So, I was sitting at home last night watching the Champions League match between OM and Liverpool, and the thought finally came to me. Who cares about this? Seriously. Who gives a damn about it? The Champions League is now so debased, so much of a mis-match that Liverpool, the fourth placed team in England (by fairly common assent) , can stroll through the group phases, winning matches as if they are pre-season friendlies. Never mind the fact that they put in two of the worst performances I’ve ever seen in this competition (proving at a stroke why the big clubs like this mini-group format so much – it removes so much of the element of chance), OM were so wretched last night that one got the feeling that even ITV, having spent a good half an hour hyping the match up as a “do or die night for heroes”, were slightly embabrrassed at how easy it was for them yet again.
One wonders how long, in a global community with multi-channel digital access, how long UEFA, the big clubs and the televisions companies will be able to continue to pass off this charade as “premium entertainment”. It’s not football as most of us understand it. It’s not a competition. This year’s group stage has been a drawn out series of grindingly tedious Harlem Globetrotters exhibition matches. One could be forgiven that the “surprise” results have occurred have been deliberately placed to startle the viewing audience into waking up. They might as well have done, for all the difference that they’ve made to who has gone through. Sky Sports are so desperate that they’re trying to hype up tonight’s Sevilla-Arsenal match as being “The Battle For Top Place In The Group”. Lord, give me strength. In view of the fact that, as in the Premier League, there is no competition in the Champions League any more, here are six genuinely great football competitions.
1. Copa Libertadores: Vast, sprawling and mad, La Copa Libertadores is, of course, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, and it has everything that you’d want the Champions League to have. You’d expect Brazil and Argentina to have dominated it, but it’s worth pointing out that eleven different countries have provided winners to it. Boca have won it four times in the last seven years but other recent winners have included Olimpia of Paraguay, Once Caldas of Colombia and Colo Colo of Chile. It starts in January and runs until June, and promises to be as great as ever this year.
2. The Championship: Forget about the Premier League. If you want a tight, competitive league in which anyone can beat anybody else and in which more than half of the teams in the division are likely to be in with at least the whiff of a chance of getting promoted, The Championship is the only place to look. The myth that there is a gap between it and the bottom of the Premier League is slowly debunked (it’s Derby’s stupid fault if they choose not to spend any of the money that they get from promotion and spend the wholse of the next twelve months as national laughing stocks), with a number of Premier League clubs having been relegated and not finding it as easy as they thought they would. Just ask Sheffield United about that. All this and, at the end of the season, it hosts its own cup final when the play-off final finishes off the domestic season.
3. The Isthmian League: Somehow, it’s easier to laugh at football leagues when you call them by their sponsors’ names, so we’ll eschew the word “Ryman” in favour of the league’s official name. The Isthmian League was a gateway to the Conference until 2004 but, since the restructuring of non-league football and the introduction of the Conference North and Conference South, it has slipped oneplace down the pecking order. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that the 2007/08 season finds it in rude health. The three divisions (Premier Division, Division One North and Division One South) are all highly competitive, crowds are up and it is jam-packed with clubs that were once big in non-league circles and are fighting their way back such as Chelmsford City and Dartford, as well as those that have be re-born (AFC Wimbledon, Maidstone United, AFC Hornchurch and Enfield Town), and grand old names from the game’s amateur past such as Dulwich Hamlet, Tooting & Mitcham United and Hendon.
4. La Coupe De France: The French equivalent has one feature that the FA Cup would do well to adopt. No seeding. Everyone is drawn in together and, with a bit of luck, clubs from the nether regions of French football can enjoy a run to the latter stages of the competition. The final, played at the Stade de France, is an annual sell-out of 80,000 people – unlike the messy, distended end to the season that we have in England, it acts as a fitting end-piece to their domestic season.
5. The Bundesliga: The Bundesliga is the most accessbile top division football in Europe. Not only do the German authorities have a refreshingly progressive attitude to safe standing (most German clubs that play in Europe have terracing for their league matches which they then convert to seating for European matches), but ticket prices show up the Premier League as the rip-off that it is. The recent World Cup updated many of Germany’s older stadia, and the crowds are as big as anywhere else in Europe. Also, Germany is the only other country in Europe with anything like the strength in depth that English football has – once famous names such as Borussia Monchengladbach, Carl Jeiss Jena, 1FC Kaiserslautern, 1FC Koln, FC St Pauli and 1860 Munchen currently grace the second division of the Bundesliga.
6. The World Cup: Forget all the hype that the press tries to force down your throat. The World Cup is where the real international action is.