Wake me up when February comes
The group stage of the Champions League has become a snooze-fest.
My must-watch TV programmes for this week are The Sopranos, Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hell, I’m even looking forward to next Monday’s episode of Spooks. But Benfica v Manchester United in the Champions League? I’m sorry but I couldn’t summon up much enthusiasm – and neither could Wayne Rooney by all accounts.
I’ve always defended the concept of the Champions League against the persistent carping of the jumpers-for-goalposts brigade who want football’s hallowed traditions to be perpetually preserved in aspic. But it’s clear that the Champions League in its current format doesn’t really come alive until the knockout stages. Michel Platini also wants the UEFA Champions League to be reformed (which makes me rather uncomfortable as I’ve never agreed with a word that Platini has uttered in his capacity as a football bureaucrat). This month the former French international launched his campaign for the UEFA presidency by pledging to reform and open up the Champions League. ‘My position in this matter is simple and clear: yes to an open Champions League, no to a closed pseudo-NBA’, said Platini.
Platini’s rhetoric is calculated to chime with the widespread disenchantment with football’s commercialisation. It is widely feared that the G14 group – a coalition of the continent’s most powerful clubs – will eventually breakaway from UEFA and set up their own closed super-league. But while the G14 might use the threat of a closed rebel league to lever more concessions from UEFA, would they actually carry out that threat? A league in which there was no risk of relegation would produce too many dull games with nothing at stake. Even if the rich clubs felt no obligation towards ‘the greater good of the game’, commercial logic alone dictates that a predictable, uncompetitive tournament won’t attract the paying punters. That’s why, although the top clubs weren’t happy about reduced TV revenues, they didn’t block UEFA’s decision to revert to a single group phase. Falling TV audiences made reform of the tournament format a commercial necessity.
It is not yet clear how exactly Platini would develop the tournament if elected. Guardian football writer Paul Doyle wants UEFA to turn the clock back to the heyday of the old European Cup by scrapping the group stages and reverting to an unseeded knockout competition. ‘The groups are a concession to the G14, an indulgence that sustains elite clubs’ dominance, allowing them to hog money and players and gradually erode genuine competition between all but a tiny super class of bloated, decadent franchises’, writes Doyle in his Guardian blog (1).
Doyle is right to say that the current group format and seeding system still produce too many uncompetitive games. Undoubtedly the group phase is designed to maximise TV revenue for participants rather than maximise entertainment for spectators. But while it’s easy to romanticise the European Cup we shouldn’t forget that the old format produced more than its fair share of predictable, one-sided games. The fact that the competition was restricted to domestic league winners meant that, in reality, there were only a handful of strong teams in the competition. When Liverpool won their first European Cup in 1977 they had to beat Crusaders of Belfast, Trabzonspor (from Turkey), St Etienne (France), FC Zurich (Switzerland) and Borussia Mönchengladbach (Germany). Only St Etienne in the quarter-final posed a serious test to Liverpool on their route to the final.
Doyle’s diatribe against the ruinous influence of money on the game is tiresomely familiar. But while TV revenues have certainly enriched the wealthier clubs, regular Champions League participation has also had a ‘levelling up’ effect across the continent with even the clubs from less affluent nations now able to attract quality African and Latin American players. There’s hardly a club in the Champions League that doesn’t have a Brazilian – and I’m not talking body hair removal. Porto’s victory in the competition in 2004 shows that the Champions League is still far from a predictable tournament monopolised by the richest clubs.
There is nothing wrong with the idea of a European super league. In theory a competition that pits the best teams in the continent against each other ought to produce plenty of highly competitive games. The problem with the Champions League is that the current group format doesn’t provide a powerful enough incentive for the stronger teams to win every game. Until last year’s group stage exit, Manchester United routinely cruised through the qualifying rounds without being seriously tested, only to get eliminated by the first decent team they met in the knockout stages. As long as they don’t screw up against the weaker teams, the higher seeded teams in each group do not need to beat each other to qualify for the knockout stages. This is a recipe for sterile exhibition matches in all but name.
One way to solve this problem would be to scrap the seeding system that is designed to keep the stronger teams apart. A group phase draw without a seeding system could potentially produce ultra-competitive ‘groups of death’ but will also produce easy or predictable groups too. So, as well as getting rid of seeding, I’d also restructure the groups themselves to make them more competitive. This could be done by allowing just the group winner to qualify or, alternatively, by reducing the number of groups from eight to four. This would mean losing one knockout round but it would ensure that there was far more at stake when the stronger teams play each other in the group games.
At its best Champions League football is a thrilling spectacle. For me, watching football played at the highest level is a pleasant form of escapism from the error-strewn mediocrity of my staple diet of football from England’s second tier, the Coca-Cola Championship. The problem with the Champions League is that the stronger teams aren’t really stretched until the knockout phase. I’m sure that armchair Arsenal or Chelsea fans won’t be complaining too much as long as their teams are getting results but personally I won’t be tuning in again until the real action begins – around the middle of February.
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