For anyone old enough to remember a time when footballers’ forearms didn’t resemble the Sistine Chapel and albums were released not dropped, the European Cup was a fascinating competition that pitted the champions of Europe against each other. Sometimes David was pitted against Goliath, and occasionally David would win. It produced incredible stories, unlikely heroes, and yes, let’s not forget some terrible games (Red Star Belgrade we are looking at you!).
Then, inevitably, it brought Rabona kicking and screaming into the modern day, which has changed its name to (with no apparent sense of irony) the Champions League and was given its own theme music. On an aside, I challenge anyone to think of another sporting competition in the world that has its own song. Anyone coming back with the Europa League will need to be able to hum it before I concede defeat.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the idea of the Champions League is terrific. The best clubs in Europe pitted against each other under floodlights; it doesn’t get much better than that, and over the years there have been some incredible nights and games, which would not have happened at a domestic level. It’s also an opportunity for nations and their fans to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of their respective leagues. With today’s global game, the completely different ethos of the teams in their approach and style, as well as those 11 on the pitch, has perhaps been watered down, but it is still evident.
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But, and there was obviously one coming, in all honesty, the competition has been arranged in such a way that it does not start as a competition until several weeks after the credit card bills from Christmas have fallen on the doormat. In fact, the only excitement in recent years in the autumn games has been provided by the English teams underperforming and not making it out of the league format.
The first round of games in this year’s competition sums up everything that is not right with the competition. Sure, 28 goals in 8 games sound fantastic, but 20 of those were scored by just 5 teams with no reply. As a result, most of the groups will be decided way before the last game or even games are played out; already the bookies have all but one group winning odds on BetStars.
It is very much a case of UEFA and the television companies who let’s not forget wield an incredible amount of power, trying to get too greedy, but forgetting the very reason that people love the competition in the first place. The qualification process is set up to ensure the “biggest” teams get into the competition (look for changes next year), then seeding means they are unlikely to land a killer blow. David might still beat Goliath, but unless he gets off his stool and does it again and again, he will still be sent home, or even worse, into the Europa.
UEFA and in particular the Azerbaijan FA may love the fact that Qarabag FK is in the footballing spotlight, but getting a lesson off the Chelsea second string doesn’t necessarily make for good viewing. Empty seats in the stadium and poor TV audience figures for early round matches back this up; dead rubbers and training ground games don’t make for exciting spectacles. So, what is the answer? I don’t get paid enough or get taken to enough free dinners with VIP seats thrown in to tell you that.