Greed. That’s the problem with football. At every level, around every corner. The footballing authorities don’t know when enough is enough as they continue to drink from the trough of TV rights. That’s why the World Cup comprises 32 teams and explains why a grand total of 77 teams play in the UEFA Champions League and 195 will eventually compete in the Europa.
The UEFA Champions League has become too predictable, although you cannot deny that from the knockout stage onwards, it is a captivating competition. Take the current round of 16. Ten of the entrants also featured at the same stage in 2013-14. Over the past five years, four teams – Bayern, Barca, Real and Arsenal, have featured in every last 16. A further three have been in four times – Chelsea, Schalke and Milan – and five more have been in three. There’s an obvious and understandable pattern which creates a compelling argument for an examination of the purpose of the qualifying and group stages of the competition.
For a start, champion should mean “champion” and not “third place Bundesliga 2013-14”. It’s difficult for UEFA to ween itself off a bloated land of milk and honey by ensuring that the same old gang of half a dozen make it through to the latter stages each year, thus ensuring that sponsorship, TV, gate receipts are kept at an optimal level. By including teams that have finished second, third and fourth, the poor old Europa League gets weaker and more anonymous by the year. For a moment, let’s play “it was better in my day”, a game show for ageing football fans. The UEFA Cup circa 1972 was a strong competiton that required staying power. But there were only 64 clubs. It comprises teams that finished second, third and fourth, and boy, was it tough. We need to revert to those days, to make the UCL just that and to give credibility to the Europa.
UEFA might point to the honours list to underline the value of including teams other than title winners. Over the past decade, only four Champions League winners have entered the competition as reigning champions of their respective domestic league. Last season, Real Madrid had finished second in 2013 in La Liga, Bayern in 2013 had finished runners-up in 2012 in the Bundesliga and Chelsea were second in England in 2011, a year before they won the competition. Barcelona, the 2011 winners, were the last champion to win the trophy. Of the past 10 finals, none have been between two champions.
If UEFA wants a competition that truly reflects European elitism, then it should dispense with the pretence and change the current format of the UEFA Champions League. Yes, we know it’s all about money – being part of the juggernaught is very lucrative – but what do we end up with in most cases? A clash of the titans.
Since 2004-05, 11 teams have reached the Champions League final, with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United all reaching three apiece. The 2014 final was the first since 2007 that did not include either Bayern, Barca or United. Inter’s victory in 2010, with “you know who” in charge, seems a remarkable achievement just four years on, as does Milan’s 2007 win given the sharp decline of Italian football. That said, UEFA would miss the likes of Juventus, Milan and Inter if they never came back to the party.
By all means invite champions from all UEFA member countries, but leave it at that. Pick off the weaker clubs through qualifying rounds to end up with 10-team Champions League. Nine games each and then a final comprising the top two. It may end up as Real v Bayern, but the competition will truly reflect the real “pecking order” in Europe.
This year’s Champions League could read something like this: Manchester City, Paris St. Germain, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid (as holders), Shakhtar Donetsk, Benfica, Ajax Amsterdam, CSKA Moscow.
What about Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund? They would be in the Europa!
Of course it won’t happen. If it ever did, TV would insist on a 10-team league with quarter-finals, semi-finals and final!