A MOUTHFUL BY ANY OTHER NAME MIGHT NOT SOUND AS STUPID
Let me be clear: I hate calling it “the Champions League”. There are 16 teams left in the competition, and only 5 of them (less than a 1/3) are in fact league champions. I started out watching it when it was still called the European Cup, the previous incarnation of this competition, which was in fact (more than a bit ironically) a CHAMPIONS’ league.
Today, England, Italy, and Spain have produced fully 10 of the remaining 16 teams, and 7 of them are NOT league champions. In fact, 2 of those 10 teams haven’t won their own leagues in at least 18 years. Villareal have only ever won their league once...and that was the Tercera (3rd) Division in 1970 – there isn’t a single player on the books who was even alive at the time…and yes, I’m sorry to have to admit it…my beloved Liverpool hasn’t won an English title since 1990.
So why in the world do they insist on calling it the UEFA Champions League? It makes no sense at all. And if you’ve read this blog before you know that rule #1 in football is this: if it makes no sense on face value, follow the money and you’ll have your answer to what it's all about – no matter how stupid it turns out to be.
In this case, the objective is to explicitly conceal what is so obvious that we have become accustomed to ignoring it. This is, in fact, a “super” league, structured like the domestic sports leagues in North America with divisions, a regular season, and the winner chosen by playoffs – and we’re now in playoffs that will last until May.
So why the subterfuge? Why pretend it’s a Champions League? You have to go back a few years...
20 years ago, UEFA had a double edged sword on their hands: they had a cash-cow competition with the prestige of producing the Champions of Europe, but they only raked in the moolah if (and only if) big clubs, with a lot of independent prestige, and big television fan bases, survived to reach the latter stages of the competition. The little clubs of Europe had to concede their rightful place in the European Cup because one too many of them were crashing the party right when UEFA was opening the champagne. For UEFA it was a financial nightmare.
To remain a legitimate sporting event, they had to find a way to include all members of UEFA. But to keep it a money growing tree for the foreseeable future, they had to figure out a way to give the biggest clubs in Europe the best chance to make it through to the final rounds of the competition.
Enter the UEFA Champions League.
Case in point: the first 5 European Cups were contested by Real Madrid, and with names like Di Stefano, Pusksas and Bento on the roster, they had enough star power to make the competition a huge success. In those days, European football on television was a rarity, and so most of the money came from the stadium attendances. And because if you were Scottish, the only way you’d likely ever see Real Madrid play was if they came to Hampden Park where you and 150,000 other bravehearts could plunk down a week's salary for tickets to view the match. Fortunately in 1960, the bet paid off, and Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in one of the best European finals in history.
Through the 60’s and 70’s names like Beckenbauer and Cruyff lent their gravitas to the great trophy (3 times each), and through the late 70’s and early 80’s a team that continues to benefit disproportionately from their ancient success, Liverpool, became a household name around the world as something more than just the birthplace of the Beatles. (Speaking of whom, word is only McCartney is a Toffee (scum), while Ringo’s a Red – not a supporter, he just likes the color red – and George and John were disinterested. Harrison once famously said, in the midst of Beatle mania, that there were 3 teams in Liverpool and he liked the other one - brilliant.)
But along came the late 80’s and a couple of communists threw a monkey wrench into this money-making machine that threatened to stop its wheels turning forever: in 1986 Steau Bucharest of Romania took on and beat Barcelona, in Spain no less. And not to be outdone by their fellow eastern Europeans, Red Star Belgrade beat Olympique Marseille in the 1991 final. As if two clubs whose supporters were precluded from purchasing western products wasn’t bad enough, both matches were decided in half-empty stadiums on penalties. The latter was the last year that the competition was strictly a knockout affair. That’s when UEFA said enough is enough and changed the name and structure of the competition to include multiple teams from the same targeted (and by targeted I mean money making) leagues.
But that wasn’t enough for UEFA – because when you make money from something, the only thing you want is more of it. Accordingly, as the years went by, and too often rich clubs with rich fan-bases were matched against European minnows in the late stages, and the mouthwatering match-ups, like the ones we have this year, were too few and far between, the geniuses in Switzerland came up with another wrinkle. The resultant league coefficients and qualifying stages ensured that only a trickle of small fish in the big European pond, made it through to the group stages - they could just forget about the knockout stages altogether.
So what we have today is this: Inter Milan and Man U (can go jump in a lake) are 2 of 5 actual league champions who’ve made it through to the knockout stages, and their reward is playing each other. Meanwhile Lyon, six-times champions of France (on the trot, I might atdd) get to host probably the best team in the world, at the moment, in FC Barcelona. And while Bayern Munich and Sporting Lisbon may both be breathing a sigh of relief at their draws, it’s more than mildly ironic that they’ll be delighted to have drawn one of the remaining league champions, and not one of the non-champion colossuses of Juventus, Real, Chelski, Liverpool, Barcelona or Arsenal. Even Roma, the red-shirted step child of the Serie A titans, would have been preferable to these other behemoths, so I have a sneaking suspicion that this year, we could very well see yet another first, second...even THIRD runner-up winning the so-called Champions League.
For my money, if UEFA are so concerned with tradition and history that they’ll do away with the confetti ridden, fireworks accompanied on-field celebration, and force the losers to form a line of honor in their moment of greatest despair, they’d be better off doing away with the ridiculous concept that this is a champions’ league. Call it what it really is, The European Super League, and leave out all the clowns you don’t want in the competition anyway – what are they going to do, quit UEFA?
Or they could make it an actual European cup, and go back to a single elimination cup competition, and call it the European Cup. In the this case the games will be INFINITELY more interesting because more will be at stake, and in the former case, people from all over the world, that have vicarious skin in the game (like me, for example) will want to watch their teams play against the true cream of the European crop, instead of CFR Cluj-es of the world (and not for nothin' Cluj are also from Romania, from whence all this non-sense started in the first place).
Either way, let’s just stop with the pretense and give it a name that doesn’t sound as stupid as the Union of European Football Associations Champions League, because it’s a deceptive mouthful that by any other name would not sound as stupid.