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.