The European Cup has long been the most cherished prize in club football. So cherished in fact that in 1997, despite re-branding it only 5 years earlier as the grand and elitist ‘Champions League’ UEFA made their own moniker redundant by expanding it to include non-champions from selective leagues. All so it could be that little more competitive, that little more exciting, and, clearly well down on their list of priorities and not an important factor at all you understand, that little more attractive to sponsors. It is a trend it has continued to expand upon, with the state of play now standing with a maximum of 3 non champion entrants for the most lucrative leagues. All this has undoubtably added to the spectacle of the competition. The Champions League has become the holy grail for the (now disbanded) G-14 clubs and a glorious retrospective association for those with victories in the past but who now find it alarmingly out of reach. Old Big Ears, as Brian Clough called it, has likely usurped it’s International counterpart in importance (though it’s debatable it was ever really below it anyway) and only bows to the mighty World Cup, with it’s oddly abstract interpretation of a golden novelty globe in a sock, in hype and hysteria, significance and glory. Heros and villans are made, careers are defined, and Ballon D’or’s are won on it’s playing fields alone.
But as we get ready to bask in it’s inflated glory again this month, we should spare a thought for the competitions it’s caused to suffer. Ever since UEFA began getting lax on it’s entrant’s qualifications, the other European trophies have been irreparably damaged. Where once Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus and Bayern Munich could all of battled it out for the bizarrely large vase that is the UEFA cup, and find pride and sature in doing so, they now find themselves propelled into it’s superior bigger brother’s competition, skipping a step as it where, leaving the vase with less glamour, less excitement for the neutral and less marketing profitability. When the Champions League started to become a black hole, sucking everything in, the Cup Winners Cup, until then a competition for FA Cup winners to challenge their european counterparts (exactly as it says on the tin basically), was merged with the UEFA in the hope of increasing intrest and competition. The more it’s big brother expanded, the more it did too, only further down the spectrum, even accommodating teams who’d failed to progress through to the knock out stages of it’s superior. On the face of it this looks like a nice way of boosting the cup itself, but in reality it’s simply a way for the Liverpool’s of this world to get another bite of the cherry in Europe somehow. “Oh don’t worry, we’ll put you up somewhere, we’ve got another competition knocking about that no one cares about, just go in that…yeah straight in that, don’t mind about the others they won’t mind”
Now rebranded as the Europa super dooper disco fairy lights League, or something, in an attempt to make it seem more like the Champions League by including the word League, the UEFA Cup is in a rather dire position. Put simply, no one really cares, apart from those in it, and even then not all of them. So with the Europa twinkly dinkly starlight express League giving a second, undeserved chance to European Cup drop outs, isn’t it only fair that the favour goes both ways? In an age where it’s seemingly impossible for a club outside of the established clique, certainly in England, to barge their way into it’s private members bar, wouldn’t it be nice if there was another, less formidable and more balanced way to attain membership? Basically, wouldn’t it be good to give the winners a Champions League spot?
Now, I know what you’re thinking, this wouldn’t be strictly fair. League standings never lie, those in them deserve their place and as such the Champions League would be devalued by giving cup sides entrance. Yes, that’s very true. But then it’s fallen heros shouldn’t be allowed in the Europa. The reasons may suit the marketability of the League itself, and the club who benefits, but not the clubs who’ve earned their place in it through their league standings. It’s a skewed system built and maintained to suit it’s illustrious members. The Champions League was expanded to suit the bigger clubs and the competition itself, and the money it generates has helped maintain the status quo. If they can disgard the original rules of the competition, and expand the entrance from 1 to 4 then they can re-write the rule books again in the interest of fairness.
Every now and then society needs a little evening up. Positive discrimination, political correctness, reparations etc etc. All ostensibly unfair but all required to level an unlevel playing field. Furthermore giving the Europa shiny shiny happy people League such a massive juicy carrot would only strengthen the interest from both those inside and outside of it. The competition would become fiercer with something more than just a trinket to fight for. Whereas the Champions League is often seen as the main prize for the elite, with players rested before big ties, the UEFA/Europa crowd quite often see it as a distraction. Teams trying to break into the CL spots domestically, stretching their resources as they do, often field weaker sides in it rather than for it, with their eyes on the bigger, more lucrative, prize. Making that prize attainable within the competition would, in the words of Danny Dyer, or someone equally annoying, make it “right tasty”. Clubs wouldn’t just be fighting for a vase, and a chance to embelish their history, they’d be fighting for a vase and the chance to change their history. Champions League qualification, especially for sides on the threshold already, would increase their revenue and their profile thus their chances of landing big stars, thus their chances of maintaining said profile, and a new, brighter, larger world is born.
There are many creases to be ironed out, and with the drop outs still included it could simply end up as just another way for the big clubs who’d messed up to rectify their errors. But at least it would maintain the illusion of fairness. Maybe not fairness in the strictest sense but fairness of the attainable aspirational kind. Because the playing field is already uneven. Clubs are going bankrupt trying to keep up and the only way to reach the stars seems to be through a wealthy benefactor. Maybe not this exact solution, but this kind of solution, would at least increase the chances of clubs earning their place at the top table. And that surely, can only be good for football.