Do you care about the ‘tiresome obligation’ of the Champions League?

John Nicholson
The Champions League quarter-finals are here
The Champions League quarter-finals are here

The Champions League reaches the vinegar strokes this week but is any neutral entertained? For a start, no one should be asking that. We should be all thrilled at the brilliant football on display. This is the elite playing the elite, so bow down and start supplicating to the football gods.

But many have not got the old-time religion as the same teams are playing the same teams as usual to a dwindling interest. You could call it the sort of fixtures so beloved of the European Super League. Even if Manchester City and Real Madrid are playing the qualitatively best football, that no longer matters. Of course they are.

This is not people being wilfully arsy, it gets to the core of what football is; the mistake UEFA and others make is to assume that if you concentrate most of the money within an elite, you will get the best football. You will, of course you will, but that doesn’t matter. Sport is about jeopardy, human frailty and unpredictability. These games are not. Whoever wins these ties doesn’t stir most of us.

READ: Ranking Champions League favourites after the quarter-final draw: Arsenal below Bayern, ahead of Real

You can’t argue that it’s not the elite, nor that it’s always going to be the elite. The economics make it inevitable. If you’d been asked to predict the quarter-final sides, you would have predicted most or all of them. The degree to which we just accept this, shrug and get on with our lives or cling to an assumption that one or two teams are breaking the mould, signifies the degree to which we have accepted its irrelevance.

Most people can’t get TNT and won’t see it anyway, and just don’t care. It is quite profoundly not the people’s game but the authorities show no sign of being bothered.

The problem is, the system has an inbuilt superiority which will only get worse as basically the money keeps the money. It is only football’s innate occasional ornery nature that even hints that the latter stages of the competition will not involve the same teams every year forever. This is simple economics. Football at the highest levels is becoming a repeat of itself, more exhibition than competition.

Just changing the architecture of the tournament won’t alter the financial elite’s dominance. Two and two still equals four and there’s nothing they can do about it. The Europa League and Conference Leagues are similarly distorted by Premier League money. Premier League teams should always win both competitions.

The ties are regularly complete financial mis-matches and it is only the Premier League’s lazy reliance on money to do all the work which causes them to fail when put up against well-organised teams not wholly motivated by riches. TNT and others pretend the ties featuring English teams are a fair fight, when they are anything but. You can’t have it both ways, if it’s ‘the best league in the world’ largely because of the pull of money, you can’t pretend it is a fair contest between a team that has at least double or more resources.

Unfortunately there is an audience for these ties which sees nothing wrong with the same clubs reaching the same level every year. In this we see football’s audience being divided between ’it’s always the same teams’ as a bad thing and ‘it’s always the same teams’ as a good thing – two entirely different outlooks on football.

But with the way football’s economics are structured, unless turkeys start voting for Christmas, things are not set to change – quite the reverse – and the Champions League is the best expression of this. It’s ironic that one group sees this state of affairs as a good thing because it guarantees more money and supports their dominance and another which sees this state of affairs as a very bad thing because it guarantees more money and supports their dominance.

In this way football is divided against itself, and it sustains its fundamental unfairness without shame or self-opprobrium as once again, the elite sides bring a nuclear weapon to a knife fight.

Is anyone going to vote for a fundamental economic change? No. How it is is how it will be unless grounds are empty and change is imposed, but can any change be imposed?

It reminds me of a guy I knew who ran a failing restaurant in Harrogate. He had a loyal set of customers who liked plain, some might say, old-fashioned food before it was rebranded as ‘vintage’. And he was scared to alienate them, even though they were the cause of his failure. Eventually he turned the place into a fashionable eatery and got a huge new customer base and in the process lost his old customers who wanted old school ‘traditional’ cooking. That’s UEFA, scared to let go of nurse for something worse.

I’ll watch the games, but in common with most of the small audience watching on television across Europe, I won’t care in the slightest who wins. And UEFA will keep pretending their elite competition is elite when it’s a procession for the same old same old and relies on that being enough for their audience. As Jonathan Wilson has said with the painful truth that perhaps only a Sunderland fan can muster: ‘The Champions League seems to have slipped with incredible haste from unmissable spectacle to tiresome obligation.’

There is no future in how things are. Changing the competition structure will not change that because the same financial trends will still exist to manifest the same results. The question is, do any of the quarter-finalists care? Almost certainly not.

READ: Will the Premier League get a fifth place in next season’s Champions League?