Some readers of EPL Talk are new or semi new to football, based outside of the continent of Europe yet possess an affection for the UEFA Champions League unmatched to that of even the Premier League. The current format of Europe’s premier club competition allows the majority of the top footballing talent in the world to compete against each other across the width and breadth of the continent in front of millions of watchful eyes across a myriad of countries.
These attentive eyes sit poised in front of massive LCD widescreens, cram together in pubs or bars to drink their team to victory or huddle in front of the smallest of black and white TV sets in anxious anticipation that their idols can produce something memorable.
This is the version of the Champions League that we currently know and enjoy. It’s a version of a more global competition as opposed to interpretation 1.0, the old European Cup, which was without much of the pomp and fanfare that we see today. Yet Europe’s premier club competition – sometimes dominated by England’s finest – wasn’t always the cash cow or world phenomenon it is today. The advent of technology has of course played its part in the competition’s popularity allowing fans and supporters the chance to view matches or highlights from HD televisions, smart phones, and computers from almost anywhere in the world by simply pressing a few buttons.
Additionally, matches come thick and fast in the competition’s group stage which is played from September through December each year as the annual event attempts its best Darwin impression by weeding out the weak.
While there’s little argument that that knockout stage through to the final provides viewers with the most excitement, drama and entertainment, some proof does exist that the bloated and oft-criticized group stage needs at minimum an amending, at maximum an overhaul. But first, back to our soccer newbies.
The ongoing structure in play to crown a club champion of Europe has only been in existence since 1992 and more specifically, since the 1997-98 season which allowed runners up from certain countries the opportunity to compete in group stage play which is how we know the competition today. But before UEFA empowered so many more clubs the chance to compete in a competition many say they have no right participating in, Europe crowned a champion with much less fuss and much more romance, at least that’s one side of the debate.
The European Cup started in 1955 and allowed just the winners of the European football leagues the chance to play for the title by playing in a two-leg knockout format (home and away) until just one club stood victorious over Europe. We of course know that has now changed yet the old guard and romantics still wax poetic over how much better the old format was and that the shiny new(ish) format of more matches, more teams and thus more money has done little to improve the competition while doing more to hinder it.
While it’s certain that the best of the most recent installment of the Champions League is still to come over the course of the next few months, which format is better in allowing European football the opportunity to crown its yearly champion? Sure the current group stage arrangement allows smaller (and more) clubs the chance to play but does more always equal better? When was the last time a European minnow or medium-sized club played in the final or even won?
A quick glance down the European champion list from the last decade or so reads like a who’s who of European giants. Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan and Inter Milan all have titles while the absence of a previous year third place German club or fourth place Italian club from the list of champions lends belief to the doubters of the newer format and prompts one to ask the question, “what’s the point of all the additional clubs if they never come close to winning it?”.
Regardless of if you’re a football baby or a fitba grandfather, the question is definitely worth your time. While it’s unlikely-impossible that UEFA would ever consider a change that would see the governing body revert back to the old European Cup format, it’s an interesting debate that football fans continue to have every year between September and December while the group stage trudges on and stumbles its way through until the round of 16.
Just as the knockout stages are now in full swing, maybe, just maybe the answer to the aforementioned question is staring us right in the face as some of the most exciting and dramatic football is now upon us.
Editor’s Note: Jesse Chula is returning to EPL Talk.com after a short trip to England late last year and a stint as contributing Editor for England at SB Nation Soccer. He can be reached for comment by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @JesseChula.