I kind of meant to watch the Champions League football on ITV1 last night but, you know, “Spooks” was on BBC1 and… does anyone really care about these seemingly interminable group matches that act as wall-to-wall televisual filler between August and Christmas? I ask the question in all seriousness. Sometimes, something that I have previously written on here nestles in my head and leaves me thinking for several days and, over the last couple of days, I have been thinking about the supposed “death” of international football. Vastly overstated, if you ask me. The Champions League is supposed to the pinnacle of club football (it isn’t, by the way – in terms of quality you’re much better off checking out the Copa Libertadores when that starts in the new year if it’s quality and competition that you’re after), and my patience has been worn thin by week after week mismatched matches involving English clubs, often not playing very well, yet still managing to overcome plucky European clubs with about a tenth of their resources. It’s true to say that, in Italy, a sizeable proportion of the population (I’ve seen the figure of 70% quoted) support one of Inter, Milan or Juventus, no matter who else they go and watch. The figures are nothing like that high is England for Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool (no matter how much they might like to convince you otherwise), so how is it that six or seven million people will sit and watch Manchester United dish up another dodgy performance against the second best side in Belgium every week?
Well, partly it’s because British television audiences are stupid. You could put on a three hour long recording of a man staring at a brick and, so long as it was sandwiched between Emmerdale and Coronation Street, a couple of million people would watch it. Then you have people without satellite or cable television, for whom the Champions League is the only regular, live, televised football. Then you have the obsessives, who will watch any match going (*whistles*). A sizeable proportion of the audience is, however, an under-mentioned group. The people who watch because they hate the big English clubs and hope that they will lose. It’s football’s biggest irony. A game that is all about winning has, for a large section of its audience, become about which team you want to win the least. For these people, Tuesday night is “Schadenfreude Tuesday” – a chance to sit and watch a match, not really caring about who wins, but really, really hoping that Wayne Rooney has an off night and that some guy you’d never even heard of before will suddenly pop up and give them a punch on the nose. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s delicious when it does. Of course, the very reason that the Champions League is laid out in the convoluted way that it is has got much to do with removing chance. Liverpool’s wretched performances against Besiktas and Marseille will count for nothing if (or when) they get through to the last sixteen anyway.
The issue of who is watching in England and why, however, in global terms, relatively small beer. We in England have long had to put up with the authorities messing about with kick-off times to suit television audiences (the noon kick-off on Saturdays is there to suit the needs of the Far East market, whilst the tea-time kick off is there primarily for North America), and this is likely to get worse in time rather than better. In terms of global audiences, the Premier League has stolen a march on the Champions League because of the timing of its fixtures. The fact that the Premier League still plays the vast majority of its matches at the weekend guarantees them a bigger global audience compared to the Champions League, which still has to play all of its matches on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. They can’t change the kick-off times, because the European audience (which is still, ultimately, the most lucrative) would be unable to tune in (or, indeed, go to the matches), so UEFA is stuck with a competition which has live matches which are being played while everybody is at work in the USA and while everyone with any sense is in bed in the Far East. One can’t help but wonder how long it will be before the idea gets put forward of switching Champions League matches to Saturdays and Sundays too. Meanwhile, those of us here in England will continue to chuckle outwardly when our biggest clubs fail, whilst inwardly bemoaning the state of these ridiculously lop-sided “competitions” such as the Premier League and the Champions League – competitions which a small proportion of all football supporters could ever hope to actually win.