And so with a weary sigh, the Champions League group stage comes to an end. There have been brilliant goals, lots of them, and a couple of exhilarating games.
The clashes between Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, between Manchester City and Barcelona, between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, had certain self-contained dramas. Ludogorets Razgrad and FC Rostov, here and there, put up encouraging fights. But fundamentally, it all passed with a shrug and a yawn.
Those big clashes have essentially ended up being meaningless, as both teams went through. Ludogorets and Rostov’s reward has been qualification for the Europa League, a far cry from the days when Bulgarian and Russian sides commonly reached the quarter- or semi-finals of major competitions. And repeatedly, the minnows have been thrashed.
The Champions League group stage has become boring.
There will be naysayers. There will be the Pollyannas who insist there were always big wins in the European Cup, that the competition’s past is viewed through rose-tinted glasses. And it’s true up to a point. There was always a Floriana or a Dudelange to be thumped 10-0.
The old-style knockout European Cup had many, many flaws. But that’s not what the comparison should be. Nobody’s talking about a return to a champions-only five-round knockout competition. The comparison should be to 10 or 20 years ago, and even over that short space of time, the change in the Champions League is deeply worrying.
Put aside, for a moment, the subjective sense that the group stage of the Champions League has become boring. Until 2013-14, there had never been a season in which the 96 group games in the Champions League had produced 10 or more matches won by four or more goals (which it seems reasonable to allow to serve as a definition of a thrashing). In every season since, there has been at least 10. This season, there were a record 14. In the past four seasons, there have been more thrashings than in the previous eight.
And to prove that isn’t just a feature of modern football, there have been 27 per cent more thrashings in the Champions League this season than in the Premier League, even though there have been 46 per cent more games played in the Premier League.
The gulf in quality between the best and the worst sides is simply too great. In the international game, that leads to dull, sterile fare; at club level, where players are better drilled, attacking systems slicker and more deadly, it leads to hammerings. Perhaps there are some fans who revel in that.
Tourists, presumably, or those whose consumption of the game is through GIFs and YouTube clips revel in witnessing yet another Lionel Messi hat-trick—the last thing that would interest them is watching Rostov grind out a point. But if the contests are as one-sided as they so often are now, to what extent is that still sport rather than a slightly gruesome exhibition?
The result of the one-sidedness is that we reached the final round of games with a general sense of dead-rubberiness. Only five of the last 16 games had qualification for the knockouts riding on them. The intrigue of two of them was destroyed within half an hour by Besiktas’ meltdown in Kiev. That could be dismissed as a freak, as a strange combination of results—and it is true that UEFA’s preference for head-to-head as a tiebreaker rather than goal difference doesn’t help—were it not for the fact that in seven of the eight groups, the two wealthiest sides went through.
The one exception was Bayer Leverkusen ousting Tottenham Hotspur, and if a failure for Spurs, for so long a byword for underachievement, is the most surprising thing that has happened, the tournament is plumbing new depths of predictability.
Compare that to the situation 20 years ago, when Rosenborg ousted AC Milan, Manchester United eliminated Fenerbahce by beating Rapid Vienna—the night of Peter Schmeichel’s famous save—and Auxerre and Ajax scrambled through with wins over Rangers and Grasshopper Club Zurich respectively. There was a palpable sense of tension, of games between sides that may not have been of exactly equal ability but were at least close enough that nothing could be taken for granted.
There is no space for a Dundee United or a Dynamo Kiev, for a Deportivo La Coruna or a Dukla Prague. A surprise team emerges, and within months, its carcass has been picked bare by those higher up the food chain. The great gobble up the small, and the result is that, since 2010, 62.5 per cent of the semi-final places have gone to three teams: Bayern, Barca and Real Madrid.
The worry is that nobody cares. Or at least, nobody who matters cares. The biggest, wealthiest teams want to play in the knockout phase, where the glamour is. It suits them to have a structure that allows them easy passage to the knockout rounds, and as long as television rights hold up, it will continue to do so.
There has been some suggestion that viewing figures have dropped, but there is nothing conclusive. And in a sense, the fact just 151,000 tuned in for Leicester City against Club Brugge, as reported by Charles Sale of the Daily Mail, suggests how it’s in the interests of all concerned to get the big teams through. Given Sky will almost certainly seek to regain the rights from BT when they come to be renewed and that Discovery could also bid, there’s no immediate likelihood of broadcast revenues dropping.
UEFA is left powerless, in part because it needs the revenues the big clubs bring and also because it is terrified they could break away to form their own competition.
Isolating the problem is easy enough. This is a classic case of the golden goose. Greed is destroying European football. Finding a solution is rather harder. Tinkering with the structure may tackle some of the symptoms of tediousness, but the real problem is the underlying economic structure, not just of football but of the modern world.
Ruthless global expansion has enriched the few at the expense of the many, and without some terrible shock, some lurch and collapse that requires a rethink of the basics of football’s economy, it’s hard to see the problem being rectified anytime soon.
Even more troubling is that many probably don’t even see it as a problem.