Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have reached the last four of the Champions League in each of the past five seasons. Barcelona has gotten to that stage three times in that time and Chelsea and Atletico Madrid twice. In the last five years, only eight different sides have reached the semifinal. Three of them are Spanish, two German, two English and one Italian. If it has come to feel that the early rounds of the Champions League lack appeal, that is why.
Of course there are intriguing new themes. How will Leicester City fare in its first Champions League campaign? Can Pep Guardiola energize Manchester City into being the power it surely ought to be in Europe (and overcome its fans seeming diffident about the competition)?
And then there are reworkings of old themes. Can Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain transform domestic dominance into European success? Can Real Madrid become the first side successfully to defend the Champions League title? Can Borussia Dortmund’s idiosyncratic style thrive outside the Bundesliga?
But these are essentially minor variations on well-worn tropes. Familiarity has bred contempt. For the next seven months, there’ll be some vague sparring. Perhaps a giant will fall. Arsenal will almost certainly face some sort of crisis. Leicester’s presence as a top seed may shake up some of the familiar patterns. But the reality is the competition won’t really get going until the quarterfinals in March.
UEFA has pulled off a remarkable feat over the past decade, ruining its two flagship tournaments in completely opposing ways. The European Championship has been rendered tedious by the dilution of quality an expansion from 16 to 24 teams entailed, something some have sought to justify by empty calls to some vague doctrine of inclusivity.
The success of Wales and Iceland was held up as evidence the bloated new format of Euro 2016 had worked when the fact is that both would have qualified in a 16-team system. Take the best 16 sides in qualifying and compare them to the sides that reached the last 16 of the tournament and 14 were the same; we spent two weeks and 36 games swapping Ireland and Hungary for Austria and the Czech Republic.
The Champions League also drags and also feels as though it is overlong. The problem in the club competition, though, is not dilution of quality so much as over-concentration of quality at the top end. A Ludogorets Razgrad or an APOEL simply cannot compete with Bayern or Madrid. It’s been seven years since a team from outside the big four leagues of Spain, Germany, England and Italy so much as reached the semifinal.
When European football began, it had the feel of a quest. That’s why the likes of Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Brian Clough developed an obsession with the European Cup. It was difficult. It was hard to get into and once you were there, winning it involved difficult and occasionally dangerous trips to lands that felt very foreign, taking on talented sides that might play in ways with which you were not familiar.
Globalization has destroyed that–and probably raised the level at the very top end. It would be absurd now to go back to a structure of one club per country. Nor is anybody suggesting a return to the sort of intimidation and chicanery that was so prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. But at the same time, much of the romance has been lost. European football was supposed to be exotic, not the same old battles between the same old giants.
Eight semifinalists over a five-year period is the least diverse the competition has ever been. Between 1982-83 and 1986-87 there were 18 semifinalists.
But the problem is not simply that of the Champions League: it’s the problem of all top-level club football in Europe outside the Premier League. It will be a major shock if Bayern Munich fails to win the Bundesliga. It will be a major shock if Juventus fails to win Serie A. It will be a major shock if Paris Saint-Germain fails to win Ligue 1. They are so much richer than their closest rivals that it would take grotesque mismanagement to come second. In Spain, barring another Atletico miracle, Real Madrid or Barcelona will win the league. Those top sides need Europe for affirmation–and revenue.
Only the Premier League is genuinely competitive, and, while its level has dipped in European terms, domestic revenues have increased nonetheless. Real Madrid took £81 million for winning the Champions League last season; 10 clubs took more than that in Premier League prize money. This season it’s estimated that even the bottom club will win £97 million. In direct financial terms, football has reached a point where it would make sense for Premier League clubs to prioritize domestic competition.
Of course there are indirect benefits to success in the Champions League and still a sense that that’s where the real glory is to be found. But at the same time, Europe’s super clubs are becoming increasingly envious of the Premier League’s wealth, which in part lies behind the proposed changes to the structure of the Champions League from 2018-19 onwards.
At the moment that amounts to no more than guaranteeing that the big four leagues will each have four slots in the group stage–a relatively minor adjustment that would continue the process of enriching the rich and stabilizing the status quo.
That will not rekindle the romance of the Champions League. On the contrary, it will reduce even further the opportunities for sides from beyond Spain, Germany, England and Italy. There’s no obvious solution: this is the natural outcome of the economic policies football adopted when the Champions League was established in 1992. The paradox is that the more successful it has become, the more parochial it has become, and that, ultimately, may be its undoing.