Predictability breeds apathy

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Our man in Bulgaria is struggling to stay motivated while watching the UEFA Champions League in his local. Henry Bridge looks at the problems with the current structure of the competition and offers an alternative to increase entertainment value.

Jonathan Wilson wrote a very good article during the week, about the predictable nature of the Premier League, comparing it with other major leagues around the world. One competition though was mysteriously unmentioned in his article, as there is a league out there that is even more overhyped, predictable and less competitive than the EPL. I refer, of course, to the UEFA Champions League.

This was brought home to me vividly on Tuesday night, as I watched Manchester United turn in an utter non-performance: a game devoid of creativity, chances, flair and excitement, against the Romanian side Otelul Galati. The thing is, as a United fan, and as my colleague Colin, a Newcastle fan, kept pointing out, United were rubbish for most of the game. But it was hard to care that much: neither of us really had any doubt that United would win, and we were right: a routine 2-0 victory marred only by a red card for Nemanja Vidic that looked harsh, but such is the mundane nature of the Champions League group stage these days, even Alex Ferguson couldn’t be bothered kicking up a fuss about it.

Even in the unlikely event that United had been held to a draw, they would still have been odds-on to progress to the knock-out stage. Granted, the latter stages of the competition occasionally throw up some great matches and memorable clashes, but the group stage isn’t even a procession for the top teams any more, it’s a stroll. Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t require much foresight to accurately predict at least 14 of the 16 teams to progress to the group stage. In the process, it devalues any interesting games that might be thrown up by the draw at this stage of the competition. For example, AC Milan vs Barcelona should be, and at one time would have been, one of the highlights of the season. But when it is being played to determine in what order they will finish ahead of Plzen and Borisov, it is hard for anyone to care that much, least of all the two clubs themselves.

When the last 16, year on year, invariably includes Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Lyon, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Valencia, Porto… at least 6 of whom will progress to the quarter-finals, and 3 to the semis (there’s always a dark horse in there, usually German for some reason. Even the unpredictable is predictable) how can the Champions League maintain its reputation as one of the premier sporting competitions in the world? Given the ingrained, embedded financial imbalances involved, the Champions League is neither sporting nor competitive. And for the most part, it is certainly not premier. The group stages nowadays are such a waste of fans’ time and money, that in my bar in Bulgaria I might as well be watching Stoke vs. Fulham, for all the relevance and interest it has to anything.

So what can be done? Should we simply go back to the old European Cup format of straight knock-out rounds from the start? While that has a certain appeal, it is not necessarily going to make the competition more exciting, or reduce the number of mundane 2-0 wins against much lowlier opposition for Europe’s big guns.

Nor is it arguably in the best interests of fans or the competition either (regardless of the fact the clubs would never go for it). I mean, would it really be better to have Real Madrid and Barcelona meet in a first-round game in September, rather than a semi-final in May? While it might lower the tension and general nastiness around such a clash, it would not make it any more appealing to the average fan. The opposite, if anything. It might, in the long term, erode the financial advantage enjoyed by the bigger clubs, by reducing their guaranteed share of TV spoils. Equally, it might handicap those from smaller leagues, such as Ajax and Porto, as clubs are forced to rely more on guaranteed domestic TV revenues.

It has been suggested that seeding be abolished for the group stage draw, in order to make more interesting groups. Again, though, this would hardly be fair as long as clubs are expected to compete week in, week out, both domestically and in Europe. Imagine a situation where Manchester City are drawn with Barcelona, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, whilst Manchester United are drawn with, well, Beinfica, Basel and some Romanian village team no-one has ever heard of. United fans would doubtless welcome the prospect of their second string cruising through the Champions League group whilst the big guns are rested for key domestic encounters, and City are so rich anyway they would doubtless receive little sympathy. But that hardly makes the situation fair, and while it could improve the Champions League, it may well be at the expense of domestic leagues. Do we really want that?

A better solution, in my view, would be to restrict to two the number of clubs from each country that can qualify. The main reason why the EPL and the Champions League have become dreary and predictable is because of the massive financial disparities in football nowadays. You’ll never make Bolton Wanderers able to compete financially with Manchester United, but reducing the number of places for each country, would at least reduce the financial gap between Ajax and Manchester United. Furthermore, by making it harder for clubs from the big leagues to qualify, and thus relatively easier for clubs from smaller leagues, it will help the likes of Ajax to attract and hold on to players who currently are happier filling the roster at Real Madrid or Barcelona. It probably wouldn’t cut the top teams down to size, but it would, in time, ensure that they will meet more testing opponents earlier in the competition. Equally, as the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea start appearing regularly in the Europa League, the quality and prestige of that competition, too, might gradually come to reach the level of that enjoyed by the old UEFA Cup.

Sport reflects society, and in today’s globalised, polarised world there is little that can be done about the financial monoliths that dominate football. The days when Nottingham Forest and Aberdeen could win European trophies are gone, never to return. But sport still has an obligation to be interesting and a little unpredictable at least, otherwise there is no point to it. And at the moment, the Champions League is pointless.

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