Chelsea’s victory in the Champions League highlighted two things. Firstly, that top-level European competition can be a very compelling product and secondly, that you don’t have to be a domestic champion to win the top prize.
Chelsea and Bayern Munich were both domestic runners-up last season in England and Germany respectively. England, Spain and Germany will all have four representatives each next season in the Champions League. Italy, Portugal and France will have three apiece. Twelve of the current 22 group stage qualifiers will be the league champions of their countries. The word “Champions” is mis-used.
What’s more, given the scale of the Champions League, it means if you’re not in it, you are decidedly “second division”. It’s a label that is killing UEFA’s second competition, the Europa League.
In the past, UEFA had its triumvirate of competitions: The European Cup, The UEFA Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup. It was sensible to scrap the last of those – domestic cup competitions were never treated too seriously outside of Britain and the quality was often debatable. The UEFA Cup, from 1971-72, became a very strong competition. With qualification for the European Cup limited to champions and holders, the UEFA had some incredibly powerful “nearly-men” teams, and you played an extra round more than the other competitions.
Today, though, given the cream is skimmed off the top right across Europe, the Europa Cup’s currency is constantly being devalued. It has become something of an afterthought, scheduled for Thursday nights, when the public’s attention span for football has been exhausted on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
It is time to put the fat cats of the Champions League football on a diet. Go back to “Champions only” or at worst, restrict it to the top two in the leading countries. This will make for a much stronger Europa League of greater substance, share some of the cash around and reduce the number of Champions League games on TV. And please, get rid of that pompous hymn!
Want evidence of the way the Europa League is perceived? Manchester United and Tottenham’s 2011-12 aborted campaigns. Europa League in its current form? It’s the Carling Cup of Europe – and it should be far more important than that.