Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Not-Very-Champion League

I love football. I grew up with it.

But I hate the Champions League.

This is not just the spiteful sour grapes of the outsider, standing out in the cold, with my nose wistfully pressed up against the window, watching the bloated, drunken, over-fed hogs self-congratulatorily rolling around in the swill. Though, that's certainly part of it, but not for quite the reason you might expect.

However, let's begin at the beginning. The Champions League. A league of champions, yes? And yet, how many of the teams that are in the tournament are actually champions of anything? At today's date, the international distribution for Champions League qualification for the 2012/13 season is as follows: England, Spain & Germany - 4 teams; Italy, France & Portugal - 3 teams; Russia, Ukraine, Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, Denmark, Belgium, Romania & Scotland - 2 teams; 37 other countries - 1 team.

By my calculations, that gives us a total of 76 teams. Of those, 52 will be champions of their national league. That means that 24 of the competing teams are champions of, well, nothing at all. Almost a third of the teams competing.

More than that, the teams who get more representatives are, by definition, seeded more highly. This means that many of the teams that were actually champions of their league are culled in the early stages of the competition. So by the time the competition reaches the group stages, the proportion of actual champions is inevitably smaller again.

So there you go. Reason number one that I hate the Champions League: it's a total misnomer. In 1999, when Man Utd beat Bayern Munich in an incredible, injury time turnaround, neither team was the reigning champion of their national league. They were both runners-up.

It makes a mockery of the competition. It's no longer about them being champions, as it always was under the European Cup. The prestige is gone. It's not about being the best of the best anymore. It's about being the best of the richest.

Money. That's what it comes down to. The Champions League is a format designed to help the rich clubs get richer and to keep it as exclusive a club as possible. It is no mistake that most of the clubs who repeatedly appear in the latter stages of the competition are those who were qualifying for it when the European Cup was sacrificed at the altar of filthy lucre. Because they got the benefit of the extra cash in those early seasons, which allowed them to outspend the rest and keep themselves at the top of their leagues. The exceptions are those, like Chelsea, who have had a financial benefactor come in and throw money at them.



Football used to be about sport. It used to be about teams punching above their weight and winning a trophy unexpectedly. My own team, Aberdeen, did this with the Cup Winners Cup in 1983. But the big clubs, and most importantly, the sponsors, didn't want that happening. They want the biggest teams playing each other as often as possible, so as to generate the biggest TV audiences possible. So European competition has been redesigned to benefit the biggest teams. How else can anyone explain the ludicrous situation where the third team in the group stages of the CL gets to drop into the "Europa League". That's nothing but a golden parachute, designed to help those teams who finish third to still make some more money and, thus, continue to outspend their competition.

Last night, Arsenal were on the wrong side of a terrible refereeing decision against Barcelona. It didn't necessarily cost them the game, but it certainly raised questions of whether the "authorities" have teams they prefer to get through to the latter stages to guarantee the biggest crowds and therefore to keep the advertisers happy.

There is no question that they do. The whole of European competition has been designed to make it as difficult as possible for an unfashionable team to succeed.

It's not about sport anymore. It's about revenue.

That's why I hate the Champions League.

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