22 November ~ It has been three weeks since the last round of Champions League games. Did you miss it? Or did you forget about it completely? So completely, in fact, that you had to check how many more rounds of games we had to get through until the league phase is over and we reach the grand Champions League Knockout Cup Phase. So completely that you weren’t even sure what teams are in which group, or what the scores had been so far. Looking at the scoreline Arsenal 0 Marseille 0 from earlier this month, I know for a fact that I watched some of that game. But until I checked, I couldn’t have sworn that it ever took place.
As a kid, I had a great aunt who recounted in intricate detail several stories from her youth some 60 years earlier. She was so keen on these stories that she told them to me again and again. But she couldn’t always remember my name. Or that half an hour earlier, she had already given me a crisp Scottish five pound note. It would have been the height of bad manners to point out that she had done the same thing twice. The Champions League is starting to make me feel like my great aunt. I can’t remember last month, let alone last season. Or even much about the ten seasons before.
Luckily, there’s not much to surprise us when we get around to checking the state of this year’s competition. That is, everything’s going pretty much according to plan. All the teams that are expected to qualify for the last 16 will qualify for the last 16. Do these names ring any bells? Real Madrid, Barcelona, the Milano brothers, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Manchester City is a new name here, of course, but with all that liquidity they feel like they’ve been hanging around in the Champions League gaff for years. They’ve settled right in. They are our kind of people, as another relative – this time a working class girl made wealthy – said of the other rich people who made up her latter-day circle of friends.
There are a handful of other minor surprise teams, like Apoel Nicosia, that will likely be knocked out in the last 16. Then we can all settle down for the Big Games in the final eight, featuring pretty much the same teams as last year and the few years before that too. It’s not original to point this out, but if we don’t continue to moan about such things, the tide of historical inevitability will see us lie down and drown like a Slovakian club’s back four, transfixed by the glamour of the giants that came to town for a single night when the fans were conned into paying five times the normal ticket price.
Then there will be someone in the comments section below who points out that Porto won the Champions League in 2004, so it is not as predictable as I’m making out. Maybe an argument will be made post-match for the technical excellence of Barcelona versus Milan, both already miles ahead and all but qualified in Group H. Perhaps a team like José Mourinho’s Inter two seasons ago will find a way to negate Barcelona. Tactically fascinating if you like that kind of thing, but painful to watch and an evolutionary step back for the game as a whole.
Nothing we see in round five or round six will counter the fact that a competition relentlessly billed as the world’s best at club level, featuring the game’s most highly regarded elite players, spends much of the year dragging itself through weeks of extraneous tedium just to reach pretty much the same annual result. The business model demands it. It no longer matters that there are way too many games, and that almost all of them are forgettable, even the better ones. Or that surprise results are factored in to have no effect on the overall competition.
All that matters is the continued generation of revenue, mostly in an upward direction. But you have to credit UEFA for being able to sell us the same bloated, muddy hog, smeared in lipstick, year after year after year. Now sit down, child, and let me tell you how back in 1976 I followed Liverpool’s path to the European Cup final with the aid of a small transistor radio held to my ear under the bed covers… Oh, what do you mean I’ve told you that one before? Ian Plenderleith