Stabbing Two Legs In The Back

by | May 2, 2021

The first legs of the semi-finals of the major European competitions came and went last week, and while it was easy enough to sit down in front of them and let them wash over you, getting particularly excited by them was a different matter. There has been much talk about the reform of European club footbal over the last few weeks or so, but no-one saw fit to address one of the most striking contradictions of the modern age – the scourge of the two-legged cup competition.

In the early days of European club football, the desire for two-legged matches was fairly obvious. Air flight was expensive, time-consuming and unfamiliar to the overwhelming majority of people. When the stress of travelling – including multiple stopovers to refuel, for anything like a longer journey – playing matches in completely unfamiliar surroundings is also factored in, it becomes easy to see the extent to which single-legged ties could hand a decisive advantage to home teams.

In the 21st century, though, this is a considerably more difficult argument to make. Flight times are considerably shorter than they ever have been before, while the flights themselves are safer than ever. Arguably even more importantly, people are now used to flying in a way that they weren’t at the time when European competitions were first being devised. The world beyond the English Channel isn’t the alien world that it would have been, sixty or seventy years ago.

The world – and in particular the first world – has become increasingly homogenised over this time. Whether this is a good thing in itself is a debatable and nuanced question, but we can say for certain is that a trip to continental Europe doesn’t carry the sense of mystique that it used to. If getting on a plane doesn’t feel a great deal different to getting on a train or coach, then why does the two-legged cup match, this relic from a very different era, continue to persist?

The answer to this question is predictably twofold. Jeopardy and money. On the one hand, the biggest clubs benefit from having a second bite of the cherry in every knockout round of the Champions League up to the final. If your team loses the first leg of a European match, they will be guaranteed a do-over in the second leg. Sure enough, they will have a bit more to claw back, should they have embarrassed themselves in the first match, but it’s better for them than the elimination that they would have faced otherwise.

And it should go without saying, of course, that money is the driving force behind modern club football, and two-legged cup ties are perfect for everybody, in that respect. Doubling the number of fixtures benefits the governing bodies, who can increase the value of their television rights packages accordingly, as well as broadcasters, who can further fill their schedules. Furthermore, since European club football has always been like this, there are few complaints from fans, either.

The extent to which this benefits both clubs and governing bodies should be evident from the fact tat whenever restructuring the game resurfaces – and this happens so often nowadays as to feel like one perpetual conversation – scrapping second legs is almost never raised by anybody. There’ll be considerable talk of contorting the annual calendar in order to accommodate a winter break – and this may not be a bad thing – and in recent conversations about European Super League reforms it has become the norm to talk of making domestic league competitions smaller – the biggest Premier League clubs would like nothing more than to drop the number of teams in the league from twenty to eighteen – and completely scrapping domestic cup competitions, but the two-legged cup tie appears to be sacrosanct.

But no-one ever really ever talks about how deeply unsatisfying the first leg of a two-legged cup tie can be. The feeling of having watched a complete football match, with all the emotional investment that can take, and then remembering that, actually, you’ve only really arrived at half-time, is a very distinct form of emptiness. For me, there is nothing more unsatisfying in the whole of football than the feeling that the whole match that I just watched isn’t really a whole match.

It’s not that I have an issue with elasticity that sports can have over their duration. A one day cricket match, for example, is as satisfying as a five day test match, while no-one has an issue with the ten month slog that constitutes a full league season. It’s more that the structures of football don’t tend to allow for this elasticity in the first place. A football match is ninety minutes long. It’s a circadian rhythm that lives inside all of us which is disturbed by the realisation, upon hearing the final whistle at the end of a match, that everybody is going to have to back in position in a week or two’s time to repeat the entire exercise.¬†

At its heart, though, the matter of two-legged cup ties is a microcosm of an inner struggle that professional football has been battling since winning and losing first became the games be all and end all. Nobody¬†likes getting relegated or knocked out of cup competitions. What has changed, however, is that clubs now need a certain level of financial income in order to maintain the statuses that they have decided that they earn. If the professional game was serious about changing the game to make it a more marketable product or to reduce the wear and tear on its competitors, it would jettison two-legged cup ties with immediate effect. The fact that it won’t tells you as much as you need to know about where its priorities really rest.