No hopers?

Ian Plenderleith reports on how the new model Champions League is likely to discriminate further against teams from the smaller football nations

It’s time for the Champions League highlights on German television with guest star, Franz Beckenbauer. It’s approaching midnight before we get to see the game between Steaua Bucharest and Widzew Lodz. “Well,” says Franz, relishing a rare opportunity to win some points from a public fed-up at his attempts to interfere with the game at every level and at every opportunity, “this is really the game we’ve all been waiting for!”

In case you don’t get it, Franz was not being serious. He wasn’t really looking forward to the game’s highlights at all. Franz was being funny. Because as Franz and all the other football visionaries of Europe know, Steaua and Lodz come from poor countries. They don’t have any high-profile players because clubs like Beckenbaeur’s own Bayern Munich nick them all. And yet, damn it all, they were getting to play teams like Athletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund long after poor Bayern had been dumped out in the first round of the UEFA Cup! That can’t be right, can it Franz? After all, your club has an annual turnover of 150 million Deut-schmarks!

Despite the shamelessly lucre-driven decimation of arguably the world’s greatest club competition, there has been hardly a squawk of resistance around Europe against the Champions Cup ‘reform’. The lesser clubs seem resigned to standing enviously on the sidelines, shrugging their shoulders because the big boys turned up, stole their ball and kicked them off the pitch. “What can we do about it, they’re huge,” they say, and skulk off into an empty stadium to play in the preliminary qualifier round in mid-July.

Why this silence, this docile acceptance of the new bully-boy, cash-backed European order designed to create a two-tier footballing continent where the rich stay rich and the rest hope to gratefully scramble for the scraps? The problem is reflected perfectly here in Switzerland, where the bovine acquiescence of a self-confessedly second-rate footballing nation demonstrates how smaller countries lack the self-belief to question the power of the self-aggrandising ‘big’ leagues. Or maybe it’s because they secretly hope they can get a slice of the pie too . . .

Earlier this season Grasshoppers Zurich were a goal away from qualifying for the Champions League Quarter-Final. They steamrollered Slavia Prague (5-0), Rangers (3-0) and Auxerre (3-1), as well as winning away in Ajax, a result deemed as the best ever by a Swiss club in European competition.

And although ticket prices were as much as seven times dearer than for normal league fixtures, no-one seemed to care, with attendances four times the average and the Rangers game selling out in three days (for some reason the Swiss were the only people in Europe to believe the Ibrox publicity that Rangers are one of the giants of Europe).

Yet next season, provided they win the Swiss league, Grasshoppers will have to get through two qualifying rounds just to reach the now expanded league stage, and this time against potentially stronger opposition now that the runners-up in the “best” national leagues will be allowed entry too. The message is clear – we don’t want you small fry, and you’re going to have to win some tough games to even stand a chance of making some cash out of this.

Perversely, Grasshoppers have actually gone on public record as saying they support the new structure of the competition, which can only mean one thing.: they thinks they can be part of the elite. And guess what, they have a chairman, Romano Spadaro, who this year is planning a share issue with a view to a 1998 flotation on the stock market. “Look how much Manchester United is worth,” he swooned to a Zurich newspaper.

In a way you can understand why. The whole country was captivated by Grasshoppers’ almost-success in the Champions League, as they are whenever the Swiss national team is on a good run. Yet when it comes to the Sunday afternoon graft of a fixture against Aarau or Lucerne people would rather be watching four-man bob, and sometimes you get the impression the players would, too.

So Grasshoppers will either ‘do a Rangers’ and make it to the elite, and be able to maintain or lure enough talented players (that is, most of the Swiss national side) to allow them to walk their domestic league every year, a competition that will become as predictable as the Scottish Premier Division. Or, they won’t make it through the qualifying rounds, their best players will leave for wealthier leagues, and the Swiss league will remain as anonymous as its counterparts in countries like Belarus, Bulgaria and Finland. Their title winners will, doubtless to Beckenbaeur’s glee, miss the bandwagon and have only the remotest chances of meeting crowd – and income – pulling opposition. So despite lofty claims that football is the world game, it will become severely neglected in a number of countries right here on UEFA and FIFA’s doorstep.

UEFA claims the latest watering down of the Champions Cup is not a step towards a Euro-league, and indeed that they are not in favour of such a league. Even Beckenbauer realizes that Bayern’s domestic fixtures attract far more fans than their European games (though much less TV money, natch). But if UEFA has genuinely cottoned on that no-one apart from the TV companies wants such a league, the damage has already been done, with supporters across Europe aware that they will denied the the right to see their own clubs take on major teams in proper competition.

If Grasshoppers don’t make it to the “Champions and Runners-Up League” stages next season I can flick around my cable channels and watch Real Madrid take on AC Mammon (who only came tenth in the Italian league but fortunately had their name picked out of the bag in a hastily instituted free-for-all UEFA lottery). But, if you’ll excuse a momentary lapse into commentary box hyperbole, it won’t quite be the same as the euphoric, rain-drenched night the Grasshoppers swept five glorious goals past a hapless Slavia Prague (hapless, incidentally, because all their best players, including Poborsky, has just gone west).

There is one slightly happy footnote to all this if we return to that German television studio. It’s just a few weeks after Beckenbauer has told German newspapers: “In the Champions League the best teams should play. Clubs like Warsaw, Trondheim or Panathinaikos hardly belong to the best. In fact they could hardly compete in the Bundesliga . . .”

On screen we have just seen that same Trondheim knock out AC Milan on their home ground. “You’re a bit of an AC Milan fan, aren’t you Franz?” the show’s host asks cheekily. The Kaiser can barely speak, and adopts the same expression as when he sits in the stands watching his Bayern prima donnas failing to perform to the required standards.

How I pray I will see that expression many more times. But it will sadly become an even rarer sight now that UEFA has found another way to try to eliminate the possibility of ‘wrong’ results.

From WSC 122 April 1997. What was happening this month