I don’t remember Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League group game against BATE Borisov in September 2008. Looking it up, BATE had a man sent off just after the hour and Madrid won 2-0. So far, so unremarkable.
But apparently that was a game so offensive to the sensibilities that, nearly eight years later, it’s being held up as an example of all that’s wrong with the Champions League. Never again, the grandees say, can Real be expected to play against a team as loathsomely irrelevant and as lacking in global fanbase as BATE.
Perhaps they chose that game because they figure they’re not going to face much of a backlash from the Belarusian football lobby. There won’t be many lining up to point out that Eduard Malofeev’s attacking Dinamo Minsk side provided a useful counterbalance to Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv in the early eighties or arguing that Alexander Hleb would never have been the player he was if it hadn’t been for his formative year at BATE.
That’s the problem when you don’t command mass viewing figures: There aren’t many people there to stand up for you. If we’re cherry-picking games, though, they might perhaps have picked the match in 2012 when they beat eventual champions Bayern Munich 3-1. Or even the one earlier this season when they won 3-2 against Roma.
That said, it's hard to remember many group games these days. While it may be fun to nitpick at the arrogance of the elite, there is a wider point here that, with a handful of exceptions, the group stage of the Champions League has become a little boring—at least when compared to the roiling unpredictability of this season’s Premier League. That may in part explain the Telegraph-reported significant drop in viewing figures.
There is increasingly a sense that the Champions League doesn’t get going until the quarter-finals. Bayern have reached the semi-finals at least in each of the past five seasons, Real Madrid and Barcelona in four of the past five years. There have only been nine different semi-finalists in the past five campaigns and one of them, Schalke 04, looks like a bizarre anomaly—although Wolfsburg have a shot this year after a 2-0 quarter-final first-leg win over Real on Wednesday.
The Guardian's recent look at how many different semi-finalists there have been over a five-year period provided a useful snapshot of the decreasing competitiveness of the Champions League. As recently as the period between 2000-01 and 2004-5, there were 16. Now, nine is common. The big clubs have become superclubs, bullying the rest to the point their positions in, at worst, the quarter-finals are all but secure.
Fundamentally, the complaints that Real Madrid against BATE feels like a formality are justified. And even if BATE had pulled off a shock, the group system means the bigger side is still likely to go through, as both Bayern and Roma did following their defeats to the Belarusians.
Reform is probably necessary. There is a problem, and it is that the disparity in wealth within European football is so vast that clubs who aren’t Spanish, German or English—or perhaps, Juventus or PSG—leagues can’t even dream of winning the Champions League. The lunacy of this world is demonstrated by the portrayal of the passage of Juventus, the most successful side in Italian history, to the Champions league final last season as some sort of glorious underdog story.
So credit to the elite for recognising that. And no credit at all for their solution. The idea mooted recently, per Jamie Jackson of the Guardian, for there to be a seeded preliminary round leading to two eight-team groups—presumably with the top two in each going through to semi-finals, although that wasn’t made entirely clear—is so bad you can only assume it’s a stalking horse for something else, a marginally less outrageous scheme for the further enrichment of the rich.
It’s a plan so bad it's hard to know where to begin with dismantling it. Let’s try going in chronological order. The preliminary round would be a two-legged knockout with the winners progressing to the group phase. The problem is the disparity of ability, but what if, say, BATE beat Madrid? It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible. Then, instead of two mismatches between BATE and bigger teams, you’d have 14, septupling the problem the new system is supposed to be solving.
Madrid against BATE might not have drawn a vast number of viewers, but at least it involved Madrid. Look at the last 16 of this season’s Champions League. A knockout tie between Gent and Wolfsburg may not have gained huge viewing figures, but it probably brought in far more than it would in a group neither would realistically get out of.
Or take the case of Tottenham Hotspur, who went to Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Europa League this season and fielded a weakened side despite there being a quarter-final place at stake. If they prioritise the Premier League in those circumstances, how are they going to treat the second round of group games if they’ve, say, lost three of their first seven? Any semblance of sporting integrity would disappear.
Not that sporting integrity has much to do with it. Imagine the rationale of these people. Viewing figures are dropping. They realise the wealth disparity has become too great.
They know that one of the reasons for the Premier League’s enormous global popularity is its competitiveness—that even before this season’s weirdness, there were at least a handful of sides with realistic title ambitions. They know that, per Sportingintelligence, the 1.53:1 ratio of income from top to bottom is healthy, certainly compared to Spain, where it is 11.3:1, or the Champions League, where it is roughly 30:1.
Spain has acknowledged the issue and reintroduced a form of collective bargaining for television rights to try to lessen the disparity.
These clubs know this, yet their way of reinvigorating the Champions League is not to try to distribute the wealth more evenly but to make the rich even richer and kill any prospect of an Ajax or a Nottingham Forest or even a Porto happening today. It’s to ostracise Leicester City, a club whose unexpected rise has warmed hearts across the world. It’s to create a perpetual status quo that would stymie innovation and essentially crush the fairytale dream that still underlies all sport. It is the dreaded corporate hand strangling beauty and hope in the name of profit.
How better to distribute the wealth isn’t easy. A pound goes a lot further in Cyprus or Slovenia than it does in England or Spain, and there are countless examples of smaller domestic leagues being unbalanced because a team has made so much from reaching the group stage of the Champions League it can bully its local rivals.
It’s a problem that needs serious thought and consultation, and it may be that there has to be some sort of subsidy so that when APOEL FC reached the quarter-final of the Champions League, it would've benefitted all of Cypriot football.
There is no obvious solution, but what is obvious is the solution is not for the rich to play each other in an endless series of dead-rubbers. A competition that gives the little man a chance to thrive is sport; a self-selecting, self-serving, self-perpetuating elite handing each other great wedges of cash in irrelevant games is merely greed.