Nine months till the final.
The lure of European football transcends merely the million dollar incentives; rather the Champions League represents a team’s arrival at the highest echelon of world football. Or at least it did when it was called the European Cup.
Marketing men have milked football for every penny that’s available, and milked a few more pennies that weren’t. With nine months to go until the Champions League final there’s almost an entire season between now and the most prestigious game in football, and yet the best team in Spain and the league winners of Italy are somehow playing each other on a so called ‘Match Day #1’. The competition is bogus.
In an effort to widen the reach of the European football capture it seems that a little intrigue got lost in the trade for profitability. Once upon a time the legacy of the European Cup carried a charm that was undeniable. The European elite were pitted against the other elite Europeans in a format that was both rational and palatable. Home and away fixtures dictated who were the better team over the randomly selected fixtures, and failure to advanced offered nothing more than the exit.
If you wanted to be recognised as European Cup winners and if you wanted to bask in all the accolades that were deserved by European Cup winners then you first had to qualify by being the most superior team in your domestic league. Only domestic champions were invited and second placed teams, third placed teams and other placed teams were consigned to subordination.
Once the list of elite teams was compiled the European Cup competition was conducted in a manner befitting a true ‘cup’ competition. You could be drawn against a minnow from some new Eastern European country, still Champions, but sill a minnow. Or you could be drawn against the best team from the Spanish league or from Italy. Either way, you had two games in fair exchange to advance or not. There were no dead rubbers, there were no visas for supporters and there was significant football each game and every game.
In an effort to incorporate new emerging markets the Champions League umbrella has stretched beyond the usual contestants and engineered-additions have brought new television contracts even if they haven’t brought new quality football teams. All of Liechtenstein or the majority of northern Serbia will pay to see their nauseating representative preserve a terrible goalless ignominy at Liverpool or Madrid. While teams like Liverpool or Madrid will endure the ignominy in order to sell more replica shirts or to plicate improved sponsorship talks.
The charm of the European night has gone. At least waning. And it’s been replaced by the most profitable business arrangement that can be negotiated.
Some nine months before the conclusion of the Champions League final the calculated and rather artificial arrangement of the tournament format has fabricated an anomaly of a fixture very early on in the proceedings. Last season’s Champions League winners and Spanish La Liga Champions Barcelona are playing Italian Champions and one of the tournaments’s fancied cubs Internazionale. The game chronologically appears first on the calendar and so has some significance yet no real consequence. Given the rather mediocre contingent that irritates the group’s minion hierarchy; the outcome of this specific fixture was far from decisive, bordering on irrelevant. A win, lose or draw would almost certainly conclude with absolute an unequivocal advancement to the latter stages for both superior clubs. The pantomime of qualification is indecently fuelled by business and has nothing to do with football.
More teams, more interested customers and more money. That could also read as; more teams, fewer significant games, and a lower quality of football.
The one downside to the old style European Cup was that you only ever got to see one representative form any given opposing nation. If AC Milan were domestically better than Inter or better than Juventus then that was the team that we got to watch. The same was true in Spain; if Barcelona deserved the European Cup run then they were the only Spanish team to enter. It was limiting on your European football geography, but it was at least upholding to the integrity of the competition.
The one benefit of the larger more accommodating Champions League is that you’re almost certain to see the very best European clubs regardless of whether they are their very best domestic club. I understand and consent to having both Barcelona and Real Madrid playing in the most prestigious European competition, even though I also know that they can’t both be Spanish champions. The same goes for Italy, I want to watch Inter, AC and Juventus but they all can’t be league winners at the end of a season. And I’d rather watch the third placed team in England than the first placed team from pretty much all the other inferior and weaker European Leagues.
The rub truly comes when you have to watch inferior teams from inferior leagues. I’m not sure that French people watch the third best team in France play the fourth best team in France. I’m almost certain that I don’t want to watch them play on a Wednesday night in the Champion’s League.
An extended hybrid competition makes sense. We all want to see the best clubs play the best clubs in the best European competition. It just makes no sense when we don’t get to see the best clubs playing the best clubs. Or worse, when we do get to see the best clubs playing the best clubs, but NOT during the best European competition. Dead rubbers and inferior teams can go.
The fiasco runs abhorrent when you cast an eye over the rule book of the now defunct UEFA Cup and you try to understand the fusion that is the Europa League. Any precious semblance of tier-two European glory has been dismantled and bathed in shame. The convoluted and almost tedious route to the final deems the perceived success of qualification as bated venom. Summer participation precedes a season campaign that can stretch the length and breadth of Europe and sometimes well beyond. Thursday night in a country that has a land border with Iran or Syria should be deemed void or superficial preparation for West Ham away on a Sunday afternoon. The thirst for exposure has gone too far.
The mockery or insignificance of the Europa League is now being mocked by UEFA themselves. The UEFA Cup and the UEFA Cup Winner Cup were once a prestigious punctuation on the European agenda, a stepping stone for aspiring teams ascending the ladder of the European elite. No such luck today. Rather the Europa League is an ambiguous fermentation for experimental rule changes and rotten ideas. Instead of accommodating the technological advancement that football requires the Europa League will host the shambles of five-official matches historically experimented at youth games, school games and girl’s games. And all this before the Champions League losers parachute in on the wrong side of half time only to swell the numbers to beyond comprehension.
Anyway, I cherish the fact that the Champions League has brought together the very best teams from the European football landscape and I’m glad that I don’t have to miss out or have to wait an entire season to see the most glamorous European clubs. It’s just that I find it odd that we have now engineered a scenario where we can watch a valueless game obediently contested between two of the best teams on the continent.
I want to watch these two teams play, but not on some balmy September evening. These teams should be playing the final and or at least playing for the final.
Champions League Final
Saturday 22nd May 2010
Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, Madrid
From The Writings Of Jonny Carter