Superclubs cannot isolate themselves from reality, but the proposed changes to the Champions League are another step in that direction
Juventus have signed Cristiano Ronaldo to take the next step – instead they have gone back. Photo: Fabio Ferrari
After Juventus was eliminated by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2018, he took decisive action. What they needed was a guarantee of goals that would convert their two defeats in the final for the past three years to gold. So they bought Cristiano Ronaldo for 100 million euros and paid him more than the next four highest paid players in the club combined, despite the fact that he was 33 years old and although his individualistic immobility made him anachronistic at the elite level.
Given the choice between structural reforms, who could have solved the recurring problems, and with the signing of big names, managers are of course almost always responsible for the latter. It’s glamorous, makes them feel important, and doesn’t require any real work or understanding of football. And it’s going to have a far bigger impact on social media’s eyeballs in the short term than overhauling the data analytics department or improving scouting or recruiting or any of the other important invisible aspects of infrastructure.
Since then, Juve has left the Champions League after Ajax (annual turnover 39 percent of Juve), Lyon (45 percent) and on Tuesday after Porto (22 percent).
At the same time, they got rid of the manager who had won five championship titles in a row and took her to those two Champions League finals and after flirting with a sullen ideologue for chewing cigarettes – perhaps the least likely person in World football to earn Ronaldo respect – are now being coached by an urban winemaker who used to be a midfielder. The result is that after nine years Juve’s Serie A title win seems to be coming to an end.
The genius that oversaw this collapse, Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, is of course the executive who, as chairman of the European Clubs Association (ECA), is driving the redesign of the Champions League (although there are many other club owners) behind him ). It may come as no surprise that he prefers a format that guarantees a flow of income for the already rich, no matter how poorly run they are.
In the next few weeks it should be confirmed that the Champions League will introduce the so-called « Swiss system » from 2024, with the group phase being replaced by a format in which 36 teams each play 10 games that are determined by the sowing become. The top 8 precede the last 16 and the teams between the 9th and 24th play for the other eight slots.
In other words, there will be 180 games to eliminate 12 teams, four additional games to be crammed into a calendar that was already so extensive that Liverpool, even before Covid, last season two Had to play games in two days. A team that wins its first four games is through and can then field weakened teams.
The potential for collusion, for mutually beneficial draws in the last few weeks, is obvious. This is not a format for promoting athletic integrity. It’s based on the same content-generating mindset that craves big names without an obvious idea of how football works or what makes it special.
There may still be a few issues to be resolved until last week to automatically get into the knockout round or the top 24, but even that is a best case scenario. Does the ECA really believe that the world will be packed by the 23rd to 26th best teams in Europe who fight against them? From Krasnodar and Club Brugge fighting for the right to be eliminated by Atlético Madrid in a play-off?
The group stage in its current form is clearly far from perfect. It’s boring and predictable, and includes too many dead games. However, this is not a question of format. It’s about resources and their distribution. In 2019, Barcelona received 50 percent more prize money than the other lost semi-finalists Ajax.
The superclubs are so rich that they dominate all of them, even if they are poorly managed – despite the crisis in Barcelona they still stand a good chance on a double in Germany.
To believe that the solution is to have more pointless games that will only widen the financial disparity of football is like thinking that the best way to fix a broken metatarsal bone is to go really hard at it stamp.
In this year’s group stage, Real Madrid were at least put under pressure by losing to Shakhtar and then drawing against Borussia Mönchengladbach. They were still at the top of the group but with four games there were doubts. With eight games there would be no sense of danger at all.
The Swiss system isolates the elite and above all generates content with which they can generate even more income and protect themselves even further from the consequences of terrible decisions. We are cheerlessly told that it works well in chess. That may be true, but then rich chess players cannot go out and buy a lot of queens from poorer chess players who the system has structurally disadvantaged.
Juve’s loss to Porto last week was an example of what high-level European football can be. There was quality and there was drama, brilliance and stupidity, joy and sadness. Because it mattered. Because there was a sense of danger. Because in the end, one team went through and one team went out. Compare that to Juve’s unsuccessful away win against Barcelona at the end of the group stage: it may have been a clash of superclubs, maybe even Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s last meeting on a soccer field, but three months later, hardly anyone can remember it.
These compromises are supposedly necessary to counter the threat posed by a super league. Maybe this grotesque chimera does that for a while. But for what purpose and at what price? It will create meaningless football that exacerbates the fundamental problem of inequality within the game. At some point, Uefa will have to act for football and say that this is a sport, not a content-producing revenue machine for the very rich.
Name your bluff. Let go of the super clubs. And with Agnelli on top, watch them fly.
A weekly update from our football correspondent Daniel McDonnell along with the best writing from our team of experts. Issued every Friday.
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