emphasis on players and clubs to play to their highest standard for their national team, and sides who seem to favour using non home grown players having to re-think their strategy if they want a better chance of qualification to europes premier competition. in short, more emphasis on clubs developing home grown players, meaning more of a spread of top quality players to different leagues..