Wednesday was a very strange day in my football-supporting life. I left work at 3pm, and two hours later, rushed into the City of Manchester stadium under familiar grey clouds just in time for Sergio Aguero to open the scoring against Porto in a Europa League 2nd leg game. I was one of the lucky ones, not just because of my employer’s flexi-time policy, but because the appalling traffic didn’t prevent me missing kick-off. The ground was still filling up after twenty minutes. My friend arrived for the second half. Some never made it, defeated by work despite owning a ticket.
Afterwards, it was the footballing equivalent of jet-lag. It was dark, I was leaving a football ground, but my watch insisted it was 6:50pm. This didn’t make sense. What was I supposed to do now? Spend four hours in the pub? Go home? It just didn’t feel right. I had been to work, been to a football match, had apint and got home in time to catch the end of Masterchef. Every cloud and that/
But needs must when television comes-a-calling, when sponsors require fulfilment. City couldn’t play on the Thursday as Manchester United were playing then too. They are league champions, so take preference when clashes occur. City couldn’t play on the Wednesday night instead as that would clash with the two games in the precious Champions League, and no one wants attention taken away from two games that exploded into life sometime around 9:30pm.
Stupid little rules inconvenienced tens of thousands of football fans this week – or more to the point, the endless thirst for revenue did. Manchester City’s decision makers didn’t come out of it very well either, for a change – City moved those that signed up for the Champions League cup scheme straight over to the Europa League cup scheme – not a cardinal sin in itself, but when there is a game starting at 5pm on a weekday, due consideration should have been given to the fans, and the option to opt-out made available.
Yes, there were only two Champions League games on Wednesday. There were only two the previous night also, at different times. And two on the preceding Tuesday and Wednesday. It can’t be long before no Champions League games clash with each other. This was a change that came into effect in 2009 – at the same time, the final was moved to a Saturday – no doubt a good thing for viewers, but let’s not kid ourselves that the move was done not for the fans, but for commercial reasons.
The thinning out of Champions League games for the round over four weeks took away most of the excitement and drama for me – though maybe the lack of the two Manchester teams contributed to that as much, from a personal viewpoint. But as much as UEFA would want you to think otherwise, not all knockout ties are exciting, or of great interest. I don’t need to see every match, and I doubt few do, but of course there’s much more money to be made when so few games clash. Even in England it’s a scheme that our own FA has flirted with, running the FA Cup quarter-finals over four consecutive days, to little success. Thus Manchester City once more found themselves moved to a strange time, playing a quarter-final against West Ham on a Monday night, two days after a league game.
This is nothing new of course – we’ve been here before, year after year, in a sport now ruled by money, as it has been for decades. Another Champions League final will be held soon at Wembley, after it was so lucrative the last time. £14m was cleared from last year’s final. Last year, some 11,000 tickets went on sale to the general public costing £300, £225 and £150 plus a £26 “administration fee”. An allocation of 50,000 tickets which were reserved for fans of the two finalists did include “category four” tickets at £80 each, according to UEFA but the Football Supporters Federation condemned the prices as being too high.
“These prices are absolutely outrageous and take ticket pricing to an absurdly stratospheric new level,” said the Football Supporters’ Federation chairman Malcolm Clarke. “In a difficult economic climate, not only in this country but across Europe, where supporters may be coming from, this represents disgraceful exploitation of fans.”
The cost of Champions League final tickets has rocketed since Manchester United played Barcelona in Rome 2009. The category three tickets have almost doubled since then, when they cost £80.
Elsewhere, front rows of stadia are regularly left empty in games so as not to detract form the sponsors’ messages, which are so big front row fans would be left staring at the back of a billboard for ninety minutes.. And all the while, UEFA’s cohorts sip champagne on yachts in Monaco whilst bemoaning the financial problems of football.
And in rainier climes, a team has to play in the afternoon so as not to clash with two champions league games that barely anyone in England or Portugal gave two hoots about. But I guess having a single Europa League game kick off at the same time as Basel and Marseille would have angered the likes of Ford, Heineken, Mastercard or Sony. They don’t pay good money for three games on the same night.
Still, it’s all part of the exotic nature of modern football. We’ll soon be playing a 39th league game in Dubai, kicking off at 2am to suit the Asian market, and having World Cups in the winter in order to spread the game to every nook and cranny on this planet. Not sure I’ll ever get used to it though.