This evening the fourth best team in England will entertain the best team in Belgium in what will be a two-legged tie. The winner of this tie will proceed through to the all important group stages of the prestigious UEFA Champions League. A competition steeped in history, mystique and honour.
I won’t lie, I enjoy the Champions League. It’s made its home in my living room for the last twenty three years or so. There’s little I enjoy more as a football fan than parking myself on the settee for the evening with a coffee and a pizza, just in time for the familiar sound of the Champions League anthem to soothe me and welcome me to an evening of football between two of Europe’s footballing giants. It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m watching Barcelona, Manchester United, Paris SG or whoever.
Manchester United, being the 4th best side in Europe will have a brief scare this evening no doubt. They’ll go into the half time interval with the score set at 0-0, the Old Trafford crowd will grow restless, they might even boo their team off the pitch at half time. The commentators will note that Wayne Rooney ‘isn’t firing on all cylinders’ and Louis Van Gaal will deliver what we used to call “a half time bollocking” At full time United’s class will show as they come off the field 3-0 victors after a Wayne Rooney double and an opportunist goal from Javier Hernandez who is somehow still playing his football at the club despite being their 7th most favoured striker.
Next week in Belgium they will come away with a scrappy but well fought 1-1 draw that will ensure their progression to the group stages where normal viewing activity will be resumed ad nausea every Tuesday and Wednesday until mid-December.
At the start of July whilst Manchester United players were still sunning on themselves on the beaches and poolsides of Costa Del Sol, letting their agents negotiate their newest contract and its associated pay rise and drinking until 6am on the streets of Magaluf, the champions of Wales The New Saints were warming up on the pitch at B36 Torshavn, the champions of the Faroe Islands before starting their Champions League campaigns.
I managed somehow on the evening to watch an online stream of the match through some potentially illegal stream that looked like it was being broadcast from someone’s Nokia 3310 camera phone in the stands. Sky Sports funnily enough weren’t showing the match, despite being the official broadcaster of the tournament. BT Sports also, despite their recent advertising campaign claiming that they ‘show more of the Champions League than their competitors’ decided instead to show an interesting documentary on British tennis nearly man Tim Henman. I’m sure it was a riveting documentary, I wish I set my Sky box to record it now thinking of it.
For there were no big Champions League Anthem introductions that evening, neither did Andy Townsend or Clark Gabriel do any pre-match analysis. Coronation Street wasn’t moved back later in the TV scheduling and the ITV News didn’t end early to show coverage of the game.
As it turned out, TNS won the tie over two legs and progressed to the second qualifying round of the competition where they were eventually knocked out by the one cruel goal by Hungarian champions Videoton in extra time.
It’s important to point out really, because if you’re not a completely old bastard like me you may not remember the old European Cup competition. You simply may not be old enough to remember such a time in football. It’s very easy for British kids of my age to not have experienced the proper European Cup in it’s old form. English clubs were excluded from the competition for a period following the Heysel disaster in 1985 so it’s completely feasible that people under about 35 years old have no memory or recollection of the tournament.
The European Cup was a straight knock out tournament that brought together the champions of every single domestic league falling under the remit of UEFA’s catchment area. The only way to enter the tournament was to win your domestic league. There was of course one way to enter the tournament without winning your domestic league and that was to win the tournament the previous year.
I may be viewing the tournament with rose tinted glasses but I’m certain that the tournament wasn’t seeded either. Big teams weren’t protected from each other so Real Madrid and Manchester United could meet each other in August in the first round whilst The New Saints might have met B36 in the first round and had the honour of going further in the tournament than one of football’s true giant teams.
Now what do the following teams have in common?
Manchester United 1999, AC Milan 2003, Liverpool 2005, Barcelona 2009, Chelsea 2012, Baynern Munch 2013, Real Madrid 2014 and Barcelona 2015.
These teams are all sides who went on to win the Champions League despite not winning their domestic league the season before. Under the old European Cup system, none of these teams would have even been able to enter the tournament and instead would be fighting their way around what used to be the UEFA Cup (and don’t even get me started there)
So what am I trying to get at you might ask? Am I advocating a return back to the old European Cup? Of course I’m not. The Champions League is a well established money machine that isn’t going to stop any time soon.
But don’t you believe there is something inherently unfair about the following images?
Obviously there’s a gulf in class between the English Premier League and the Welsh Premier League, don’t think I don’t know that but isn’t there something wrong with the Champions League as a competition as a whole if the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams in the competition get a three round ‘head start’ on genuine bona fide champions from other ‘poorer’ domestic leagues?
Would Chelsea still have won the tournament in 2012 had they needed to overcome potentially difficult qualifying ties in the Faroe Islands, Hungary, Russia and France before even getting to the group stage of the contest? Probably not, but just because a team comes from a big league it doesn’t give them the automatic right to qualify – look at West Ham this season for example.
The clue is surely in the title? UEFA Champions League!
Can you remember the controversy surrounding Liverpool’s dramatic 2005 Champions League over AC Milan? I remember that night like it was yesterday in such vivid fashion. I don’t support Liverpool, I don’t even particularly like Liverpool as a club but as I watched the match that night I found myself watching the start of the match barely caring who won, just hoping for an entertaining game of football. 90 minutes later I was on the floor screaming in joy when Liverpool took the game into extra time after being 3-0 down at one point early on in the game.
That night shouldn’t have happened and to make matters even more laughable Liverpool finished fifth that season and required special dispensation from UEFA to even enter the tournament to defend their title the next season. The New Saints get a tenuous link into the story again as Liverpool beat them 6-0 on aggregate in the first qualifying round to progress past the first stage.
As it turns out, AC Milan finished second in Serie A that season which meant the prestigious ‘Champions’ League of 2004/05 was actually played out between the fifth best team in England and the second best team in Italy!
So what am I saying? Am I accusing the The Champions League at it’s core of being a dirty capitalist competition that is rotten to the core? I’m probably not going that far, but I am accusing it of being a competition that exists only to make the rich richer and the big bigger whilst the minnows of the European footballing world like The New Saints, B36 Torshavn and Videoton are left to feed on the scraps of food that fall out of the already full mouths of the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest.
The only thing that trickles down in this society is the odd crumb of bread and water from the greedy mouths of fat obese clubs.
I’ve lost the article I wanted to refer to unfortunately and no amount of furious googling has found it but I remember reading an article from UEFA about two months ago which outlined the way prize money is given out in the Champions League and I think I recall reading that a club like The New Saints stood to make £200,000 or thereabouts from their sojourn in the tournament this year.
Now £200,000 is a tidy sum, don’t get me wrong. For a club in the Welsh Premier League that amount can surely be enough to tide a professional outfit like The New Saints over for a year or more and for the Semi-Professional clubs in the league it could probably tide the club over for multiple years. But is it fair that the already rich Manchester United stand to gain £20,000,000 if they manage to avoid defeat against Brugge this evening? Especially when you consider that they were just put in that situation without having to win through three qualifying rounds previously?
So what do I want? Am I calling for a return to the old European Cup? Am I asking UEFA to completely revolutionize the tournament to make it fairer for smaller clubs? On the latter point then yes I probably am.
There are sponsors involved in the Champions League. The reality is that Ford, Sky Sports and Continental Tyres have more say over the running of the Champions League than UEFA themselves have and although I haven’t heard back from Continental Tyres yet, I’m certain they wouldn’t be watering their mouths about viewing figures for a Shamrock Rovers vs. The New Saints group stage match being shown on Sky Sports 1 but surely this shouldn’t be the point. Football is a working class sport that should be played by the masses for the masses.
I don’t understand why after so long and obviously wanting to for so long, the tournament isn’t just renamed the ‘UEFA European Super League’ or similar. I suppose that at it’s core is my biggest problem with the tournament as a whole. If this were the case then you wouldn’t hear another word from me on the subject and I’d happily let everything else slide.
I don’t really object to the tournament itself and I don’t really object to the fact that most of my country folk will happily sit in their collective sofas watching the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City whilst ignoring the football that is played on their doorstep (that’s surely a subject for another blog entry) but I really do have a problem with a tournament that is so biased in the favour of big teams that sides who finish 4th in their domestic league are given a head start on clubs that actually won their domestic league – i.e finished as ‘Champions’.
I’m of the belief that a true ‘Champions’ League can only exist when everyone is given a fair crack at the whip. Is it fair that the champions of Wales, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Belgium have to run through rings of fire just to get a glimmer of hope of group stage football whilst the likes of Arsenal finish third in the English Premier League for the 87th year running and enter the group stage without any questions?
Let us not forget that we’re not just talking about minnow countries here. Belgium and Wales, as recent FIFA rankings have shown, are both considered to be among the Top 10 footballing countries in the world.
Manchester United will win tonight 3-0. They’ll draw next week’s match 1-1, which will be a tidy away result considering the changes they made to the squad to keep them fresh for the following weekend’s important Premier League match. They’ll scrape through their group with a win in the final game. They’ll win their second round tie and eventually go out at the quarter final stage against Bayern Munch before doing exactly the same thing next season and every single season for the next ten years.
Are you excited yet?