Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Falling out of love: European football and me

Future Seasiders assistant manager and two other random lads

How can you fall out of love with something? Over familiarity? Losing that mystique? Seeing it for what it really is? There are 50 ways to leave your lover and many reasons to do so, but this blog isn't going to discuss infidelity or heartbreak. It's going to talk about a slowly growing but now complete apathy towards something I once found mesmerising. 

I came to football at just the wrong time for European games. My first memory of football in any form is being surprised that the League table wasn't actually a fixed thing and could change week upon week. I remember being in the back of the car and hearing, to my astonishment that Liverpool were now above Everton. This would have been the 85/86 season, which coincided with the first year of the English European ban post Heysel. 

That sort of landscape would mean literally nothing to today's TV drenched, multi league following hipster youth. Europe meant literally nothing to me. I knew the names of the big teams, I'd heard of Honved and Wolves under floodlights, I knew about the all white kit of Real Madrid, Man United's doomed team of the 50s and so on, but until the early 1990s I'd literally never seen anyone other than English clubs play a game beyond the cursory 30 second highlights on Transworld sport or Grandstand.

The brief highlights (of finals and big games only) only served to heighten the sense of wonder - these European teams seemed to always be scoring amazing goals in front of packed stadiums, whereas English sides seemed to often serving up long winded low scoring games in front of half empty ones. 

Of course, as a Blackpool fan, Europe has very little meaning to me now either. For a brief point, it looked as if we might get into Europe in 2010 for some sort of fair play award and we did play in Latvia that time, but, like most other clubs, potential continental away days aren't very high on my list of priorities. 

Back then though, the prospect of Europe was enticing. It didn't matter that I didn't follow the sides who qualified. Having waited all those years (till 90-91) for the ban to be lifted, the prospect of seeing players and teams I knew pit their wits against players and teams I didn't was deeply exciting.

Eastern Europe 'not what it was'

So...what happened next? 

Liverpool were champions, but were still not eligible for the European Cup. Aston Villa flew the flag in the UEFA cup, but lost to Inter Milan in the second round. It was, perhaps fittingly, given the mythology of the club and the centrality of the European Cup to their story and global appeal, Manchester United who were the story of the season, marching all the way to Cup Winner's Cup glory, banishing Pecsi Mesek of Hungary (me neither,) Wrexham, Montpellier, Legia Warsaw and finally Barcelona along the way. 

I can still remember watching that last game on a black and white telly, United white shirted, Mark Hughes scoring a brace against his former club and picking up on a sense that something significant had happened. I was enthralled by that season in Europe and several that followed. 

What strikes me about remembering that era, is the simplicity of the format. To win either the European Cup or the ECWC took exactly 9 games. 4 two legged rounds and a final. Each team started in round 1 and played knockout games. If you didn't lose, you won. It was essentially as cup football should be. The UEFA Cup was exactly the same, but possessed an extra round. 

Whilst, yes, it's extra football for the teams to play, the 9 games of the European cup are nothing on the 23 games a side would have to play to win the tournament from the preliminary round stage today. There's not just more games, there's more teams and less clarity on why each one is there. I can't even begin to fathom how many games it would take to win the Europa League from the same point as the competition is so confusing as to take more than a screens worth of text to merely explain the format. I can't be alone in thinking a football competition shouldn't require that sort of small print detail, simply to understand it's structure. I'm not Einstein or owt, but I'm not completely thick either, and after 5 minutes, I still don't really understand how it works. 

The 2nd place teams from countries in rank c-e will enter at the 3rd stage to play the winners of the 1st place countries from rank f-g... Why? 

Gone is the simple format - champions vs champions, cup winner vs cup winner - last team standing takes the cup - and here instead is a convoluted format that requires an understanding of 'coefficients' to work out why country a) appears to have 4 champions but country b) only has one. What confuses it even more is some of the actual champions have to go through qualifying, but teams that finished 4th in some leagues get to bypass all the qualifying and go straight to the group stage. Why? Who dreamed that up? 

The group stage is also confusing. The competition starts as a cup and ends as a cup but has a league in the middle. Why? Does anyone know? It all seems so 'constructed' and manufactured and frankly, if it smells like shit, it probably is shit. 

The format has produced predictability and you'd have to have a lot of faith in human nature to assume it's by accident rather than design. Spain, France, Italy, England and Germany get the most entries and it shows - we have to go back to 2003 to find a finalist not from those countries (in the form of Porto in 2003). The only other side from anywhere else to reach the finals in the Champions League era is Ajax (twice)

So - in the 28 years of the Champions League, only 7 countries (of the 55 who enter sides) have reached the final. In the final 28 years of the European Cup, sides from 13 different countries reached the final (despite less countries entering teams)

The semi finals are equally dull. We're a fifth of the way through the decade and ALL the semi finalists have come from those countries listed above. Not once this decade has a team from a country like Belgium, Sweden, Ukraine, Scotland, Poland, Turkey, Russia and so many more countries where football is a big cultural thing reached so much as a semi final. Not once. Those same 5 countries, with a tiny little bit of Portugal and Holland dominate completely. 

What a surprise - England vs Spain again! Who expected that? 

Why is this? Partly the collapse of the Eastern bloc has diminished the power of some of the clubs, but it's at least in part down to the format of the competition. As I pointed out above, it takes 23 games to win it from the preliminary stages and the early rounds consist of the least economically powerful leagues. There's no guarantee of reaching the money spinning Champion's League proper, so investing in a side capable of competing is a gamble far to risky for many teams to take. 

For the biggest leagues, qualifying for the group stage is automatic and thus, you go straight into the real money making round and therefore there is no gamble involved. Put it this way - the English league is literally guaranteed approximately £60 million from its 4 automatic qualifying spots for the group stages (plus 2.7 million per win within the group) whereas a side that gets knocked out in the second qualifying round will take home about £700,000. 

If a smaller team does get there, more often than not they lose most of their games (if not all) and that in turn just raises more money for the clubs who've probably already got a lot more money anyway... 

This is odd. A team that wins its league, then wins 4 games in the Champions League (say, both legs in the preliminary and the first round) earns significantly less than a side that doesn't win a league and theoretically may not win any games at all in the competition. Ok, £700,000 would change my life but it's not really going to change the balance of power. £15 million isn't much in Premier League money, but it's enough to go and make sure you can buy the best Romanian young players and still have change for a few Albanians and a Dane and keep them in your gilded academy.

An example of a gifted Romanian (safely behind the iron Curtain)

Why don't these smaller teams gamble more often though? Is it just a lack of ambition? Surely a bit of money could change everything...  English or Italian clubs know they'll earn a minimum of 15-20 million quid. They're already considerably richer than their Polish or Swedish equivalents and they can thus invest in the talent and bodies to cope with the challenge. The Polish champions face a knockout lottery, so by the time they've actually qualified for the Champion League stage (if they do) then it's too late to invest significantly as the season is underway and the window closed. There's no risk in strengthening for the Champions League if you're a big side. There's huge risk if you aren't. 

Over the seasons, this just serves to produce growing inequality. The same countries take home the money, year after year. That's invested in their leagues, which in turn makes them bigger draws for TV money on the global market because global talent is attracted by wages and that creates a cycle of further advantage. Talent pools in places like Eastern Europe are drained. These countries are already on their arses in terms of football infrastructure and already unattractive to their best players. Corruption, mafia, basic poverty and so on. Why wouldn't you go to England or Italy. £700k for a little run to the second round isn't going to change that. £15 million basic pay to the big guns is only going to keep that cycle going. 

Every few years, someone promises to take an Eastern European side or a Turkish team to the next level, but the sums accrued by the established leagues (the sponsorship, the investment, the TV deals AND the guaranteed money from the group stages) are so vast and the chances of getting into the group stages (or beyond them) aren't especially favourable so it makes little sense as an investment. 

It's difficult to see where the next unexpected winner, finalist or semi finalist will come from. Ok, Atalanta were sort of exciting and it's still slightly strange seeing Man City on that stage, but where's the next Gothenburg? The next Steaua? the next Celtic? the next Partizan, Galatasaray, Feyenoord, Bruge, Kyiv, Panathinaikos, Sparta Prague, Legia Warsaw?

Can't see Dynamo Kyiv winning the Champions League but they did beat the actual Nazis twice at football so that's probably worth something... 

I hung in on European football for a long while. I was glued to Leeds run to the semi final, before their implosion. I remember watching Liverpool play Celtic. Even I managed to overcome my snobbery about teams who've finished 4th winning the thing for a few minutes when Jerzy Dudek pulled his wobbly legs Bruce Grobelaar tribute. I even managed to raise an eyebrow at Liverpool's comeback against Barcelona a few years ago. It was undeniably *quite exciting* 

I can't argue that the Champions League hasn't produced some good games in it's time. I can't argue that there aren't some good teams within it, or that it isn't a spectacle. All I can say is that it has lost my interest completely. There are meaningless games aplenty, when you introduce a league format. There is a serious loss of mystique and diminished sense of a meaningful continental competition when the same, largely familiar sides, from the same definitely familiar leagues reach the latter stages year upon year. 

There's a feeling of malcontent that I get when I read the rules for qualification, written out as they are, as if suggesting some kind of complex system of sporting merit, when actually all that rhetoric is just a smokescreen for  the purpose they were intended for - basically, ensuring the big leagues don't lose their sheen and thus, 'brand football' has its predictable big names for its big money partners.  

It might be my problem, but I miss caring about European football. I wish I found it interesting, but I simply don't. I like sport, I like sudden death, I like the unexpected and the unknown and it feels as if the more attention has been given to the format, the further we've gone from those things. There's something sorely wrong with the arrangements when the 4th best English team is hands down a better bet every time than the top ranked side of the vast majority of European countries. 

Liverpool once dominated Europe and simultaneously were capable of going out of the European Cup to Dynamo Tbilisi. Can we not have that excitement back please? It's better than the tedious trudge we've got now. A parade of big teams being surly about how many games they have to play because they've got to carry so much heavy gold that they get showered with just for coming from the right countries around with them and no one appreciates how tiring it is being a multi millionaire... 

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