The Champions League is a bit like an exclusive nightclub. Those who are smug regulars at the star-studded midweek outings (weekends are strictly for the hoi polloi) are eager that the ‘bridge and tunnel’ crowd are kept out. Those on the outside hate the snobbery but would love to be let in - but only if the bouncers of the door continue to be strict and exclusive about who they let in. To be divisive is the point of the place.
It’s fair to say however, that a backlash against the Champions League’s unashamedly decadent business model has started. Western society, largely at peace and free of crime, is worried about rising inequality, so the idea of the rich getting richer on the back of the little guys is naturally unpleasant. Judging by a raft of opinion pieces and the discourse on social media, the dislike of the European footballing elite has brought about a distinct Champions League fatigue. It’s become de rigeur for the discerning commentator and fan to declare the group stage boring, devoid of real spectacle and a waste of time.
Putting aside, for a moment, the obviously very different way supporters of, say Leicester City, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Napoli or Legia Warsaw will feel about that, there is a bigger problem here. The question of exclusivity, fairness and sporting excellence is rather more complicated than many of the critics appreciate.
Take the latest, most fashionable complaint about big, one-sided matches such as Dortmund’s 6-0 destruction of Legia Warsaw or Barcelona’s 7-0 win over Celtic. The imbalance that these scorelines expose is not actually a consequence of the Champions League being too elitist. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. Warsaw and Celtic wouldn’t have been in this year’s competition if it hadn’t been for Michel Platini’s reforms in 2007, a change of access criteria that enabled five champions from smaller countries to qualify for the group stages at the expense of higher-ranked teams from higher ranked nations.
It was apparent at the time that the tweaked format would dilute the overall quality of the group stage. But to counter that, widening the circle of teams and offering smaller clubs a realistic chance of getting into the CL was sold as a nod to tradition and suited UEFA’s attempts - politically motivated and otherwise - to re-distribute money to smaller countries. The existing format strikes an uneasy balance between more inclusivity - with a more varied but qualitatively poorer access list - and the resulting decrease in group stage competitiveness. Cue moans about the first round of games before Christmas being a formality for the big boys etc etc.
The new format, destined to come into effect in 2018, redresses the balance in favour of more competitiveness, by way of guaranteeing half of the 32 starting places to four teams from each of the four top-ranked countries: currently Spain, Germany, England and Italy.
All of this will of course be at the expense of smaller nations. Throw in the best sides from France, the Netherlands and Portugal, and what you’ll get should be less straightforward progress for the elite. It will certainly make for a more exciting group stage, with far fewer 6-0 drubbings, but the chorus of the disgruntled outsiders and neutrals with a penchant for the underdog will only grow louder.
New UEFA president, Aleksander Ceferin, has already vowed to “look again” at the land-grab by the big clubs. But whether the Slovenian lawyer will be able to do something about it is another matter.
What would make for a more equitable format without undermining the central, phenomenally successful idea of the Champions League - that Europe’s best clubs should contest it? There are no easy solutions.
Firstly, UEFA cannot be blamed for the pre-existing inequality between different leagues, owing to size and various other factors. Inequality within the leagues might be exacerbated by the Champions League money but it isn’t solely down to Nyon. Some clubs simply have richer benefactors, better domestic TV deals, more marketing income, more supporters and bigger stadiums. Perhaps a more generous redistribution of prize money to non-participating clubs, as solidarity payments, would help in that regard, but the threat of a break-away competition limits UEFA’s scope for benevolence.
The effect of globalisation on football, a widening of the chasm between the haves and have-nots, can at best be buffered by an international body; but it cannot be stopped or reversed. What’s more, we – the people who watch football – are unwittingly complicit in this process. There really is only one winner when faced with the choice of watching the world’s best teams in action or a more competitive fare of lesser quality teams in a tournament like the Europa League.
Like the guy standing on the wrong side of the velvet rope, looking at the beautiful people in the club, we are all drawn to exclusivity. Even if we resent it.