Sunday, August 24, 2008

Is It Time The Champions League Format Was Changed?

Clubs from all over Europe have progressed to the lucrative group stages of the UEFA Champion League, ensuring each club £30M sterling without having to win the tournament. And while the rich get richer and the rest can't catch up, is it time something was done to even the playing field?

The Champion League format as we know it now came around due to pressure from the now defunct G14 group. In fear of the top European clubs breaking away and creating a new league or cup for themselves, UEFA changed the standard for tournament qualification to suit the bigger European clubs; making it easier for them to qualify as now they don't have to win the league to enter the prestigious tournament.

When was the last time Real Madrid, Liverpool or Bayern Munich finished outside the top four?

In some ways this has made for a fantastic tournament and in others it has created matches that mean nothing, further reducing the romance of the once famed knock out competition.

Most would agree that the Champions League only really starts in the knock out phase but by that stage you usually have teams from the same nation competing. Last year four English clubs progressed to the Last 16 and three of those made it to the semi finals, guaranteeing England at least one place in the final. Incidentally Man Utd eventually overcame Chelsea in what was regarded as a good final.

So far so good yeah?

The English Premier League is where I'm most familiar with so that's where I'll focus my attention.

Tottenham participated in the UEFA Cup in 2007 making the most money from tv rights in the tournament, £4.2M. Spurs got to the quarter finals that year and had what could be regarded as a successful campaign.

In the same year Dynamo Bucharest made it to the group stages of the Champions League. Losing all six matches and exiting the tournament. Dynamo made £8.1M.

So in fixing the Champion League, UEFA have inadvertently broken the UEFA Cup.

Nowadays every player wants to play in the Champions League, and who could blame them. So teams like the top four get huge money for competing in the CL and as a result have more money than the other teams, so then they finish in the top four in the league and get more money and then qualify for the CL and then—

You see where I'm going with this. In bygone years, only the winners went into the European Cup and the next six went into the UEFA Cup making it a prestigious Cup, but with the best teams in the CL, the TV stations want to show the best teams for the best matches and who could blame them either?

Back in the European Cup days finishing in the top seven was open to everyone, winning the league always had a pretty exclusive club but every now and then a team would come from nowhere and upset the status quo.

Nott's Forest, Aston Villa even Norwich challenged one year. The point is that the top teams in every league have so much money nowadays and add that to the fact that every player wants to play in the CL which results in all the other clubs becoming feeder clubs for the top four.

In the 70's and 80's most Division I teams had a few star players who would easily have gotten into a top four team. But they weren't tempted to move because you could finish sixth as opposed to second and still have a great chance of winning the UEFA Cup. Also why would a player leave a club he's a regular at with the chance of European football to become a squad player at a club with a chance of Euroipean football. And the following year their team could possibly challenge for the title. So they didn't need to move to further their careers.

Nowadays the top four teams play so many games they need much bigger squads. For these squads, they need better players so in turn, they hoover up the quality players from the lower teams reducing their quality and enhancing their own.

Maybe it's time UEFA did away with the UEFA Cup and all the teams who finish in the European places qualified for the CL at a round dependant on where they finish in the league, i.e. the winners go straight into the group phase and second place enter the tournament the round before the group stages and third enter the round before that and so on.

For smaller countries who have, lets face it, no chance of winning the CL they would enter a Regional Cup against their neighbours, i.e. two teams from Sweden, two from Denmark, two from Finland and two from Norway would have a group style tournament and the winners would either go to the group stages or the round before the group stages.

There's nothing like a local derby to fill the grounds, the travelling for these teams would be minimised and they would be guaranteed at least six matches before exiting the tournament. Providing much needed funds for teams who often play in front of a few thousand and a better chance of actually getting to the CL even though they'd play more matches.

This season Drogheda won the League of Ireland and the biggest gate they had was against Dynamo Kiev in the preliminary stages of the CL. The only other times they get full houses in Louth are when they either play an important league match or when they play in the Regional "Setanta Cup" against opposition from Northern Ireland.

Most of the season their gates wouldn't rise above 2,000 per game but for the Kiev match and for the Setanta Cup games they can attract gates of between 6,000 and 10,000.

So maybe it's time to look at the format of the Champions League, as UEFA's greatest achievement also looks like their greatest error.