It’s the start of the Champions League and Europa League this week and that always makes me feel excited because I love European football competitions.
My great romance with Europe started in the 1969/70 season with Leeds United. Aged eight, I saw in my dad’s newspaper that they had beaten a Norwegian team called Lyn 16-0 on aggregate, winning the home leg 10-0. This was the highest number I’d seen next to a football team. I set about looking up Lyn in my atlas of the world and did likewise for every other team in the list of first round results. I was hooked.
Leeds got to the semi-final and played a tremendous Celtic team who beat them 1-0 at Elland Road and 2-1 at Hampden, where the game had been moved. 136,505 saw Celtic triumph 2-1 on the day, 3-1 on aggregate. It remains the largest attendance for a UEFA club cup competition. A simply staggering number of people. It captured my imagination quite profoundly.
Celtic lost the final to Feynoord but after that campaign, I was totally obsessed with all European football competitions, be it European Cup, The Fairs Cup – which was replaced by the UEFA Cup from 1972 – and the excellent Cup-Winners’ Cup. I was even keen on the Anglo-Italian Cup and the Anglo-Scottish Cup (the inaugural one was won by Middlesbrough)
So many different sides would play in, win or get to the latter stages of these competitions that you never had any idea who would be successful each season. The fact it was knockout football – usually played over four two-leg ties and a final- only added to the drama and variety. For example, in the 1973/74 season the only East German team to win a European trophy Magdeburg (now in the third tier) triumphed in the Cup Winners’ Cup with a 2-0 defeat of Milan.
These are the roots of my passion for all things European that the Champions League and Europa League have kept watering but I’m afraid it gets harder to feel quite so passionate when it’s largely the same teams playing each other every year. But that is what UEFA and the clubs want to ensure is the case in the Champions League.
It isn’t nostalgia to suggest the three-cup format was a great structure for European football. It just worked really well, drawing participants from league champions for one tournament, a second for three league runners-up, and a third for cup winners. It spread the love around.
Partly the variety of clubs involved was because the top five or six in the leagues were rarely the same sides for long, often three or four were different each season and cup winners also varied more. So it all felt different each campaign and all sort of clubs got a go in Europe. While there were periods where some clubs like Ajax or Bayern dominated as winners, the undercard was always very varied, even then. 32 different clubs won the Cup Winners’ Cup in its 39 years, 22 different clubs in 27 years won the UEFA Cup, before its format changed. In the 14 years prior to the start of the Champions League, 12 different sides picked up the European Cup. What we would give for such variety and unpredictability now. Under the three cup regime, currently Manchester City would be in the European Cup alongside last year’s winners Liverpool and could even be drawn against each other in the first round!
Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal would be in the UEFA Cup for their second to fourth finish. Because City won the League Cup v Chelsea who have already got a UEFA Cup place, the losing semi-finalists would get a place. These were Burton Albion and Spurs. Spurs already have a place, but Burton would be put into the Cup Winners’ Cup. How brilliant. City won the FA Cup and are in the European Cup so losing finalist Watford would take the Cup Winners’ Cup place.
This being said, my European romanticism is not dead yet and still gets me licking my lips at the mouthwatering prospect of the likes of Dinamo Zagreb playing Atalanta in the CL and Apoel Nicosia playing F91 Dudelange and LASK Linz v Rosenborg in the EL. I still love how it can put together sides that may never have played each other before and write some new history for each. It still has the fumes of exoticism around it, especially in the Europa League.
But even so there is the certain knowledge that none of these games matter much yet. Come back in February when it gets serious. When it gets more like the European Cup. It’s quite possible to lose two or three group games and still get through to February’s knockout rounds. UEFA has designed it that way in the Champions League quite deliberately so the biggest, most popular clubs are almost certain to get through and even if they don’t, if they finish third, very unfairly are intrusively put into the already bloated Europa League for another chance at winning..
This is very sad. I want to believe in the Champions League and Europa League because I love European football, but like many others now, I believe both competitions are flatulent and the Champions League fraudulent with the ‘Champions’ falsehood built into its very DNA.
I dig hard into my psyche to unearth my deep-rooted passion every season. Last season’s semi-finals were utterly brilliant and I cling to that too. But the very real eagerness I have now for the first tranche of games, I know will have markedly dissipated by early December. We all know it is a competition warped from the moment the first ball comes out of the first pot, in order to give the competition the best chance to deliver a narrow range of outcomes for a prescribed elite.
Throw in the legalised match-rigging that is the very concept of a seeding system and we can see what is really going on. Before a ball is kicked, the fix is in.
This isn’t a proper competition, it is a half-written script until February.
The direction of travel seems to be towards establishing an elite who will always have a place in the Champions League regardless of their league finish. But a sealed league, or guaranteed place idea is being driven by the top clubs in the mistaken belief that more games against each other will generate more money. It won’t. It’ll do the opposite in the long run.
A sidebar: Quite why they need to make ever more money is never questioned. What are they going to do with it? Why is more always better? Money has become the be all and end all reason to do anything, forever and ever amen. It’s wrong and much that is bad flows from this outlook.
Their notion is based on the delusion that there is no law of diminishing returns in football, when we all know there absolutely is. Our interest in it is not infinitely elastic. For the neutral, it is based on rarity and jeopardy. If, say, Liverpool have only played Real Madrid once or twice in the last decade, any game between them has the pull of the exotic. But if it’s in a league game when both know they’ll already be going through, it hasn’t got the same attraction. And even if it is a knockout game but is the fifth time they’ve played in the last seven years, again, it is also diminished. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but it does breed indifference.
Of course fans would turn up to see the games, but they are tragically largely irrelevant now. Rights fees to broadcast the games are all that matter to UEFA and club executives these days. Ironically, audiences on TV for the Champions League are anaemic to non-existent, thanks to the crushingly negative effect of the paywall (which is also a fatally corrupted concept). Everyone, even UEFA, knows this and worry it is indeed devaluing the rights. Hence the desire to get more games between big clubs. They think more people will pay to see such a thing. They’re wrong. We won’t. It’s exactly the wrong way to go.
We like variety of participants and results. No-one in football can guarantee any game will be great and most of us know this is the nature of football and that’s one of the reasons why most of us have never bought paywall live football. And that’s why many have turned away from what is still supposed to be the pinnacle of the club game.
The irony is that if UEFA and the elite clubs were not so sodding greedy all of the time, the answer to their problems is staring them in the face.
Make it knockout football from the start. Reduce the number of games played (something often called for every season), make them all special, invest all of them with jeopardy and make them available on free-to-air. Then you would have a vital, engaged public in large numbers and once again, kids like me could fall in love with clubs from places you couldn’t find on a map, thus ensuring wide reach, interest and passion flows down the generations along with income and relevance.
Of course jeopardy is anathema to an elite who want to protect their investments and power whilst maximising income. But those greedy instincts have ever more limited the audience for the very thing they’re trying to manipulate for their own gain. You don’t need to be a Professor of Seeing Flaws in Models to see the flaws in this model.
Football will always deliver some thrilling games, no matter what level it is played at and the Champions League is no different in that. It did last season and it will be the case again this season, I’m sure. But this is because football is great per se, not because these tournaments are great. Both it and the Europa League are currently encumbered by clunky, doughy formats designed for maximum income, not for maximum joy of the public for whom, in case they have forgotten, they actually rely for their very existence.