Wednesday, May 21, 2008
It's time to scrap the Champions League
Drooling with excitement over the prospect of Man Utd plc facing Chelski in tonight's Champions League final? No, me neither. It's time the competition was scrapped and we reverted back to the old European Cup format, which gave teams from Europe's smaller leagues- and smaller clubs from Europe's bigger leagues, like Nottingham Forest (winners in 1979 and 1980, picture above), much more of a chance. Here's my Guardian piece from 2006 on how the Champions League mirrors the greed-driven turbo capitalist age in which we live.
One of the hallmarks of the turbo-capitalist age is how the super-rich ruthlessly conspire to ensure their continued pre-eminence and to exclude others from enjoying their privileges. There is no finer example than football's Uefa Champions League, which holds its final in Paris next week.
A two-tier system operates in European football, and a massive division has opened up between the wealthy footballing nations and the rest.
The process started in 1992 with the formation of the Champions League. Prior to that, the old European Cup operated on a knockout system, giving teams from Europe's smaller leagues a fair chance of defeating their wealthier counterparts. But the introduction of the group-stage format, in which the "big" clubs were seeded to avoid each other, greatly favoured the elite.
In 1997 Uefa changed the rules again to allow more than one entrant from the biggest four leagues. The move was justified on the grounds that the leagues of England, Italy, Germany and Spain deserved extra representation by virtue of their clubs' superior record in European competitions. But the changes - and the 1995 Bosman ruling giving EU players the right to a free transfer - only widened the division between the haves and have-nots.
Prior to 1992 clubs from eastern Europe regularly competed in the latter stages of European competitions. Since the Champions League was formed, however, only one team from the east, Dynamo Kiev, has reached even the semi-finals, and none has made the final.
Western clubs from outside the four richest leagues have also slipped off the radar. Teams from Sweden contested European finals in 1979, 1982 and 1987, but none has had a sniff of glory since, while no Belgian side has appeared in a final since 1988. As within England's Premier League, TV money has played a big part in this divide. When the Portuguese champions Porto won the Champions League in 2004, they earned £13.6m, almost £6m less than Manchester United - who didn't make it beyond the last 16 - and more than £25m less than Liverpool did when they won the trophy 12 months later.
Yet the association of Europe's richest 18 clubs, known as the G14, is still not happy. In 2005 AC Milan and Manchester United complained when they were drawn to play each other in the last 16, and urged Uefa to continue the seeding system in the latter stages of the competition so that big clubs were kept apart.
Arsenal, who also exited early last year, called for changes too. "You can't afford to have big clubs who invest so much money going out in the last 16," said manager Arsène Wenger. "You will have a revolt if it continues like that." That revolt is taking shape. Earlier this year the G14 agreed a policy document outlining its intention to guarantee the dominance of its clubs. A permanent league, in which its members would be guaranteed entry regardless of domestic standings, is clearly its aim.
But instead of pandering to the G14's demands, Uefa needs to restore the competition to its earlier format. It would be wrong, on grounds of merit, for the most successful countries to have the same representation as, say, Latvia and Macedonia; but a maximum of two entrants each, together with a more equitable distribution of television revenue, would strike a fair balance.
A reformed Champions League would mean teams from outside the richest leagues would have more chance to make progress and find it easier to hold on to their best players. The widening financial gap between the top clubs and the rest would be reduced, and smaller clubs would once again have a sporting chance of challenging for honours