UEFA Champions League changes reek of greed and incompetence
We knew that a move was coming. We knew that the biggest clubs in Europe were troubled by the growing wealth of England and would soon exploit the power vacuum at the heart of UEFA. We have known for some time that it is the Champions League, and the big European clubs' place at the centre of it, that troubles them. What we didn't know was that the proposal for change from those big European clubs would be so thunderingly moronic and short-sighted.
UEFA's leaders must have howled with laughter when they saw the suggestion, reportedly the most likely outcome, for a 32-team knockout round, presumably heavily seeded, to eradicate the riffraff and then for two eight-team divisions to determine the identity of the two finalists across 14 guaranteed fixtures. It's an idea so obviously flawed that you wonder how they had the nerve to submit it.
The problem, if you see it as a problem, is that the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona are upset at having to trouble themselves with games against the likes of BATE Borisov, fixtures that tend to generate little interest outside of the fan bases involved. They would prefer to play only glamorous teams and, blinded by avarice, they believe that this will make them more money.
The arrogance here is profound, if not in any way surprising. Greed outmuscled common sense in Europe years ago and you only have to glance across the continent's league tables to see the damage that the Champions League has already caused to what we shall, for want of a better phrase, call "social mobility." When the same small group of clubs make considerably more money than everyone else every single year, obviously they tend to lock themselves into position on the podium.
UEFA, by all accounts, are prepared to discuss changes to the Champions League because they know that the existing structure is losing audiences. They are very aware that no one in their right mind would watch a relatively meaningless group game between Real Madrid and BATE Borisov unless they'd sat on their TV controller and jammed the channel button in place.
But this bloated group stage is not the solution. Eight teams playing 14 games for one qualification place is the worst idea in football since Newcastle United decided that if anyone needed a second chance at the St James' Park, it was Joe Kinnear.
Let's start by considering the supporters, because no one else ever does. You might find a way to pay for seven trips abroad to follow your team in a knockout competition because knockout competitions provide a steady and tantalising build-up of tension and excitement. There are surely few supporters who will be able to afford seven trips abroad when there's a fair chance that most of them will be meaningless. The best atmosphere is generated by two large sets of fans, both with everything on the line. That's going to be a very rare scenario in this boneheaded new age.
Fans aren't going to feel they have everything on the line because in most cases, there will be nothing whatsoever on the line. Lose your first two games and that's probably the end of your campaign. You've got 12 more weeks of this. By week four or five, you'll know who will be competing and who will be going through the motions. It will get worse with every passing week as another side concedes defeat and stares in horror at a long list of pointless fixtures.
Imagine if, for example, Barcelona run away with it, winning their first 10 games, opening up a considerable lead on, say, PSG in second place. What on earth is there to motivate anyone for the final four weeks? If qualification is determined by domestic performance, how long before most teams in the group stage are fielding reserve sides to concentrate on sealing qualification for next year's cash trough? We've already seen evidence of that with Liverpool's surrender at Real Madrid last season.
This isn't simply an argument against a new format that is designed to help the rich get richer. This is an argument against a new format that is stupid and doomed to failure. It seems that the proposed solution to stabilise viewing figures is to create a competition that no one in their right mind would want to watch. This is what happens when people who care more about money than sport tinker with football.
What we have is not perfect. What we have, and what we have had for some time, is an unwieldy compromise between a cabal of super-rich clubs who want all the money, and a ruling body that wants an exciting competition it can sell to advertisers. For the most part, the compromise works. The group stage is, on a sporting level, a little more interesting now that champions of prestigious national leagues are automatically top seeded. The emphasis on aiding national champions through the preliminary rounds hasn't quite broken up the old cartels, but it has helped to refresh the competition with some new names. And let's be fair, even the most ardent opponent to UEFA would struggle to find much wrong with the 16-team knockout stage.
But the temptation now, for supporters of clubs locked out of the elite (and possibly in some corners of UEFA too) must be to call the bluff of the big clubs. Go on then, there's your freedom, there's your independence. Make your own super league. See how you do.
Because it's funny, but none of the advocates for the super league ever consider that a self-contained breakaway, far from boosting their revenues, might actually ruin them. Because what happens if, for example, Manchester United finish last? Their few remaining stars won't like that. The stars they covet won't like that either. While their comrades-in-greed strengthen, they may finish last again. And again.
And how long will it be before their official confectionary partners of Myanmar and their official ready meal partners of Korea (these are real things) start to edge nervously away from the widening stench of failure? How often will Old Trafford echo to the sound of countless languages and accents? The old guard of supporters will stay, they've seen worse than this. But just how resilient are Ed Woodward's treasured revenue streams?
It is usually the smaller clubs that are warned to be careful what they wish for. Now it's the turn of the European elite to be told to tread carefully. This is a bad idea. And for once, it's worse for them than it will be for the rest of us.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.