WITH ANOTHER ROUND of European matches completed, the bloated nature of the UEFA Champions and Europa leagues comes to the fore once more.TV money drives the structure of these competitions, but with so many meaningless games and teams that are ill-equipped to compete, is it not time to start trimming down both, especially the unloved Europa League?
Champions should mean champions. UEFA wants, no needs, the top European super clubs to be in their flagship competition year-in, year-out. All this does is make it impossible for anyone outside an exclusive band of clubs to reach anything like the latter stages. The groups merely dispose of the weaker teams and creates a last 16 together that has a familiar look year-in, year-out.
The Europa wallows in mediocrity for much of its programme
With the Champions League swollen full of the really top clubs, it leaves the Europa to wallow in medicocrity with assorted eastern Europeans and ambitious Spaniards and Portuguese, along with Champions League rejects, eager to grab some silverware. Nobody wants Thursday night football, even though it shouldn’t really make much difference to the clubs competing.
Why not go back to the old model of European Cup for champions, European Cup-Winners Cup for cup winners and UEFA Cup for top four clubs that don’t fit into either of the other two?
For example, the European [Champions] Cup, with two-legged ties throughout, would look like this in 2015-16:
Seeds (8): Barcelona, Chelsea, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris St. Germain, PSV Eindhoven, Celtic (as past winner), Benfica (as past winner)
Gent, Zenit St. Petersburg, Dynamo Kiev, Basel, Dinamo Zagreb, Malmo, Galatasaray, Lech Poznan, Partizan Belgrade, Steaua Bucharest, Olympiakos, Viktoria Plzen, FC Midtjylland, Ludogorets, Videoton, Sarajevo, BATE, Dila Gori, Red Bull Salzburg, Apoel, HJK, Molde, Maribor, Trencin, Skenderbeu Korce, Pyunik, Qarabag, Longford, Crusaders, Stjarnan.
While the casual onlooker would suggest this is a far less compelling field than the current Champions League set-up, just consider that the end result would probably involve most of the eight seeded clubs.
A revived European Cup-Winners Cup (also 38 clubs) would arguably be Europa League in a different guise and would be the weaker of the three competitions, as it was back in its heyday. The 2015-16 version would include Arsenal, Lazio, Wolfsburg, Bruges, Shakhtar Donetsk, Auxerre, Legia Warsaw, Sporting Lisbon, Athletic Bilbao, Groningen and Lokomotiv Moscow.
Double winners diluted the strength of the ECWC field
There’s one important reason why the cup-winners cup has a weaker line-up and that’s because there are so many “double” winners across Europe these days. In 2014-15, around a third of league champions also won their domestic cup, so the runners-up would be entered in their place.
The current ugly child of European club football, the Europa League, suffers from too many weak teams ( because of the sweep-up into the Champions League) too many games and the fact that it’s played on a Thursday night. In short, it’s the worst idea since the toss of the coin as a game decider.
A 70-team knockout tournament, strengthened by making the Champions League “winners only”, will make for a far stronger structure. Just consider that a 2015-16 version would include: Manchester City and United, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, Roma, Borussia Moechengladbach, Ajax, Anderlecht, Porto, Lyon, Monaco, Marseille, Tottenham, Liverpool, Napoli and Fiorentina. That’s a powerful club. In all, the three competitions would involve fewer than 150 teams versus the 230-plus of the current format. That has to be a better bet.
Some might argue that UEFA created what it has today to eradicate a flailing Cup-Winners Cup and ensure that the Champions League was highly marketable.
It succeeded in the latter, but the consequence of adding second, third and fourth-placed teams to the Champions League meant that what was left behind looked very weak. It’s almost akin to when football teams were selected at school among a big group of boys and the captains took turn to select their favourites, leaving behind the asthmatic, chubby kids who couldn’t play football.
The Europa is a pale imitation of the old UEFA Cup, which, all said and done, was a very strong competition. Basically, it only gets interesting in the latter stages.
European football is in danger of being as ubiquitous as Saturday night “talent” shows
Going back to the days of two-legged ties can have huge knock-on benefits for domestic club football across the continent. Qualification for Europe should be the icing on the cake, it should be an achievement in itself. Too often we see that clubs qualify for the Europa, because let’s be frank, most have no chance of gaining entry to the Champions League, and then go into the project half-hearted and get eliminated cheaply. European football has become as ubiquitous as Saturday night “talent” shows. It used to be part of the romance of the game, a sense of mystery and a venture into the unknown.
Of course, we can never regain the sense of curiosity that once greeted a team from Spain, Italy or Bulgaria when it ran out to face an English side. We were watching men from another planet. The world is a smaller place today, and you can hop on an Easyjet flight and go watch Milan play anytime for a couple of hundred quid.
What’s more, Europe’s top clubs are multinational squads of hired guns, so we all know only too well that footballers from France, Germany and Portugal do not have two heads, webbed feet, smell of garlic and have hair drenched in olive oil!
But, what was ever wrong with knockout football? Why do we need serial competitions that run for months and months and, in their early and mid-stages, only serve to eliminate the weak and under-resourced. UEFA’s competitions are basically plutocracies that allow the rich to get richer. That’s not democracy. It is a by-product of the TV age.
So go back to plan A, UEFA. Let’s have elitist competition, by all means. But make that elite smaller, more deserving of a place in a “champion” tournament, rather than earning a place on the basis that you happen to have the biggest balance sheet and the most marketable name in world football. Sometimes, less is more, unless you happen to be people organising football.