It is not exactly news that the Champions League group stage has become dull and predictable – chances are you might have heard the complaint before – but it is coming to something when the greatest spectacle as well as the only genuine surprise of the first match day were both provided by the weather in Manchester.
The biggest clubs have long had it far too easy in the first phase. The competition is more or less drawn up to guarantee them safe passage to the post-Christmas knockout stage and Barcelona and Bayern Munich scoring 12 goals between them to no reply merely underlined that fact.
Increasingly, it is becoming hard to work out why the Champions League is set up in this way. Television audiences are down mainly because of the switch from free-to-air broadcasters, but seven-goal walkovers and cagey 1-1 draws are not the way to win viewers back. Everyone knows the competition properly gets going only after the turn of the year, and even moderately unexpected results in the early stages are normally evened out before the end because there are so many second chances.
What is entirely missing at this stage is any suggestion of cup excitement, any sort of frisson of danger, and this is because – the clue is in the title – at this stage Uefa’s premier competition is not set up as a cup but as a league. It is not a very convincing league – the winners are usually easy to spot and, as opening night showed, there is every chance of an embarrassing mismatch – but the European Cup must remain as a league despite all the annual pleas for it to return to a knockout competition because its purpose is to make money for the leading clubs around Europe.
Since Uefa, at various points in history, has been terrified of the leading clubs getting together and forming a breakaway super league, funnelling all the big television money into their own pockets and leaving the rest to survive on scraps, the Champions League was devised as a sop. The present competition is a super league by another name, something designed to have the same effect – of enriching the same clubs each season – without causing lasting damage to the domestic leagues.
The extent to which it has succeeded in those aims is a matter of opinion. Most leagues have become unbalanced by having a Champions League elite within them. Until Leicester shocked everyone by winning the English title last season it was widely assumed that there was no chance of glory for mid‑table clubs any longer apart from an annual tilt at the sadly devalued FA Cup.
In its attempts to keep big clubs quiet and well-rewarded the Champions League has been more successful, though in recent seasons even the lavish amounts on offer in Europe have been overshadowed by the runaway success of the Premier League. The situation at the moment, where Bournemouth or Burnley can make more money in a season than most of the glamour teams of the Champions League just by virtue of being in the English top flight, is already causing concern abroad.
Uefa, basically, is not happy about being usurped as the biggest cash cow. Clubs capable of winning the Champions League quite naturally feel that the achievement should carry the biggest cash prize on offer. It still does, considered in isolation. Read Madrid made around £80m as winners last season, with the runners-up, Atlético Madrid, pocketing £70m, though the Champions League is no longer the only show in town. Arsenal made more than £100m from their Premier League season and even relegated Aston Villa managed to bank £66m.
Although Uefa has increased the rewards on offer for the Champions League this season and has agreed a few more major concessions to major leagues for the future, as a result of the new television deal English clubs are still going to be miles ahead of the vast majority of their European counterparts.
In this changed situation, the old threat of a breakaway European league may not carry the force it once did. It used to be assumed that leading English clubs would be interested, for a start. Yet Manchester United have just announced a half-billion-pound turnover for the first time, without even having a particularly successful season. Why would they be interested in a leap into the dark? Why change the status quo when the present arrangement is proving so profitable?
It was always debatable whether a European breakaway league could succeed, but surely it would be much more of a risk without English involvement, when the Premier League is not only the biggest moneyspinner but also the most eagerly watched football competition around the world.
The threat of a breakaway league, in other words, is probably further away than ever. One still hears calls from time to time for the Champions League itself to be reformed, for the same big clubs to be admitted each year regardless of domestic performance, though Uefa must be acutely aware that its flagship competition is boring enough as it is and does not need to become any less competitive.
The Champions League could easily be made more exciting. Remove the seeding and the group stage, perhaps open it up to just a few more teams, and run it as a two-leg knockout from the start. It would have to change its name to the European Cup or something, but the team eventually coming out on top would still deserve the title of champions of Europe. Good teams might get knocked out in the first round while minnows could get through but that is the basic recipe for cup football. Minnows might also take a Celtic-type pasting in early rounds, though that, too, is in the nature of a straight knockout.
The flaw is obvious: such a scheme would never make enough money for a sufficient number of clubs. Should Barcelona draw Bayern Munich in an early round one of them would be out before Christmas – though imagine the interest and excitement such a tie would create.
Yes, under the present conditions, Barcelona might well play Bayern Munich in the last four or the final, but that is not quite the same. By that stage both teams have already won, if the object of the exercise is to make the competition as profitable as possible by staying in it until near the end. There is no shock value in going out at the semi-final stage, and shock value is what this sedate competition badly needs.
No one particularly wants to return to the days when only champions and holders contested the major European title – that system tended to produce too many easy ties for big clubs in the early stages and there were not enough participants to make real money – yet between that pared-down concept and the bloated tedium we have now there ought to be a happy medium. If the league element has to stay, then perhaps seeding could be dispensed with.
If seeding must remain, then invite a few more teams and move to a knockout format. That’s what any normal football competition would do, because a normal competition would recognise when staleness had set in and make a few tweaks to restore unpredictability and excitement. Yet that is to consider the situation from the point of view of the fan and not the club accountant. Uefa – unofficial motto: never mind the football look at the money coming in – favours the latter, so don’t hold your breath.
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