You only have to walk around Glasgow this week to get a sense of what the Champions League is supposed to be about. The city that staged one of the old European Cup’s first truly mythical finals, when Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in 1960, now awaits the return of the 14-time champions with a rare excitement.
Across the city, the Rangers players have been playing the Champions League theme on their phones as they head to Ajax, but that’s really all in anticipation of it booming around Ibrox for the visit of Napoli next Tuesday.
This is what the competition is supposed to feel like. One of the Champions League’s first cities, rather appropriately, is this group stage’s emotional centre.
There are nevertheless a few ironies to that, as the competition celebrates its own 30th anniversary, and is so disrupted by the World Cup. One of the reasons it means so much to the Old Firm is because, unlike many of the clubs they’re facing, this has become so rare. Real Madrid’s visit is Celtic’s first Champions League match in five years. Ajax is Rangers’ first in 12 years.
And yet some of that is because of an initiative that the Ibrox club were hugely influential in, just before the start of the competition back in 1992. That was Silvio Berlusconi’s first plan for a Super League, which had Rangers as one of the biggest voices. The same forces have now left them, and even Berlusconi’s AC Milan, way behind the elite. You could argue that it’s a lesson in how fluid football is, how much can change. Except that is something the Champions League itself has changed, as many now reflect on its place in history. A fair argument from many within Uefa is that the competition’s greatest legacy was preventing a ruinous split in the game as early as 1992.
A counter-argument is that the Champions League merely institutionalised a Super League, implementing an economic infrastructure that has ossified the game, and made this group stage so predictable. Consider these figures from a CIES report on “competitive balance”. During the period 1993-2018, Uefa distributed €17.3bn in prize money, of which the Champions League was responsible for most.
More than a third, at €6bn, went to the 12 founding member “Super League clubs”. A further €8.1bn, of the remaining €11.3bn, never got beyond another 38 clubs from the top leagues.
It used to be the case that entire groups would be totally upended on the last day, as happened in 2001-’02 with one four-way battle between Nantes, Galatasaray, PSV Eindhoven and Lazio. Even as recently as 2009-’10, and a team as historically great as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, the Catalans were one of four teams fighting on the final night of one table along with Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale, Rubin Kazan and Dynamo Kyiv. It is something worth considering as the next weeks replay highlights from those 30 years. Some of the most remarkable have come from clubs outside the elite.
There was Rangers’ own titanic match with Olympique Marseille in 1992-’93, and IFK Gothenburg’s evisceration of both Barcelona and Manchester United two years later. Rosenborg eliminated the great AC Milan at the San Siro in the 1996-’97 group stage, before Dynamo Kyiv – and Andriy Shevchenko – devastated Barcelona 4-0 at Camp Nou. The first great comeback, meanwhile, was Deportivo La Coruna against AC Milan in 1994. None of these situations are really possible now because this is a world where clubs as famous or as wealthy as Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal reaching the semi-finals is considered a “great upset”.
You couldn’t have a greater illustration of the apologue of the boiling frog.
So it is that there only look like two or three groups with much edge. One features Porto, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Club Brugge. Another has Bayern Munich, Internazionale, the blessed Viktoria Plzen and Barcelona.
It illustrates the risk to the Catalans’ own high-wire economic policy this summer, since so much is staked on going far into the Champions League.
How they could have done with one of the more forgiving groups, that the other super clubs – Liverpool, Real Madrid, Tottenham, Chelsea and PSG – managed to get drawn in. Uefa have sought to address this issue by evading it rather than engaging with it. They aren’t tackling the economic disparity that has left the group stage so predictable but instead getting rid of the group format altogether.
This has left some in football baffled, especially since UEFA seemed to have finally seen off the Super League in April 2021. It had been a threat that forced every major change in football for the last 30 years – and went almost overnight. Many figures, however, insist the problem is that UEFA are still beholden to the biggest clubs. “We could still lose everything,” is the sentiment from a number of sources.
The governing body could still lose the European Court of Justice case against the remaining “Super League three”, for one. There’s also the vacuum left by those powers. PSG’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi has replaced Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli at the head of the European Club Association, but one of his opening moves to secure power was push for greater prize money.
The message to UEFA, according to well-placed figures, was “I’m on your side… but we need the value.” The bigger argument is that it is seeing the Champions League lose value, certainly until the knockouts. This is why, after 30 years, the classic “four-team group” concept will disappear in 2024. UEFA’s attempts to come up an alternative did involve something of a run-through of those previous three decades.
The double-group of 1999 to 2003 was at one point on the table, and the French league suggested six groups of six. Agnelli himself went further with four groups of eight. A straight knock-out like the old European Cup was never on the table because both the clubs and broadcasters want a certain number of guaranteed match-days.
In the end, the so-called “Swiss system” worked best, because their models showed it keeps more games unpredictable. That is probably more than can be said for this season’s group stage.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that this is a first round like no other, though, given that the World Cup requires six rounds of matches to be played in nine weeks. We’ll know who is in the last 16 by the first week of November.
One unintended consequence might be that such intensity changes identities in that last 16. It’s also true that, even in the most predictable of seasons, the campaign tends to start with a bit of life, as the big clubs aren’t necessarily at their freshest.
If so, the hope is that can continue through the group stage. Celtic Park might set a tone. Given the way things have fallen, as well as Celtic’s domestic form and Rangers’ European form, both should believe they have a real chance of getting through. It’s just, if they do, it shouldn’t be so rare. That isn’t what the Champions League is supposed to be about.