For Real Madrid supporters, there was plenty to cheer about following the conclusion of the Champions League draw almost four weeks ago in Monaco. It’s true that Los Blancos had been dealt a tricky hand, finding themselves in the Group of Death with Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, all of whom won their respective domestic leagues last season.
It will be a challenging group for the reigning Spanish champions, as evidenced by the club’s 3-2 victory against Roberto Mancini’s men last week, but if that match was any indication of what’s to come, it may be just one of several meaningful group stage matches that will be played at the Bernabéu for the first time in years.
Since the inception of the current group stage format in 2003, Real Madrid have yet to fail in sealing progression to the knockout round. It has become an annual foregone conclusion that the club will still be playing Champions League football come February. This year, however, is different, and for the first time in its history, advancement to the final 16 looks far from guaranteed.
Group D of the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League represents the quintessential group of a knockout football tournament. It is daunting, it is perilous and, above all, it is unpredictable. It is all that we fans could hope for in group stage matches that collectively have become a boring, humdrum rite of passage for the top clubs in Europe.
With the exception of last year’s Manchester United and a deteriorating Liverpool in 2009, the clubs that were expected to advance to the knockout round from the start of the group stages have done so. Perhaps even more predictable are the club(s) that have no shot of advancing to the knockout stages, such as Nordsjælland in this year’s Group E, Dinamo Zagreb in Group A and BATE Borisov in Group F (their win over Lille notwithstanding), to name a few. It would surely require some divine miracle for Ajax to finish in the top two of the Group of Death.
This yearly group stage triteness as well as the justification of the away goals rule are two of the more prominent issues surrounding the current Champions League format. The away goals rule was introduced by UEFA in 1965 as a way to encourage the visiting club to play more aggressively.
But now, almost a half-century later, the rule has lost relevance, as nearly all of Europe’s top clubs have played at the home stadiums of their most menacing foes. In other words, the intimidation factor of playing on the road has vanished. Bayern Munich and Chelsea proved as much in their respective triumphs at the Bernabéu and Nou Camp in last year’s semifinals.
Travel can also take its toll on players, especially when flying to distant cities like Moscow or Donetsk, but even a flight from London to the Russian capital is only four hours. It would be a genuine shocker if Chelsea, for example, wasn’t able to pull out at least a draw against Spartak should the Blues meet Krasno-Belye in this season’s knockout stage.
However, we are now living in a more globalized world. This fact, compounded with the ever-increasing ubiquity of wealthy investors injecting their millions (and sometime billions) into clubs around the globe, as well as the ongoing improvements being made in the efficiency of travel are gradually starting to shift the landscape of Champions League football.
Take Anzhi Makhachkala, for example, the Dagestan-based club bankrolled by Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov. Since the affluent owner purchased the club back in January of 2011, Anzhi has made several headlines with the signings of Roberto Carlos, Samuel Eto'o, Christopher Samba and Lassana Diarra, among others. The squad—now managed by Dutch legend Guus Hiddink—is already slated to compete in this year’s Europa League and has further aspirations to qualify for next season’s Champions League and to eventually become one of the more formidable sides in Europe.
Anzhi will play its Europa League matches this season at Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow—deemed a safer environment than the club’s home stadium in volatile Dagestan—but plans are already in the works for a new 40,000-seat stadium on the banks of the Caspian Sea, which will meet all UEFA requirements. Should Anzhi qualify for the Champions League in subsequent years, which seems likely, a flight for a club from London to Makhachkala would be just under five-and-a-half-hours.
Projects similar to that of Anzhi are currently being undertaken in Malaga, St. Petersburg (Zenit) and Shanghai (Shenhua), to name a few, and the prodigious finances of Middle Eastern clubs such as the UAE’s Al Ain and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal will be difficult to ignore in the coming years.
The same goes for much of the Far East, which has proven to be a football-supporting hotbed. We mustn’t forget the aspirations of MLS clubs either, nor the immense pool of talent in both Africa and Latin America whose current wunderkinds are typically exported to Europe. All regions, countries and cities of the world will play a part in this forthcoming global Champions League.
Not only would this new global Champions League be far more cosmopolitan than the present UEFA Champions League, but it would be more competitive too. Imagine for a moment if Group E minnows Nordsjælland were replaced by Corinthians—the winners of the 2012 Copa Libertadores. Or if Group F’s weakest link, BATE Borisov, were supplanted by 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League winners Monterrey. You’d then be looking at groups consisting of Chelsea, Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Corinthians, and Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille and Monterrey, respectively.
The addition of clubs like Argentina’s Boca Juniors, Qatar’s Al-Sadd, Japan’s Gamba Osaka and the DRC’s TP Mazembe would give fans the most comprehensive and competitive football tournament to date. The FIFA Club World Cup is the closest thing we have to this kind of tournament today, but the prestige of winning it pales significantly when compared to winning the UEFA Champions League.
The formation of a new global Champions League is as ambitious an endeavor as it is lofty, and obviously, much would need to happen before this kind of tournament could feasibly exist, perhaps most crucially the expediting of travel.
A plane ride from London to Kuala Lumpur, for instance, lasts about 13 hours—far too long a flight for a club to make midweek for a group stage game in September. But remember that the Football Federation of Kazakhstan based in Almaty—almost a seven-and-a-half hour flight from London—still falls under UEFA’s jurisdiction. If a team such as last year’s Kazakhstan Premier League champions Shakhter Karagandy had managed to reached the group stage, each team in their group would have had to make the long haul to the city in Kazakhstan that is further east than Tashkent—the capital of Uzbekistan—whose governing football body falls under the Asian Football Confederation.
So how many years will it be until this new global Champions League begins in earnest? 20? 30? 50 years? It is almost impossible to tell. But if you look carefully at how the world of football has been and is continuing to unfold in different corners of the world, it is clear that the first few infantile steps have already been taken. And it may only be a matter of time before we see Real Madrid squaring off against LA Galaxy live from a foreign neutral site such as Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok in the first-ever Global Champions League Final.
As always, only time will tell.