Tuesday 18 August ~
The idealistic president of UEFA, Michel Platini, once said that he would favour abolishing the current European club cups to stage instead a single, 256-team, unseeded knockout tournament. A real European Cup, in fact, where the final eight would be impossible to predict, and where Milan, Bayern, Barcelona and Chelsea would risk being knocked out in September. How New Football laughed at that idea. But it’s doubtful Platini ever seriously thought he could even start the discussion about such a plan. Like all idealists, he was merely setting out his best-case utopia. Something we could at least think about working towards.
Platini may not have reversed football’s top-heavy tide, and we will likely never again see Malmo play Nottingham Forest in a European Cup final. But this year’s Champions League reforms carry the mark of the idealist, even if they are a far cry from the Frenchman’s original vision of a level playing field. They come in the form of this week’s Champions League play-offs, which have added another round to the already intricate process of qualifying for what must necessarily be described as the competition’s “lucrative” group phase. This fourth and final pre-league round of ten, two-legged ties is divided into two sections. One for teams who placed second, third or fourth in their domestic leagues, including CL regulars such as Arsenal, Celtic, Lyon, Anderlecht and Sporting Lisbon. And the other section for actual champions.
And so, Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova play Greek champions Olympiakos Piraeus. Swiss title-holders FC Zurich travel to FK Ventspils of Latvia, FC Copenhagen match up against APOEL Nicosia, Salzburg host Maccabi Haifa, and Levski Sofia face Hungary’s Debrecen. In previous years, most of these sides would have faced the likes of Atletico Madrid or Fiorentina (two more very strong teams in the other half of the draw), and that would likely have been the end of their participation. Champions would be eliminated by non-champions and the wealth from the group phase headed towards the same old major leagues.
Critics say the reforms are akin to watering down the competition and that it is UEFA’s equivalent of positive discrimination (as if that were a bad thing). How many Manchester United fans, they ask, will want to watch their team take on FK Ventspils in the group stage? Not to mention the millions of armchair neutrals around the world – football’s most important demographic by far. The question is better reversed. Think how many fans of the Latvian team will look forward to hosting Manchester United. The Champions League group stages are in any case seen by most fans as a bit of a grind. At least this way they can channel some money to a genuine champion, watched by fans who won’t be mutely expectant of yet another victory. And there’s the possible bonus for the rest of us – bar-stool sceptics rather than armchair neutrals – of a humiliating shock result.
There have of course been teams from Denmark, Greece, Cyprus and Switzerland in past group stages, and although few have progressed to the second set of knockout games, they have provided more of what Platini has sought for years – a greater variety of representation and a fairer distribution of UEFA’s wealth. We can already guess that the final eight will feature teams exclusively from La Liga, Serie A, and our own globally stupendous Premier League. Still, it’s nice to know that however much someone like Platini may be scorned for being a man of values in the age of £50 tickets, at least he’s placed a small obstacle in the path of football’s rush to turn itself into a super-bland, over-branded cash cow where one season seems much the same as the next.
“I’ve never been an idealist, that implies you aren’t going to achieve anything,” Arthur Scargill once said. True, a Moldovan team in the Champions League group stage might not represent a footballing counter-revolution. But it’s a start. Ian Plenderleith