Continental renovation

UEFA's freshest plans to renovate the Champions League are yet again satisfying few. Perhaps more dangerously, they are isolating Europe's smaller nations and if the G-14 had its way, they'd be forgotten altogether

As this issue of the magazine goes to press, an unholy row seems to be brewing over the future composition of the Champions League. The self-styled G-14 group of clubs were due to meet on August 30 to discuss, among other things, UEFA’s announcement that they plan to dispense with the second group stage of the Champions League, thus reducing the amount of games played in the latter stages of the competition.

The G-14, to no one’s surprise, are resolutely against it (they would rather see groups of six clubs) and in particular in the way that UEFA made their decision public without consulting any of the clubs. Arsène Wenger is against it too, in the name of progress. “The formula we have at the moment is not attractive to all the television broadcasters,” he said. “It leaves you with two choices, go backwards or forwards. And I believe what they are proposing is a regressive step.”

Instead he would like to see what he calls “a real Champions League”. By that he does not mean that its participants would have to be real champions, of course, but that it would be a real league, with “nine or ten” clubs competing “even if that means getting bigger squads”.

It seems that we are to be bedevilled by these arguments for ever, with different varieties of self-serving structure put forward to “solve” the problem of European football. Unfortunately, however, it has been insoluble ever since UEFA first began to concede the demands of the biggest clubs for more matches ag­ainst one other, easier passages for the clubs from countries with bigger TV markets, and so on. Now no one – not the clubs, nor the TV stations, nor UEFA, nor the fans – will be completely satisfied with the structure and it is probably doomed to endless tinkering.

Should anyone – apart from those fans Wenger insists only want to see “the best against the best” – care any more? In many ways it hardly seems to matter whe­ther the same mammoth clubs play each other 13 times or 17 times in a season, if they do it in groups of four or six, or if they half break away and pay only lip service to their national leagues, as Wenger’s “bigger squads” surely implies.

The sense of helplessness is confounded by UEFA’s total inability to get to grips with the situation. Having once let the clubs get what they want, they seem to have no clear idea themselves what they want to do with the monster that the Champions League has become, with its ability to generate huge revenues but also to produce an awful lot of inconsequential matches. Above all, they have failed to find a way make it directly relevant to the majority of its member countries who rarely, if ever, supply a team that gets to the group stage let alone the quarter-finals.

In some ways that is not UEFA’s fault. The demise of communism and the shattering of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia left almost every club in eastern Europe in no financial state to compete with the west in the way they once did. Yet it should surely be one of UEFA’s principal missions to increase the diversity of the countries that compete in the latter stages of its competitions, in the sense that half the continent, despite its famous football traditions, is more or less excluded from realistic competition.

Strange though it may seem, there is something UEFA might be able to learn here from FIFA. Even if often for dubious motives, the world governing body has made a genuine attempt to raise standards among its poorer members. But where are the equivalent UEFA program­mes, amid the cascades of TV money raised by the Champions League, design­ed to improve facilities, fight corruption and keep some of the best local players in the domestic leagues of its eastern members?

Perhaps there is the glimmer of a possible course of action for UEFA in all the talk of restructurings and new leagues, even of the North Atlantic variety. What if they agreed to the evident wish of the ten, 14 or 20 megaclubs who want to play only against one other? They could still do so under the auspices of UEFA, but with a large amount of autonomy to organise their competition the way they want – in exchange for a fair slice of the TV revenue to the governing body.

This time the cash might be consciously redistributed so that standards became more, not less, even. Then the rest of Europe, east and west, could start again with one or two simple knockout com­petitions. It’s unlikely to happen but surely it would be a lot more fun.

From WSC 188 October 2002. What was happening this month