UEFA will get their finale after all, albeit one that is crammed into a mini-tournament of the kind that belongs to the pre-corporatisation era. Although the eight-team format played in neutral Lisbon is a solution to a problem, in normal circumstances, having eight of the world’s best club sides in the vibrant Portuguese capital would induce a carnival spirit like no other football jamboree.
The competition is dominated by clubs from the big five leagues, over the past 10 campaigns, just eight teams from outside that group have made it to the quarter-finals and this season, the entire last 16 was from England, France, Germany, Italy or Spain.
Given that Portugal, fine football nation that it is, has only been represented three times at this stage (Benfica x 2 and Porto) since 2010-11, the choice of Lisbon was a good neutral venue. The locals will not have Benfica to cheer on (from their TVs), and now they have been deprived of the chance to support Cristiano Ronaldo after Juventus’ elimination at the hands of Lyon.
If you consider that all World Cups have their weak teams and fairly anonymous players that mean little to a lot of fans, then this reconfiguration has the potential to really capture the imagination of the Lisbon public. The last eight won’t include holders Liverpool, Juventus or Real Madrid but the line-up will involve Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig, Lyon and Atalanta as well as possibles Bayern and Barca – that’s a fair sprinkling of some of the best teams on the planet with about 40% of the world’s leading players.
So it’s a stellar cast that will assemble in Lisbon. With a crowd, these games could be a marketing executive’s dream even if the host city doesn’t have a team involved. However, how many Barcelona, Bayern and Manchester City fans are there in the city?
There’s another theory that may be high up there in the conspiracy stakes, but could this be the shape of Champions Leagues to come? Euro 2020, when it eventually happens, has the look of a tournament slightly out of control. In 24 years, we’ve gone from 16 teams (the optimal tournament size in many people’s eyes) to 24 and it will probably not stop there. As we have seen with the World Cup, greed sets in and the way the money men and women see a successful finals format is how much cash can be squeezed out – the more teams, the more income and TV markets to tap into. We now have the ridiculous prospect of a 48-team (a 50% increase on 2022) structure for the 2026 cross-border tournament hosted by USA, Canada and Mexico.
A 48-team format will exclude most countries from staging the competition, so it is likely that more hosting consortiums will become the norm. The bigger the Euros become, that scenario may eventually be replicated on a regular basis. Hence, the carnival element of hosting a major sporting element will become diminished – if not by the bills the competition generates, but also logistics. You can imagine an advertising team coming in, sunglasses perched on head and flat-whites in hand and advising UEFA: “Hey guys, how about making the Champions League closing stages into an old-style, small-format shoot-out over a couple of weeks?”. Like it has never been invented before.
Club football at the top level has overtaken the national team game. We live in a tribal age and the tribes are not necessarily international football sides, they are the heavily-marketed, media-hungry clubs that appear on our screens every week. The world’s best football competition is not the World Cup, it is the Champions League. A country like Portugal will never host the World Cup or European Championship on its own as these competitions both expand like Monty Python’s exploding pasta-hungry gentleman, but you can imagine UEFA being seduced by the idea of a glamorous annual finale to the season. If FIFA can have their Club World Cup (where does the coronavirus leave that?), then UEFA may feel they can sweep-up with their blue riband event.
On the other hand, UEFA may just see this as a one-off, a convenient way to draw a line under the season. We’re not so sure. We’re cynics and we believe that governing bodies are keen to fill the calendar with as many competitions as possible, to emphasise their importance, leverage the financial take and to protect the strength of their confederation. The Champions League climax looks intriguing, but it would look a whole lot better if there were spectators in the stadium.