The Champions’ League Is Killing FootballBy: Jim | February 4th, 2009
(Note – this article was first published in Rub Of The Greens 101)
Soon, it will begin again. The twice-weekly orgy of “top European football” will once again dominate our screens (thrice-weekly if you include the devalued UEFA Cup or whatever it’s going to be ‘rebranded’ as) and we will have to endure, again, the hyperbole and hysteria on our television screens, in our newspapers and in our workplaces. We will be fed pat lines about European glory (by which, of course, is meant wealth beyond the dreams of Croesus – or Sheikh Mansur as his modern incarnation is) and sit through two-legged matches of unbelievable tedium, largely because they are they same dour Big Four Showdowns that coincide in the Premiership by some fluke of scheduling year after year.
It didn’t use to be like this. European nights used to know their place. They were an exotic diversion on a Wednesday, with live coverage on Radio 2’s European Soccer Special and highlights on both terrestrial main channels. European Cup, Cup-Winners’-Cup, UEFA Cup all on the one night. And none of this group stage nonsense: a straightforward, unseeded draw for a straight knockout Cup competition over two legs (except the final). Perfect. Qualification was straightforward. Only the Champions could qualify for the European Cup – which, given that its full name was the European Champions’ Cup, is as it should be. The only concession was that the holders qualified as of right – a concession which led to England having two representatives on a handful of occasions, most notably in 1978-9, when Liverpool (holders) and Nottingham Forest (Division One Champions) were drawn against each other in the First Round. For the (now defunct – why?) Cup Winners’ Cup, again as the name suggests, only the winners of each European domestic Cup competition could qualify, exceptions being made only for the holders and in those cases were the Cup winners automatically qualified for the European Cup, in which case the runners-up took their place. And the UEFA Cup took four qualifiers from the top four finishers in each domestic league who hadn’t already qualified for another European competition. Simple.
Back in the days, people had a sense of perspective about Europe. Failing to qualify, or being knocked out at an early stage, did not produce the outpouring of wailing and gnashing of teeth we are now subjected to. Over and over again the mantra is repeated: nothing is more important than European qualification. Eyebrows are raised when managers are seen to be taking, for example, the FA Cup more seriously than finishing in a Champions’ League qualifying spot. This is, surely, incontrovertible evidence of a football world gone mad. Finishing fourth is more important than winning a trophy. It’s the FA Cup, for crying out loud, not the Zenith Data Systems Lost In Translation Irrelevance Vase. Yet fans of the so-called Big Four nod sagely and buy into this bullshit. What happened to glory? What happened to honour? What happened to winning a trophy? But no – nowadays, to misquote Matt Johnson, we can’t see the trophies for the dollar signs in our eyes. What’s football got left to fight for when its bought its success?
The massive, massive injection of TV revenue into a tiny handful of already successful European clubs through the Champions League has had a catastrophic distorting effect on the worldwide game. Previously, it has been just possible for well-managed and astutely coached teams to win a Championship – Forest 78, Villa 81, Leeds 92 for example. This is now no longer the case. Massive sugardaddy subsidy aside, the door of Premiership success is now firmly closed to all but the elite. The same clubs qualify for the Champions’ League; the same clubs reap the groaning cashcow benefits, by means of which their position is protected. And this is true across Europe. And thanks to football’s Cosa Nostra, the G18, the qualification regime for European competition – and access to the money – is weighted to ludicrous extent in favour of themselves. Missed out on winning the title? We’ll just “expand” the competition to include second, third, fourth placed teams – in elite leagues only, of course. Worried about a tough first-round draw or a freak result knocking you out? Let’s move to a group stage, giving everyone extra TV games (and money) oh and making it harder for smaller clubs to get through as the groups are – natch – seeded. Drawn in a tricky group and worried you’ll only come third? Let’s give you the safety net of automatically being entered into the UEFA Cup should you somehow manage to screw up your safe passage out of the CL group stage. Everything is geared towards the progress of the G18 clubs, at the expense of anyone else. Domestic leagues are less competitive so the same clubs always qualify. The same clubs always progress through from the group stages. And the same clubs reap the financial benefits that allow them to buy and pay the wages for the best players. It’s a self-perpetuating cartel of monstrous proportions – more unfair than a global trade agreement. Even the name is a lie, sick joke. The Champions’ League – not a League, not for Champions.
Time was, I’d cheer for every English club in Europe. Hell, I even cheered on Aberdeen when they won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983. Liverpool, Forest, Villa, Ipswich, Everton, Spurs – all these were roared on to victory. No longer. Now my fervent prayer is that *all the English clubs will be knocked out of the CL as soon as possible, in the vain hope that their precious finances will be damaged beyond repair and they will all, the whole slavering Mr Creosote crew, “do a Leeds” and capitulate into oblivion. Alas, credit crunch or no credit crunch there seems little sign of that happening. I await the end of season CL final or the Biggest Night In Football History Ever number 17 with unremitted gloom, boredom and fury. Football used to be great. Now it’s a ketchup stain on the shirt of a corporate whore. Mainly thanks to the Champions’ League.