It’s the most wonderful time of the year – the last round of the Champions League group stages!
Thrill! As Europe’s top clubs travel vast distances to doggedly satisfy their contractually obligated fixtures!
Gasp! As the biggest names in world sport sit in the stands, swaddled in padded jackets all the colours of the sponsored rainbow, using their dazzling skills to look halfway-interested in the outcome of the match whilst surreptitiously sexting that girl they met in the club that time!
Quiver with frenzied delight! As doomed youth teamers whose destinies lie in the long, petulant careers of unfilled potential – shuttling around the lower divisions as itinerant reminders that it takes more than raw talent to make it at the top of the game, waiting for the day that a random FA Cup fourth round tie pairs them up with their prodigal past, and Garth Crooks’ chummy interview asks them what their superstar contemporaries were like as lads, and they never make eye contact long enough to see the regret welling up in journeyman’s heart who knows deep down that it should have been different, it should have been him – try their hardest to impress on pointless foreign soil, but not get injured because there’s a chance they might make the bench against Wigan on Saturday!
Thank you UEFA! Thank you football! Thank you for making this spectacle possible!
The last round of the Champions League group stages is monument cast in vulcanised dead rubber, towering over the football landscape, reminding us that if something in the game was instituted to make money, it has inevitably made the game worse.
Quite apart from the format of the Champions League – which guarantees revenue with one hand as it guarantees soul-crushing exercises in calendar-stuffing sporting antithety with the other – the concept of the competition itself, which funnels money into the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Elite Clubs via a sealed fiscal pipeline, has made the structure of football across Europe so top-heavy that in every country across the continent all but a maximum of four teams know for cold, hard fact that they will never win their local championship ever again. And that’s being generous, because in most nations that number of potential title-winners is actually two.
Then there’s the Europa League, designed to maximise the earning potential for those clubs who live closest to the impregnable fortress walls of the Champions League elite. I’m not sure how bringing all the excitement of the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds into six weekly televised instalments of bloated infinity was going to spin any kind of money – but if you could see the clothes I’m wearing as I type this you’d realise that I’ve never maximised the earning potential of anything in my life.
It seems the only way the phrase ‘guaranteed revenue’ can be carried out in football is to engineer competition systems that increase fixture load and make it is inevitable as possible that the same teams will be slogging it out at the prize-giving stage – money doesn’t like uncertainty. This is why UEFA has recently given tacit approval to the reinstatement of the Balkan league for the former Yugoslav states, and the bigger clubs in Russia and Ukraine are eying regular clashes with a mooted CIS league. While these two particular examples can be waved through as a nostalgic return to the glory days of Eastern European football – they are really being welcomed in the corridors of power as test-cases for pan-European leagues.
If you were to sit in a meeting of the G14 and whisper ‘closed elite league system’ between agenda items, the collective wistful sighing from the gathered dignitaries would both be louder than a jet-engine, and so nakedly-self-gratifying as to put you off the very concept of pleasure forevermore. The vision of stratified European competitions, as nations abandon nations and reach for Atlantic and Scandinavian and Alpine leagues in the quest for artificially larger TV audiences is so blatantly dystopian and anti-fan, that it becomes as guaranteed to happen as that Matchday Six run-out for Manchester United’s reserve squad.
Say goodbye to local rivalries, farewell to the culture of the regular travelling support, adieu to the idea of a kick-off time mandated by the lifestyle of the crowds rather than the most convenient gap in the TV schedule, because continental competition is the future, and it values the money in your wallet far more than the joy in your heart.
Nicol Hay watches a lot of sport and then writes about it. It's a compulsion, and he needs help desperately. His blogging can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.