There’s more than a slight air of desperation hanging around this season’s Champions League, and it’s not just emanating from Bob Wilson. “This first stage of the competition doesn’t interest me,” says Johan Cruyff, and frankly we’d have to lump ourselves in with the thousands of fans who appear to agree with him.
Real Madrid pulled less than 15,000 for their less-than-mouthwatering clash with Molde, while even fewer saw Bordeaux take on the hapless Willem II in the second round of matches. While Milan, Juventus and Madrid, known these days by the collective noun “the likes of”, were attracted by the prospect of playing more often against each other, slogging through six weeks against humdrum northern European pipsqueaks was not what they had in mind when they pressed for the competition to be expanded.
Only in Britain, so far, is enthusiasm undimmed, at least if the crowd figures are anything to go by. But even here there are already dark mutterings about overkill. Playing Champions League games every week has further diluted the appeal of European matches. For Arsenal, playing AIK Solna is like playing Leicester or Coventry – except that games against Leicester or Coventry have a context and a history that makes them seem more important that random encounters with not very remarkable European clubs.
Another problem lies in the TV presentation of the competition. Here, gratifyingly, the willingness of UEFA to allow in third and even fourth-placed teams from the big TV countries appears to have rebounded on them.
With one, or even two, English clubs in the Champions League, playing only six group games in total, their matches could still be packaged as a special event, and there were few enough that they could all be shown live on free-to-air. Now that there are three, potentially playing 12 group games each before the spring, there are just too many games for the TV punters to make the effort. What’s more, some are bound to get siphoned off into the increasingly confusing and expensive warren of digital and pay-TV channels.
However much the networks might prattle on about the “choice” of viewing available, in reality they are having to flog indigestible amounts of the same unedifying product over and over again with teams comprising interchange-able collections of players from Holland, France and South America scurrying about in front of acres of increasingly empty swathes of seats.
On Digital still hope the Champions League will do for them what the Premiership did for Sky, but their slogan alone reveals a certain level of anxiety: “It matters.” We’re no marketing experts (as the WSC circulation department will readily confirm), but we can’t help thinking that if you are reduced to insisting that something really, really matters, then it probably means it doesn’t.
A sense of weariness with the whole damn thing is not confined to the fans and the broadcasters. No point has been dropped by Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal this season without reference to the debilitating demands of Europe’s “elite” bunfight. Arsène Wenger is unhappy with the League’s outrageous suggestion that his team should have to visit Anfield in the middle of a European campaign. When Chelsea lost at Watford, few journalists could resist suggesting that they were mentally more attuned for Hertha than Hertfordshire.
What is cheering, from a purely neutral point of view, of course, is that so far there seems to be more than a grain of truth in the “Euro-exhaustion” theory. If clubs’ football managers and financial managers come into open conflict over the number of games they are playing, something will have to give, but you can bet it won’t be Europe.
The “likes of” clubs are already addicted to the revenue they earn from the Champions League and surely will not contemplate any reduction in the number of games unless punter apathy proves to be a lot more widespread than it has so far. Already it is the Premiership games against teams like Bradford and Wimbledon that are deemed to be affecting the big clubs’ Champions League chances, as well as the other way round.
The two domestic cups have already been ruined by the demands of a handful of clubs. How long before they want fixture-list favours in the league too?
From WSC 153 November 1999. What was happening this month