BY GLENN BILLINGHAM
Every May, there’s a special occasion held in our humble abode and it tries to combine the best of European food and football. It usually falls on a warm, late spring evening, which sees windows open and a cool breeze wafting the smells of a busy kitchen around the whole apartment. An annual four course dinner, themed around two particular countries, complete with paired wines, is served over the course of a few hours. Last year we bounced between Italy and Spain for an aperitif, a starter, the main and a sweet.
We cook, we eat, we get merrily drunk and we watch the UEFA Champions League final. While the football and the sub-plots thrown up each year are, for the most part, genuinely seductive, it’s all getting a little predictable.
It’s been over ten years since our theme country wasn’t Spain, Italy, Germany or England. And while, admittedly, those countries offer a delicious and varied menu, wouldn’t it be great if everyone got a chance to sample the delights of a final appearance by Astana of Kazakhstan, of Malmo FF of Sweden, or Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia?
Before levelling any criticism and submersing ourselves in romantic nostalgia, it should be said that Michel Platini, UEFA and all their special corporate partners, do what they do very well. An appealing product has been created and it’s ferociously consumed the world over. The problem is, to explain the Champions League in footballing terms, is that it’s all starting to feel a bit Ronaldo, where football should feel more Messi. The Champions League has become robotic, primed, pristine, and therefore edging towards dull and predictable because it’s too good at what it does. It should be more spontaneous, bring more smiles and joy, be partial to floppy hair, and even an infrequent off-day or week on the sidelines. Europe’s premier club competition should surely provide more David vs. Goliath moments, more upsets and more than just seven nations able to offer winning clubs.
The thing is, it never used to be like this.
It was the 2003/04 final in which FC Porto and Monaco represented the sixth and seventh nations at a UEFA Champions League final. Porto propelled their manager to global stardom, and I spent the most I’ve ever spent on a single bottle of wine, €35. It feels like a long time ago. Before that, you have to go back another decade to find any other country outside the ‘big four’ represented. Ajax of the Netherlands were a great team in the mid-nineties, but at that time I could neither cook or drink. Since the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992/93, the seven nations represented at the finals have yielded a total of nineteen different clubs. Compare these numbers with the last twenty-five years of the European Cup’s existence, and the difference is vast. From 1966/67 to 1991/92, there were thirteen different countries appearing in the finals, represented by a wonderfully diverse thirty-one clubs.
If variety is indeed the spice of life, which it is, then its time for a Champions League re-think.
Football, much like most things, is a representation of various trends and fashions coming full circle. Kit for example. Long baggy shorts were in, they evolved to be tight and pornographically short in the eighties, and now they’re getting large and loose again. Even in the relatively short history of the Premier League, these cyclic tendencies can be found. First is was cool to have a foreign manager, then young British managers were the in thing, and now it’s heading back towards the allure of an accent and fresh approach.
There are many reasons for these changes, but basically, it’s evolution or revolution.
Far from being a desperate plea for nostalgia, Champions League reform surely represents a logical next stage in the cycle of European club football. How marvellous would it be to return to un-seeded knock-out rounds from the off? No mini leagues, no boring group matches where teams cautiously play for a point with five first-team players left at home, no easy predicting of the qualifying pair from each group, and no more being able to guess the last sixteen two years in advance. Instead, an otherwise mundane Tuesday night in September could host a match like Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich. It would look and feel like a final as that’s what ‘winner takes all’ knock-out cup competitions do. Who knows, the Wednesday night games could even pair Real Madrid and Juventus. KAA Gent might sneak all the way to the semi-finals. Inter Milan could be humbled by plucky St .Etienne. Our cosy early summer feast of football could feature a traditional borst, or even a goulash.
Of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the current knock-out stages have produced many wonderful, dramatic, romantic,and brilliant matches. But the crux of the point is that showtime is confined to an all too tiny handful of spring evenings, and their major players and directors are already known.
Pure and simple knock-out rounds are what make England’s FA Cup magical. There is a competition which hasn’t changed format since it’s inception in 1872 and has remained a football attraction the world over. Much like the European Cup used to, the FA Cup still has the capacity to surprise, create wonder and marvel, unconsciously mollycoddle smaller clubs all the way to a semi-final, and simultaneously, ruthlessly throw a bigger, richer club out at the first hurdle. Admittedly, there is the increased possibility of an unfashionable or even boring final, but isn’t embracing all these moments, feelings, and possibilities the most beautiful thing about football?
UEFA could do much worse than base a re-design upon the world’s oldest cup competition. Preliminary qualifying rounds for the smaller clubs and fourth placed teams, and having the domestic champions join at a later round. The group format need not be totally lost. Switching its purpose to preliminary qualifying, thus providing smaller clubs with a guaranteed three or four fixtures, would be a nice touch. Group winners could then qualify for the knock-out rounds, and be joined by the bigger boys.
The current format of the Champions League was dreamt up in the late eighties and early nineties, at a time where domestic leagues across the continent were raw. Violence on the terraces was rife, and the vast majority of clubs shared similar financial constraints. Adventures into Europe really were adventures, and mostly not for positive reasons. The whole continent was crying out for a blanket, uniformed experience of European football. At the time, the security of the league format – which guaranteed at least a few months in the competition for qualifying clubs – were of huge appeal. As were the organisational standards, the financial rewards, the TV deals and the sponsorship. The expanded and rebranded Champions League of 1992 was much needed, at the time. Now in 2015, with football leadership primed for something fresh but fair, we have to ask; haven’t we made the European elite rich enough? Haven’t we excluded Europe’s less glamorous clubs for long enough? Aren’t we even a little bit sick of watching advertisements from the monopoly of Heineken, Gazprom and MasterCard? Are we not a little weary of such pompous commitment to that anthem?
Personally, I answer a wholehearted ‘yes’ to the above.