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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


Anonymous said...

I don't think you'll find many Man U fans who'll agree with you this morning, Neil!

Neil Clark said...

Congratulations to Man U and their fans, and commiseration to Chelsea, who I though over the whole match were actually the better side. But as exciting as last night's match became, let's not forget that the current CL sturcture means that we can virtually guarantee who the top four sides will be in England next year. It's a self-perpetuating oligopoly: the big Four qualify for the lucrative Champions League each year, and the money they get from that makes them even more dominant at home. It's going to very, very hard for clubs outside the Big Four to get into the Champions League, at the same time it's virtually impossible for a team outside the richest leagues to win the Champions League.

Anonymous said...

The 1991 European Cup champions were Red Star Belgrade. The final against Olympique de Marseille was very tactical and not the best game I have ever watched, but the tournament was brilliant. Red Star and Marseille played fabulous football all the way to the final and were always destined to meet.

How things have changed. Now Red Star Belgrade will have to play one or two “qualifying” matches before they are allowed into the Champions League while England can send 4 teams, only one of which is a “Champion.”

Neil Clark said...

That Red Star team really was something special and who knows what Yugoslavia would have achieved in the 1992 European Championships. The fact that champions of other leagues have to play two qualifying rounds these days is a scandal.

Roland Hulme said...

I'm fining you 50p every time you use the term 'turbo capitalist.'

Neil Clark said...

Hi Roland,
Great to hear from you. Re turbo-capitalism: Well, if you can come up with a better term to differentiate the rapacious globalised form of capitalism which dominates today with the less aggressive type of capitalism which used to be the norm and which still holds sway in some European countries, then I'm willing to consider using it!

olching said...

I agree with you in principle, Neil. The old cup was a better format and fairer all around.

You used to have second round ties between Bayern and Madrid, and that was it for one of two great teams. That's the way it should be. It should be the champs of each league battling it out in a proper cup format. If you belong to a bigger league it's virtually impossible to even get knocked out. Finishing third in the Champions League group stages puts you in the UEFA cup, which is of course so much weaker, due to the top drain to the Champions League.

I've almost reached a point where I'd want this wretched European Superleague to go ahead, and so the G14 or however many there are could get on with it while each league reverts back to excitement and plays out proper European cup ties again.

And yes, of course it's a brutal commentary on turbo-capitalism (...puts 50p in the kitty).

olching said...

And yes, it was an exciting final...probably one of the best of the last 15 years, but that's beside the point...