UEFA’s second competition is more interesting
23 October ~ Roma v Bayern Munich on Tuesday was largely how UEFA imagined it when streamlining three European knockout tournaments into two midweek leagues: the world’s best players cutting loose in a showpiece stadium, in a glamorous city, surrounded by 65,000 fans paying top prices; one of a series of games televised live across the continent over two nights to maximise broadcasting revenue, electronic pitch-side hoardings advertising a coterie of high-end sponsors.
The problem arrives when a famous club from an iconic domestic league is thrashed 7-1 at home and all competition, mystery and accessibility is removed from the continent’s premier tournament.
In the 20th century there was a European competition for league champions, another for cup winners and a third for the best of the rest. As per most corporate rebrands, UEFA’s 1999 ditching of the Cup-Winners Cup actually camouflaged a power grab by the wealthiest. Tuesday’s eight Champions League games were praised by Sky Sports for producing 40 goals. Yet half were scored by just three teams – Chelsea, Bayern and Shakhtar Donetsk.
In the last Europa League match day, a total of 52 goals were spread rather more evenly across all 24 group matches. The biggest win was Villarreal’s 4-0 home victory over Apollon Limassol of Cyprus. Against BATE Borisov on Tuesday, Shakhtar’s Luiz Adriano scored five by himself.
From the mid-1950s to the early 1990s, teams were still thrashed. But only because the opposition played well – not because of a cartel. Deregulation of TV coverage over the last 25 years exponentially strengthened the monopoly, but concentrated the power on just seven clubs. Milan and Juventus faded recently but only one of the 22 Champions League finals has featured neither them nor Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United or Bayern. And that 2004 final between Porto and Monaco didn’t help them replace the Italian pair. More likely are Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund – two finals each – or bank-rolled Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
In reality, there are still three European tournaments. The un-named one involves less-heralded clubs targeting the Champions League group stage as an end in itself and famous clubs far enough outside the monopoly to know the semis are their limit. The likes of Arsenal and Schalke are in the latter category; Maribor, BATE Borisov, Ludogorets Razgrad and Apoel Nicosia are this season’s filler. But even when they aren’t annihilated on the pitch, the generic billboards and inevitable increased ticket prices suck them into the Champions League world of bland.
Sentimentality is always dangerous when applied to geopolitics and ease of communication. But it’s a key component of watching football in middle-age. The Europa League’s reduced status is sad but the clubs you’ve never heard of, locally sourced advertising and half-empty stadiums viscerally echo the mystery European club football has lost. It eases the drudgery of the weekly routine.
As long as money continues to flow up UEFA’s food chain, the Champions League’s final rounds will provide the planet’s heavyweight games. But this season I’ll mostly be watching the Europa League, where no one’s yet won by seven goals. Thank god it’s Thursday. Alex Anderson