UCL: bloated misnomer or “bestest” competition ever..?

UCL: bloated misnomer or “bestest” competition ever..?

First off, ever since the rules were first changed in 1997 to allow second placed teams from the major leagues into the UCL, it has failed a very basic test:  that of being what it professes to be. The UCL is no longer a Champions’ League at all and does not deserve the name.

Someone should really bring a lawsuit against UEFA for flouting the Trade Descriptions Act or whatever the European equivalent law is.

Aston Villa skipper Denis Mortimer with the European Cup in ’82

That the UCL is a misnomer is only the most egregious element of the admixture of hyperbole and misrepresentation that has trailed Europe’s premier club competition since its inception. It has been built up as the ultimate football competition in the world.

Some will even swear that it has eclipsed the FIFA World Cup as the most important tournament in world football. So much hype for what is really just a deluxe knock-out cup competition.

Let me declare my bias upfront. I am a lifelong Liverpool fan who grew up as what can only be described as a “League Fundamentalist”. I understood at an early age that the league was the “bread and butter” and the true test of a team’s quality. Success in Cup competitions was desirable, of course, but required some degree of randomness and luck to happen.

As such, you could not set as much store by cup wins except when they accessorized and accompanied league success i.e. when a team did the domestic double or added a European trophy to a league title. The European Cup, as the UCL used to be known, was always something of an exception to this rule.

It was considered glamourous and the ultimate success. Everyone recalled how Man United eclipsed Man City’s 1968 league title by becoming the first English team to win the European Cup or how Bayern Munich were able to overshadow Borussia Moenchengladbach’s serial Bundesliga successes in the 70s with their three consecutive European Cup wins in the middle of the decade.

But the very exclusivity of the European Cup meant that it was an unattainable prize for most. And this exclusivity worked in a way that reinforced the primacy of the League championship as the most important prize, given that you needed to win the league to qualify for the European Cup at all.

Now that the Champions’ League is no longer for champions, there are now many ways into Europe’s premier cup competition. This has created perverse incentives and encouraged big teams to put the cart before the horse in quite a few instances.

A few of the myths/ideas that surround the UCL today:

The UCL is harder to win than the European Cup was.. I have always argued against this for the simple reason that it was far, far harder to qualify for the European Cup than it is to get into the UCL. A simple way of demonstrating this is to point out that only eight of the twenty winners of the UCL since 1997 would even have qualified to play in the European Cup at all.

More recently, none of the last six UCL winners would even have been playing in the European Cup under its original rules as none of them were league champions the season before. You’ve got to be in it to win it, as the kids say. Can’t get more difficult than that.

So, while you could plausibly argue that the UCL is a deeper competition than the old European Cup was, the fact that it was so difficult to qualify for the latter competition more than offsets that. In fact, the UCL is much more similar in character to the old UEFA Cup, the precursor of today’s Europa League, a competition for teams that placed between 2nd and 5th in their domestic leagues, depending on the country’s UEFA ranking.

To be fair, many of the football cognoscenti in those days DID argue that the UEFA Cup was more competitive than the European Cup because of its depth and the fact that it contained at least one additional round of competition. But no one ever claimed it was more glamorous or more important than a league title. It’s amazing what a bit of branding, a lot of hype and some halfway decent theme music can do.

The UCL is more exciting than the European Cup, or indeed any other club competition, with more heavyweight clashes between big names – On one level, this is quite true. There are more big matches in the UCL than there ever were in the European Cup. But, at this point, I am far more willing to question whether that is a good thing than ever.

The league format at the early stage is designed to ensure that the chances of an early shock are greatly reduced, to say nothing of its original purpose of spinning more and more money for all involved. It was quite easy for a big team to have an off-day and lose out in a two-legged knock out tie to a lesser team in the early rounds as used to happen in the European Cup than it is for them to fail in a four team mini-league format where one, even two, bad results can be recovered over the course of six games.

Seeding system like we have in Tennis was also added to shield those powerful clubs from early ouster.

The inevitable outcome of the football oligarchy created by the UCL is now plain to see: Real and Barca have won six of the last nine UCLs between them and both are likely to be in the semis again this year. These two Spanish giants, along with Bayern Munich, have reached 20 semifinals in the last 10 years.

In the 20 years before the formation of the UCL in 1992, 13 different teams won the European Cup. That number has fallen to 9 over the same period since 1997, a trend towards concentration further underlined by the fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona have, between them, won exactly half of the 20 UCLs contested during this period.

These stats remind me that the UCL was really designed as a precursor to a European Super League. This is what the founders wanted…a pan-European league competition for the big teams.

Red Star Belgrade celebrate their 1991 European Cup win

Where’s the romance, I hear you say? Where are the Cinderellas like Nottingham Forest, Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade, Ajax and Aston Villa? Where is the element of surprise? Where are the upsets? Is the future of football to consist of endless games at the end of the season between the same handful of teams until the end of time?

Why then do so many venerate this closed shop of greedy big teams who have climbed to the top and have, more or less, pulled up the ladder after them with the lucrative money deals that keep those outside the golden circle at an ever greater distance in financial terms? What is so exciting about monotonous matches between cartel members, year in, year out? I am increasingly at a loss.

The UCL is the EPL, writ large – Both were launched in the same year and are inextricably linked, in my mind. I remember Brian Glanville, World Soccer’s venerable columnist, labelling the EPL the “Greed Is Good” League after the infamous quote by Michael Douglas’s character in Oliver Stone’s classic “Wall Street”. Both competitions are dedicated to the same cause and are now totally bloated caricatures of what they pretended to be at inception.

The UCL is a fine competition and, as a football and Liverpool fan, I enjoy it as much as anyone. I just happen to find the claims made on its behalf laughable and it is contributing mightily to a certain “Disneyfication” (© Financial Times) of the game i.e. the packaging and presentation of the game as a pageant, rather than a true competition, complete with heroes (Messi v Ronaldo, Guardiola v Mourinho) and villains (also, Messi v Ronaldo, Guardiola v Mourinho!) with increasingly little room for disruption. It is not solely responsible for this trend though so I suppose one should be careful not to blame it for everything.

Finally, let me be clear. As a League fundamentalist, I would have taken, every day of the week and twice on Sunday, an EPL title over the 2005 Istanbul miracle. One represents a great achievement, earned over nine months of consistent work and solid performances. The other was a cheap thrill that owed as much to luck as judgment and left me grinning guiltily from having benefited so egregiously from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. To paraphrase an old Spanish saying, the league is the steak….the UCL, or any other cup competition, should really just be garnish.

By Akin Dawodu (Twitter @Alimustapha)