Saturday 20 December ~
The UEFA Cup draw on Friday didn’t have us eagerly marking our diaries for the February night when Olympiakos will take on St Etienne, but at least there was relief that the unwieldy league phase, with its half-empty stadiums, meaningless fixtures and reserve team line-ups, is finally over. At times it seemed more like a determined European attempt to create a trans-border League Cup.
Say what you like about the League Cup (and we have), at least it’s still a proper cup where teams get knocked out for losing. In the UEFA Cup, sides such as Werder Bremen, Marseille and Zenit St Petersburg came through the Champions League back door after winning just one of six group games. And likewise from the competition’s own uniquely dull group phase you have Paris St Germain, Lech Poznan and FC Copenhagen progressing with a single victory in four attempts. As rewards for mediocrity go, it’s only matched by the play-off qualification criteria in Major League Soccer, where you have to consciously strive for crapness to miss out.
When the Champions League group phase ended last week, there was a united media lamentation of how tedious and predictable the European Cup had become, just as a handful of observers, WSC among them, had forecast 15 years ago. You didn’t really need a first-class degree in Business Studies to work out that concentrating cash at the top end of the game would cause both domestic leagues and European competition to be dominated over the long term by a handful of big names. What the established clubs wanted was an insurance policy against defeat. So if Roma, for example, lost at home to Cluj of Romania, they would still have five games instead of one to put everything right. Any discussion of Arsenal finishing fifth in the Premier League begins with the terribly worrying financial implications. Defeat is no longer about losing a game of football, it’s about investments, solvency and the question of a team’s very survival.
Having ruined one good competition, UEFA then decided it would only be fair to wreck the other too, and so the UEFA Cup’s group phase was born. Next season it will have a more honest (if more ridiculous) name, the UEFA Europa League, with an even more stretched-out group phase – 12 groups of four, all playing six games. Failure to qualify for this stage will not have anything like the same financial consequences of failing to make the Champions League, which is why AC Milan’s charming owner Silvio Berlusconi this week declared his team’s fight for the Serie A title over in favour of concentrating on Champions League qualification instead. Another year in the UEFA Cup would be as embarrassing for Milan as it would be for a player of David Beckham’s stature to appear in a non-elite, developing league like MLS. Oh, hang on…
Having said all that, there are some good ties ahead in the last 32, regardless of the long and unnecessary path it took to get there – Valencia against Dynamo Kiev, Fiorentina taking on Ajax and Bremen versus Milan, for example. These fixtures dress the tournament up in a traditional UEFA Cup look. But they would look just as attractive if the UEFA Cup was merged with the Champions League, rechristened the European Cup and existed purely as a two-leg knockout competition. It would be exciting and unpredictable, as cup competitions should be – they were created to enthral, not guarantee income in Mr. Berlusconi’s ten-year business plan.
No doubt it’s naive to dream that football’s guardians will of their own accord reverse course to make the game’s premier competitions entertaining and more egalitarian. But as we have seen this year, capitalism moves in mysterious ways. Who knew that billionaire Roman Abramovich would have to lock Chelsea’s transfer treasure chest? Who foresaw the drop in property prices that has shaken Arsenal’s profit projections? The game is not recession proof, and may have to absorb fans being no longer wealthy or interested enough to attend. Instead of visionary global super-leagues, harsh economic conditions could force football to remember why it grew from a kickaround to the world’s favourite game – it’s supposed to be a diversion from real life, not a depressing reflection of its repetition and hardship where power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of an untouchable few. Ian Plenderleith