Why can’t football’s powerbrokers recognise a good thing when they have it?
Barely a month passes without some anonymous apparatchik at UEFA, FIFA or the omnipotent European Club Association (ECA) dreaming up some half-baked idea to ‘improve’ the competitions we all love.
‘Tinkering’ could be one way of describing it but that sounds as if Rafa Benitez is in charge. ‘Meddling’ is more appropriate. Trying to fix things that ain’t broke.
The Champions League has long offered first-rate entertainment and is the home of stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo (left) and Lionel Messi – but it is at risk of being ruined
Bayern Munich are the reigning European champions, having beaten Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s final, but from 2024 extra games in the group stage are planned
First it was the European Championship finals and the increase from 16 to 24 teams for 2016. Then the World Cup and the plans to expand from 32 to 48 nations for 2026.
Then, it was the decision to make the UEFA Nations League more top-heavy by increasing the teams in the elite League A from 12 to 16.
Then it was FIFA’s turn again with ambitions to supersize their Club World Cup to 24 teams and transplant it to China – plans that have been put on hiatus only because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Not wanting to be outdone, UEFA has now proposed a radical overhaul of the Champions League from 2024, the so-called ‘Swiss model’ featuring an interminable group stage with 10 games for each participant.
Money speaks loudest, as always. Without exception, these expansion plans are driven by the greedy pursuit of commercial possibilities, getting those Gazprom and Coca-Cola sponsorship boards into as many markets and in front of as many television viewers as possible.
The new group stage format would throw up more meetings between the likes of Liverpool and Real Madrid but it also throws up the likelihood of more meaningless games
Then there’s the political pressure exerted by Europe’s top clubs and the ECA, the spectre of the European Super League that appears every five years or so in some different form.
It’s latest iteration, driven by the American owners of Liverpool and Manchester United and backed by £4.6billion from Wall Street giant JP Morgan, seems to have spooked UEFA into accelerating Champions League expansion plans.
It remains to be seen whether the ‘Swiss model’ quenches the thirst of Europe’s top clubs enough to shelve these plans for an exclusive fixed-member European Premier League that threatened to be a Death Star to the Champions League.
Originally thought to have FIFA’s backing, bringing them into direct competition with UEFA, there was a hasty change in position last month when FIFA and its global confederations threatened any players who participated in the Premier League with exile from international tournaments.
Manchester United were a big name casualty in this season’s Champions League group stage but an expanded group would give them more opportunities to avoid going out
It’s something that, practically speaking, is highly unlikely ever to happen but it certainly offers some awesome leverage to get some Champions League reforms out of UEFA.
All the leading clubs in there, every year, nobody in this gilded club left behind. Even those with faded lustre like Arsenal and AC Milan are safe locked in the closed shop.
But at what cost? Expansion equates to dilution of quality, the watering down of entertainment, the removal of jeopardy for the big teams and, ultimately, fans being turned off by a succession of either lopsided ‘contests’ or meaningless fixtures.
We can’t be too far away from this tipping point. Perhaps the ruination of the World Cup in five years time will do it, or the prospect of weeks of dead rubbers in the Champions League will cause TV viewers to switch off.
Maybe there will ultimately be pushback from players and managers saying ‘enough is enough’. The football calendar was rammed enough even before Covid took its grip.
What started as the odd moan at broadcasters shifting things to mean tight turnarounds between fixtures has now become a weekly occurrence.
Dead rubber games such as Barcelona vs Juventus this month would become more common
It seems UEFA wants to find a way for undeserving clubs like Arsenal to play in the Champions League each and every season
This shortened season will hopefully be a one-off but in reality such squad-stretching schedules are here to stay if the Champions League is expanded from six to 10 group matches. Imagine the moans then.
A players’ schedule that routinely sees 70-80 match seasons capped off by an expanded World Cup or a trek halfway across the world for the Club World Cup will increase injuries and shorten careers.
We’ve been on this path for some time now. The Champions League used to be the preserve of ‘champions’ but grew bigger and bigger into the 32-team format we have now.
Equally, the 16-team European Championship always guaranteed excitement from the outset because the group stage always carried the risk of a major country going home early.
At Euro 2008, for example, France were paired with Holland, Italy and Romania and finished bottom of the group with just one point.
If England received their Euro 2004 draw of France, Croatia and Switzerland now, they’d really be sweating. And that was the attraction of it – the jeopardy.
England lost their Euro 2004 opener to France but the tournament’s jeopardy has disappeared
Thierry Henry and France went out in the Euro 2008 group stage after a tricky group
But the expansion to 24 teams for Euro 2016 basically guaranteed all the big guns progressed to a last-16 round shoehorned into the schedule. 36 group stage matches to eliminate only eight teams.
Take the eventual champions Portugal. They were mediocre at best in the group, drawing with Iceland, Austria and Hungary.
But they were rescued by the safety net that four third-placed finishers with the best record got through anyway. Portugal had just three points and a goal difference of zero.
By rights, they should have been knocked out. And yet, that was enough to set them on course for glory.
The 48-team World Cup will be even worse. We are faced with the prospect of an 80-game marathon, starting with 16 groups of three teams but with the top two advancing to a last-32
FIFA no doubt considers it noble to include more nations but at the last World Cup in Russia, the likes of Egypt, Panama and Costa Rica were sadly completely out of their depth.
Portugal could only draw with Iceland at Euro 2016 but made it through after finishing third
Amazingly, despite taking three points in their group, Portugal went on to lift the trophy
So why open the competition up to more also-rans, with eight places reserved for Asian nations, nine for Africa and six for North America? Even the European contingent of 16 countries isn’t necessarily a guarantee of strength. Iceland were wonderful in 2016 but woeful in 2018.
Most of the 16 groups will have a major nation, an average one and one that will literally be there to make up the numbers. Just one win will be enough to make it through in the majority of cases, making the whole group stage a huge turn-off.
Also, is it really worth a minnow turning up to play just two matches and take two hidings? What good does that do their development? The whole tournament won’t get exciting until the quarter-finals.
Still, if it helps FIFA’s platinum tier sponsors crack the market in Uzbekistan, Togo and Honduras, so be it.
The sheer logistical challenge of hosting 48 teams and staging 80 matches also, unfortunately, rules out a great many nations who may have hoped to host a World Cup in the future.
The likes of Panama were out of their depth in 2018 but FIFA wants more World Cup minnows
The new 48-team World Cup format will come into effect for the 2026 North American edition
The 2026 trio of the United States, Canada and Mexico will be the first of many such coalitions going forward because so few countries alone can offer up 16 host cities with the required stadiums and infrastructure.
A similar sledgehammer was taken to UEFA’s Nations League. It was a tournament nobody asked for but at least its three-team group stage threw together the big nations from the outset and contained the risk of suffering the ignominy of relegation.
Indeed, in the first tournament in 2018-19, Germany were relegated from a group featuring France and Holland. England were minutes away from a similar fate before two goals in seven minutes against Croatia propelled them into the finals and relegated their opponents instead.
What was this strange sorcery of actual entertainment in international football?
Well, too exciting for UEFA as it turned out. The prospect of seeing Germany mixing with lesser countries in the second tier was so unbearable they changed the format of the whole thing to reprieve them.
Germany suffered relegation in the first UEFA Nations League but were then reprieved
England were heading for a similar fate before two goals in seven minutes against Croatia
The 2020-21 version saw relegations for Bosnia, Iceland, Sweden and Ukraine while the traditional heavyweights sat pretty.
It’s like painting the perfect watercolour landscape and then ruining it all with a single brushstroke.
FIFA’s Club World Cup has always been an absurd distraction. Being crowned the best team in the world sounds great, especially to those clubs outside Europe, but being sent to some far-flung country mid-season to earn this honour is the last thing managers need.
Remember Liverpool in Qatar last year when they were forced to field an under-23 team at Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup and got spanked 5-0.
Just this month, Bayern Munich had to schlep all the way to Qatar to play two matches in three days inbetween Bundesliga assignments against Hertha Berlin and Arminia Bielefeld. In a Covid-affected schedule, this additional travel is ridiculous.
Still, this all means something to someone somewhere because FIFA want to expand it to 24 teams and export it to China in a few years.
The first one was meant to be next year and will take place in pre-season with no fewer than eight European teams. It’s obviously an attempt to ensure those lucrative pre-season tours most top clubs go on falls under the FIFA banner but the European sides have already threatened a boycott.
FIFA wants to expand its Club World Cup, won last year by Liverpool, to 24 teams
FIFA president Gianni Infantino (right) watches the Club World Cup with then FA chairman Greg Clarke
Now the powers-that-be have come for the Champions League, with 32 or possibly 36 teams all lumped together in one group stage but playing just 10 games against opponents of varying quality.
It’s a European Super League lite, with the top 16 advancing to the knockout round, the next eight going into the Europa League and the bottom eight eliminated.
The advocates of the ‘Swiss model’ claim it will enliven the group stage because more teams will be scrapping to make the top 16.
More likely is that there will be even more dead rubbers than there are in the current format. Say, for example, Manchester United lose four of their first six games and face an uphill struggle to make it through. Who will want to go to Old Trafford or watch on TV as they play Midtjylland in a dead rubber?
By the same token, say Bayern Munich win their first six games and ensure qualification. They are then forced to play four meaningless fixtures. In an already tight calendar, they’ll put out the kids.
What if Bayern’s much-anticipated meeting with Real Madrid is on matchday 10 and they’ve both already got through? Two shadow sides with nothing to play for will not capture the imagination.
We could be faced with even more Champions League dead rubbers like Chelsea vs Krasnodar
The Champions League has a proven track record of throwing up the unexpected, such as Bayern Munich’s 8-2 thrashing of Barcelona, but the future looks less exciting
It also punishes the true fans who follow their teams home and away, who relish the European adventures. Very few will be able to afford two additional trips in the group.
The Champions League is widely loved because the format is currently about as ideal as it can be.
The group stage doesn’t always throw up many thrills but occasionally a big side gets into trouble – look at Man United and Inter Milan this season.
However, it’s mercifully brief at six games and we can then look forward to the truly brilliant knockout rounds in the Spring, the cut and thrust of two-legged ties between the best clubs. So why prolong what’s already the most boring part?
It just goes to show that those people who run football don’t know a good thing when they have it.
Of course there are imperfections in the way things are but making the competitions we cherish most much worse through needless expansion in the naked pursuit of additional wealth is not the way forward.