As the Premier League season ended, it was only the fourth and final Champions League spot being contested, and that was decided by Arsenal’s comfortable win over Newcastle. My thoughts on the weeks Premier League action will feature in my column for Setanta Sports so I wanted to share my thoughts on the future of the movement of clubs competing on an international stage.
I’ve thought for some time now that Michel Platini and his band of merry men have been trying their hardest to create a European Super League, or as close to it as possible. If you’re a regular reader of my website then you will probably be familiar with the term “Culture of excellence”, it’s something that I refer to as a standard for all that’s good in the game. Everywhere the game has a strong tradition either in its roots or competitions, you can trace back to a culture of excellence. In England, I believe one of the major reasons for our failure at international level is because we chase other nation’s beliefs of that culture rather than staying true to our own – look at the obsession with the Spanish model, and then look at what Germany have done over the last decade, to see what can be achieved. But’s that for another column, and today I wanted to talk about competitions.
What’s in a name?
For better or worse, the Champions League is here to stay and will probably evolve to allow more so called bigger teams in it as long as UEFA want to squeeze more money out of it. There are two major elements of a strong competition; value, and prestige. I don’t think anybody can argue the value of the Champions League – it’s a collection of the very best teams in Europe competing against each other. Some finals have been decided by luck, but by the process of competition, you can not argue that the two teams competing in the final do not deserve their place there. Prestige, on the other hand? Prior to the 90’s, the European Cup was a collection of the Champions of their countries competing against each other. Sometimes that meant that smaller teams were drawn against giants but, because of the method of qualification, you could not argue the place wasn’t deserved.
Having said that, the Champions League is here to stay and that’s not a bad thing, it pits the cream of the crop against each other. Perhaps four places is overkill, because as good as the competition is, you have to think about the consequences – Holland, Germany, Italy, Spain, England. Who are the names who always represent those countries? The contrary reaction is to mention those clubs who sometimes sneak in (Tottenham, or Malaga for example) but more often than not it’s a case of that historical elite sharing the cash and getting stronger. It’s a struggle for any other clubs to get a look in, particularly in the top European Leagues. It seems like it’s no longer about a level playing field and the natural evolution, now it’s about the unexpected advantage to put a cat among the pigeons. Manchester City get their place through virtue of a windfall beyond their wildest dreams; meanwhile, in Italy, Juventus were relegated a few years ago due to their part in the match fixing scandal, so someone else benefitted from that spot in the Champions League. Gone are the days you get an Everton, Nottingham Forest or Aston Villa getting their chances, and it might be a while before you see those days again. It’s a round robin affair with the same teams, giving you more revenue, more bums on seats watching television.
Maybe the competition is harder today than it was back in the 80’s. Maybe it’s a different competition altogether – people criticise Sir Alex Ferguson’s European trophies record, but they compare it against those from another era, when the competition was different.
So, what’s in a name? They’ve tried to make a European Super League, and it’s already here, isn’t it? It’s called the Champions League for a reason! Maybe they ought to remove the “Champions” part out of it altogether just for clarity. Beyond all the debate, one thing nobody can deny is that UEFA have got a very nice cash cow, and FIFA are missing out on it.
How do FIFA join in? Well, they’re trying, for a start. That’s a good thing, of course, because everything has to start from somewhere, but you can’t just magic that culture of excellence, it has to be established over time. The Intercontinental Cup, pitting the Champions of Europe against South America, was traditionally the fairest way of doing it, but that was just one team against another. What about all the other teams? That’s where the Club World Cup came in, but apart from hardcore United fans reading this, can anyone really remember their game against Necaxa or South Melbourne from 2000? Does the name LDU Quito mean anything? Probably not, but they were the opponents for United to become World Champions in 2008. I went to Japan to cover one of United’s games for a broadcaster and it just seemed like a waste of time, a non-entity.
Maybe the best way to do it – at the risk of contradicting myself, as I’m not really a fan of Platini – is to imitate the model for the Champions League to an extent. Get four teams from Europe, four from South America, the same for other continents, get them somewhere where they can compete against each other in a league for a couple of weeks. The logistics just make such a thing difficult to envisage, but then, I don’t make competitions do I! Back in 1958, Sir Matt Busby was told by the FA to get his team back into England within 48 hours. Nowadays that can happen – you’re exposed to a worldwide audience. I get six sports channels in the UK, where I can probably watch more live football than people living there. Everything is so much more accessible.
There’s the possibility of expansion but FIFA run the fine line of making such a competition more appealing than the World Cup. You just have to look at the state of the game in Europe, where some players are already more concerned about playing for their club in European knock out games than International Qualifiers! We’re talking about the World Cup, by anyone’s reckoning the most prestigious and famous competition in the game. The sad thing is that whatever will be decided in the future, you can be sure of one thing – it will be governed by money and not prestige.