It's time to fix the Champions League or start a European mega-league
There's a strange kind of conceptual bloat that tends to infect international soccer competitions, which is fascinating because it so often works against the nature of the competitions themselves.
You start with a simple idea -- say, let's figure out the best club team in Europe. Only then you try to draw up the tournament, and there's a lot of arguing; before you know it, you're trying to remember whether the sixth-rated confederation per UEFA coefficient receives one or two automatic byes to the subgroup qualifying pre-phase, or whether the losing team with the highest goal differential parachutes directly into the Europa League's third knockout round-robin or has to play Borussia Monchengladbach first and it all seems a little too abstract. And somehow, just while you were trying to Google this, you've accidentally watched three Heineken commercials and you wonder whether it wouldn't be a good idea to turn off the soccer and do something comparatively easy, like learn advanced number theory.
I'm thinking about number theory, and also Heineken, because the Champions League roars expensively back to life this week, with Matchday 2 of the group stage. The Champions League is not, obviously, the worst exemplar of the kind of bloat I'm talking about. Format-wise, it's positively straightforward compared to the Europa League, a tournament of such ghastly intricacy that future generations will use it to predict the end of the world. ("When Feyenoord enters the sixth house...")
But the Champions League, in its own, peculiarly vexed relationship to the fun it is nominally offering its audience, makes for a revealing case study in the way money, politics and media -- and the competing interests surrounding each -- can warp the essentials of the modern soccer competition.
The form of the tournament itself means we're forever watching matches whose stakes aren't as high as they could be. The group stage, as it plods on, guarantees that the smaller clubs get a lot of TV time but the bigger clubs always have the best chance to advance. The two-legged knockout rounds work to preserve stability, and its accompanying ad revenue, over surprise. There's nothing wrong with this, exactly. But it does sometimes make the Champions League look like a kind of drab hybrid, poised between the true free-for-all of a single-elimination knockout tournament and the shameless maximalism of a corporate super league.
Is the Champions League fun? Obviously, in one sense, it must be. It's the one venue where big European clubs from different countries play one another for stakes anyone cares about, and that inevitably comes with a lot of excitement, a lot of atmospheric drama (something the tournament duly exploits via its faux-operatic anthem, which sounds like a song a feather boa wrote about itself), and a lot of intriguing games.
And sometimes these games are amazing. Liverpool vs. PSG, during matchday one, was a happy riot from start to finish, even if it symbolically seemed to pit two of the most corrupting influences in contemporary soccer ("the inertial power of established clubs" on the one hand versus "new money" on the other) against each other.
There's something weird, though, about the way the Champions League seems to regard its own capacity for delightfulness -- the way it seems to see fun as a resource to be carefully amortized for the audience over a long period of time, as if it were managing a trust fund for an impetuous teenager. "No, Eric," the Champions League always seems to be saying, "you can't have a jet-ski until you get into Dartmouth." The thrill of Liverpool vs. PSG was always moderated by your awareness of the context of the group stage, where matches are important but not too important, and by your corresponding sense of the long, slow road ahead, where any number of shortcomings and reversals could be met and overcome on the way to the final.
Think about this for a second. What's the most exciting kind of game in sports? A final, right? And after that, a single-elimination knockout match, like the ones in the later rounds of the World Cup. That's where the stakes are highest: The winner advances, the loser goes home.
I don't know about you, but as a sports fan, I am way more into excitement than patience or careful math. But in the Champions League, as in most big soccer tournaments, the function of the format's complexities is almost always to diminish, rather than intensify, the tension of the individual match because the format is almost always working to lower the stakes. Instead of being sent home, the loser of a group-stage match is only somewhat disadvantaged in a multiphase round-robin mini-tournament that nearly always includes some relative minnows against whom the big clubs can sort out their problems. And even later, in the knockout rounds, the format gives teams two games rather than one to determine which side advances.
If the single-elimination format makes for the most exciting sports tournament, why doesn't the Champions League simply switch to life-or-death knockout games? That may seem like a naive question, but really, you'd think an athletic competition that needs a hundred sopranos to announce its advent would try to be as thrilling as possible.
But here's where things get interesting, because, of course, the Champions League has many reasons not to want to be thrilling, and nearly all them speak to the importance to the tournament of considerations other than fun. Week to week, in other words, the Champions League has strong incentives not to care very much whether you enjoy it.
The first of those incentives is also the most defensible: fairness. Actually, maybe a better word would be "accuracy." One of the reasons a single-elimination tournament is so deliriously entertaining is that it maximizes the chances for upsets -- think of the early rounds of the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments.
Generally speaking, the longer two teams spend playing each other and the more times they play, the greater the odds that the more skilled team will win. Upsets are fun for fans, but if you're constructing a tournament with the goal of actually identifying the best team, they're a design flaw. Let the teams play more games, and even if each game feels less urgent, as it inevitably will, you will increase the chances that Real Madrid end up as champions a hundred consecutive times and drive everyone crazy -- and that you will therefore, somehow, because the world is mysterious, have achieved the scientifically correct result.
Of course, there are other reasons why the Champions League might want to minimize the possibility of upsets. Keeping the fan bases of big clubs interested for as long as possible doesn't hurt TV ratings. High TV ratings don't hurt MasterCard commercials.
Perhaps most significantly, the Champions League is a desperate ongoing compromise between the most popular and powerful European associations (your Spains and Englands) and the smaller ones. The biggest clubs are forever threatening to trigger UEFA's doomsday scenario by forming a breakaway European Super League, a threat that helped trigger the most recent round of format changes. Beginning this year, all four of the top clubs from all four of the top associations have guaranteed spots in the group stage, whereas previously, only some of them had guaranteed spots, and the others had to qualify via a system of what I visualize as scholastic debates in Latin.
The smaller clubs are forever threatening UEFA, too -- I don't know to do what, exactly, but they complain a lot in the press.
This four-dimensional diplomatic compromise that UEFA has cobbled together to keep all of its constituencies happy has meant tilting the competition massively in favor of the clubs that already have the most advantages while still giving the smaller clubs lots of games to play. Everybody gets something. The corporate behemoths get to take turns lifting the trophy, while the also-rans get to lose extensively, and profitably, on TV.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with this arrangement; it's hard to see how else you could satisfy all the clubs once you accept that satisfying all the clubs is something you need to do. But it does sit a little oddly under the glossy skin of epic warfare that has been the Champions League's brand. UEFA is deploying a lot of trumpets for what's essentially a gradualist exercise in predictability and continuity. The opening credits may be lasers and glitzy chaos, but the tournament itself values stability over everything else; it turns even most of its legitimately thrilling matches into cautious data points. It's a gladiatorial contest devised by an accounting consultancy.
I sometimes think the problem with 21st-century soccer isn't that money has transformed everything but that money has transformed things only halfway. You could say, I guess, that there are two kinds of fun in soccer. There's the old kind, where the game is rooted in the community, the clubs are authentic expressions of supporter culture and something is meant to be at stake other than advertising revenue, and then there's the new kind, where everything is mediated and packaged for TV and what's enjoyable is the shiny commercial spectacle.
The Champions League wants to be both things at once, which is why it pretends to care about small clubs while ultimately catering exclusively to rich ones. But the result is that little shiver of alienation you feel during the group stage, when you know you're being asked to invest your feelings in something that's been very exactly calibrated to be slightly less than honest.
If I ran soccer, the European club championship would be open to a thousand teams every year. Each round would be a one-game knockout, and every so often we would get to watch the beautiful and hilarious spectacle of a Belgian Third Division B team knocking off Manchester United, though admittedly it's no longer clear that this would qualify as an upset.
Short of that, though? I think the Champions League might be more fun if it more fully embraced its evil nature. We're here to buy shirts, watch Playstation commercials and see Chelsea play Juventus -- and unless you happen to be a Club Brugge fan, it's not clear where or how Club Brugge factors into any of those priorities.
For that matter, why not have a breakaway European Super League? Everyone would be furious about it, and then it would be spectacularly popular. Could we devise a whole season in which Manchester City only played Barcelona? Can you fit a trumpet inside another trumpet? Could Manchester City somehow play itself?
Tournament designers have to balance a lot of factors. But human nature is the loudest soprano of all.