UEFA Champions League: The gulf at the gate

THE UEFA Champions League draw has become an event in itself and provides a curtain-raiser to the next 10 months of action involving Europe’s elite working their way towards the final stages. For half of the entrants, the competition will end in December, but we can expect the usual suspects to qualify for the knockout stages when things really do get interesting.

While the Champions League will prove attractive from the perspective of delivering an absorbing spectacle, attracting big crowds and mass media interest, the real cachet of the competition for most of the participants is the potential financial rewards. For some of the smaller clubs, the Champions League cash provides them with differentiating income that can give them an advantage in their domestic league and possibly help secure qualification again for 2020-21.

Matchday income is a vital component of the Champions League experience and the difference between the clubs is vast, ranging from Borussia Dortmund’s huge crowds – average 2018-19 of 80,000 – to Dinamo Zagreb’s average crowds of just over 4,000.

Of the 32 clubs in the group stage, only four drew average crowds of over 60,000 during last season – Dortmund (80,841), Barcelona (75,600), Bayern (75,000) and Real Madrid (60,564). A further seven had an average of 50,000-plus, including Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City. Tottenham, with a gate of 54,216 are the highest crowd-pullers of 2018-19 from England, although Manchester United, Arsenal and West Ham – none of whom are in the Champions League this season – all had bigger attendances.

The clubs that were in the highest seeded pot, with the exception of Juventus (an average in 2018-19 of 39,244) all enjoyed crowds in excess of 40,000. Of the eight top seeds, four are playing in new stadiums, those still in their traditional homes are Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain.

Over half of the 32 teams played in front of less than 40,000 in 2018-19. The 17 in this category include Juve, Valencia, RB Leipzig, Napoli and Galatasaray. Three had average gates of less than 10,000 – Zagreb, as mentioned, Shakhtar Donetsk (7,470) and RB Salzburg (9.474).

If nothing else, these figures prove that giant status is all relative and behemoths come in all shapes and sizes. For example, Red Star Belgrade is a huge name and a European Cup winner. Today, their average audience is around 12,000 but there is no more passionate sight than a Belgrade football crowd.

In terms of crowd potential, however, the most attractive of the eight groups has to be G, which includes Barcelona (75,600), Borussia Dortmund (80,841), Inter Milan (58,789) and Slavia Prague (13,511).  Some people are calling it this season’s “group of death”, but in terms of UEFA Co-efficients, the toughest group appears to be D (Juventus, Atlético, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotive Moscow), which has an average co-efficient of 22.75 points. Barca’s group has some huge names, but Inter and Slavia are both relatively low in the ratings.

The seedings often seem bizarre in these draws, such as Real Madrid being potted lower than, for example, PSG, Chelsea and Zenit St. Petersburg. Real have been placed in group A with PSG, a club that has gone out of the competition in the last 16 for the past three seasons. Real, by contrast, have won three of the last four Champions Leagues.

Last season’s finalists, Liverpool and Tottenham, should get through their groups. Spurs have to face Bayern Munich, a team in transition and one that fell short of its normal performance in the competition. Manchester City will surely be one of the favourites after their treble-winning season in 2018-19. They have one of the less strenuous groups. Chelsea, back in the competition after a year out, have to face Ajax, Valencia and Lille. There are no easy games in this group. The most evenly-balanced group could well be G, though, which includes Zenit, Benfica, Lyon and Leipzig. Difficult to see who will emerge from that quartet.

You don’t need algorithms or slide rules to work out who will feature in the closing phase in 2020. While the Champions League provides arguably the best quality football in the world, the imbalances which plague domestic football also exist in this sport of kings – just consider that Dinamo Zagreb’s average crowd is just 5% of the usual gathering in Dortmund. How can that be a level playing field, even with the most generous prize money on the planet?


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