Dreamy Optimism-Or A Roadmap To The Future? You Decide!
Today we have another Guest Article of the Day. This one-and most timely-is by MATTYBHOY
Before I begin; I do apologise that this rambles on! I originally intended to make a few succinct points that took up one page and ended up writing nearly three. With that in mind I’ve tried to at least break it up into sections to give readers room for pause.
The four places in the respective finals of UEFA’s two premier club competitions being filled by each of the clubs who finished 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th in last season’s English Premier League is the ultimate manifestation of the long-since abandoned pretence that European football can be called competitive in any way, shape or form.
Perhaps I’m just really idealistic and naïve, but the concept of the once prestigious and revered European Cup, old big ears, winding up in the hands of Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur simply doesn’t sit right and I feel foolish for expecting to hear more dissenting voices about the current state of affairs in the British media. In fact I should go further, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and the dissent – which has already begun from the ground up – is something that I hope to see gathering pace in the new season. It’ll have to come from supporters of course, these things nearly always do.
A simple problem…
The lazy and hackneyed counterargument to the obvious imbalance in the Champions League is always that it’s meant to be a shootout between the best clubs in Europe and fans want to see the best players in the big games in the best competition. Well, armchair fans have had the floor for far too long. Nobody ever stops to ponder why it is that the ‘best clubs in Europe’ all seem to come from such a small pool of countries; nobody seems to wonder why the finalists in UEFA’s flagship competition are so rarely ever the Champions of their own domestic leagues; few media voices possess the gumption to question why finishing 3rd and 4th should be rewarded with a parachute straight into the group stages with all the prize money, coefficient points, sponsorship revenue and international exposure that come with it.
Strip away the backroom deals, obligations to TV companies and the laughable assertions from current UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin that he’s seeking to provide a more level playing field when the horse has already bolted; and what you are presented with is a simple problem of mathematics. There are 55 member nations currently under the umbrella of UEFA. There are 32 places in the group stages of the Champions League. 21 (twenty-one!) of those 32 places are given over instantly to the champions, runners-up and also-rans of Spain, Germany, England, Italy, France and Russia. Not a single qualifying round required to be played, leaving the miserly number of 11 places left in the competition to be scrapped over by the league winners of a whopping 49 countries like the last Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I can recognise a cabal when I see one, if that’s not a closed shop that rewards failure then I don’t know what is.
Not content with having the Champions League sewn up, UEFA also ensure that the Big 6 are taken care of by allowing teams who have finished fifth in their league a bye straight into the Europa League groups, again without having to play a single competitive fixture. Then there’s the question of the leftovers from the Champions League playoff rounds. Never managed to get past that notoriously tricky tie in Kiev, Istanbul or Athens? No worries boys, yous can all parachute straight into the EL Groups n’all.
And so it goes on ad nauseum, this ridiculous merry go-round where no one seems to be bold enough to admit we’re watching a rigged game. Ajax: a world-renowned club with a proud history of producing exciting football teams and technically brilliant players are relegated to the role of plucky minnows and seeing them reach the latter stages is considered a miracle akin to Lazarus rising from the tomb (having come so close to glory in the UCL yet winning their domestic league, Ajax now face the prospect of having the spine of their team plucked from Spanish and English clubs and shall need to get through 2 qualifying rounds to make the groups again). Meanwhile praise is heaped upon a club like Tottenham – who had a brief few years as a player on the European scene back in the 60s but have brought virtually nothing to the table since then – and their manager for waltzing to next week’s final in Spain without stopping to consider how the deck was stacked heavily in their favour to begin with. You’re already the recipient of a free pass into the groups, and the grateful beneficiary of a network of TV deals and sponsorship money that’s seen you able to spend £267,000,000 (£267m) in the last four years. Forget about the cheerful wee caveat the press down south want to remind us with about Spurs not having done any deals this particular season: that’s still a competitive advantage that no one else can live with.
A simple solution?
The most galling thing about it all, to my mind, is that if it really had the will and the appetite to redress fairness and the spirit of competition to the sport then UEFA could put an end to this farce at a stroke. The top 6 leagues can have their league winners and runners-up go into the groups, that’s 12 spots. The champions from the leagues ranked 7th-14th go straight in as well. That’s 20 spots. Already you’ve diversified the competition several times over. The Europa League? Something very similar, except with the domestic cup winners (or finalists if cup winners already qualify for UCL) rather than allowing a back door entry into Europe for clubs that have an eye-wateringly huge wage bill but still weren’t able to put together a title challenge. If I can come up with this back-of-a-fag-packet stuff then surely to goodness someone at the European Club Association can propose a better one?
Now of course, I am not unaware that for a few years you may have the rather silly scenario of FC Vaduz of Liechtenstein crossing swords with Real Madrid; but I can picture a future, more evenly balanced game where such a fixture might not actually be so ludicrous. Because it’s UEFA’s ball, after all. There’s nothing to stop them telling their sponsors, satellite providers and investors to get stuffed unless they start ploughing some of that money further down the footballing pyramid and the full spread of their vast family of member nations starting to reap the benefits of it. Remember, it was only the advent of the Premier League and the Champions League in the early nineties that sparked this race to the bottom and obscene concentration of wealth among a select few clubs that caused such inequality in the first place. I am merely suggesting that if that trend were suddenly reversed and the new policy faithfully adhered to, then Ceferin’s level playing field pipe dream might look more of a reality in 25 years.
Know your enemy
Again here, I know I’m letting myself get carried away by flights of fancy. UEFA have always talked a good game, they’ve always been keen to promote the minnow nations in the name of ‘inclusivity’ and the recent decision to start putting the August Super Cup Final on tour to the likes of Norway, Georgia, Estonia and Macedonia makes for a nice wee bit of PR. Yet we all know the actual clubs from those nations will never see a group stage in our lifetime. Furthermore, you cannot have read the revelations from Der Spiegel or the ‘Football Leaks’ book in the last year and had your sails filled with disgust at the way so-called custodians such as Gianni Infantino have actively sought to undermine their own organisations and personally proposed solutions for the oil-money clubs to get around FFP rules without coming to the conclusion that those who run the game have got everyone exactly where they want them and nothing is going to change anytime soon.
In the last few years there’s been the underlying threat from the clubs who made up the old G14, and others, to break away from UEFA and form their own league where they don’t have to bother playing the riff-raff in the Champions League groups and can just have a constant procession of glamour ties that they can hawk off to the highest TV bidder. I wish they would carry that threat out and leave the clubs from the overwhelming majority of all the remaining countries to get on with it. At least it would be more even. You wouldn’t have this annual embarrassment of seeing the likes of Basel and Porto – astute, well run outfits who make the most of what they earn being trounced 6-0 in the last 16 by bloated clubs who have succeeded only in gaming the system for their own benefit. To quote a far more eloquent poster than I from the Etims Diary comment section back in 2017: ‘how much enjoyment can you get from winning trophies knowing the only reason you’ve done it is because your rich owners have used their cash to weaken your opponents?’.
There is so much about the modern game that is beneath contempt and this website has not shied away from pointing out a glut of examples of this of late, for which I’m extremely grateful. I suppose the point that I’m driving at with this overlong rant is that I hope it starts to dawn on more and more fans that what we’re watching is not sport; it’s just a merry dance that ends with the trophies and the money going to the same places, and that eventually, somehow we collectively demand of football’s administrators to do something about it.
Will I still end up watching Chelsea vs Arsenal in Baku and Liverpool vs Spurs in Madrid? Probably. But it will be in the same way that I’ve endured Series 7 & 8 of Game of Thrones; the passion and personal investment in it has gone, but I might as well see how it ends.