The Champions League is considered to be the greatest club competition in world football. While only a handful of the 32 teams who enter the tournament each season are realistic contenders to win the whole thing, to simply qualify is treated as a magnificent achievement by many clubs, due to the huge sums of money that can be gained through participation.
The obsession with making it to the footballing ‘promised land’ is especially evident in the Premier League. Arsenal are often lampooned as a team which favours the ‘fourth placed trophy’ over actual silverware, while the elation of Liverpool supporters as the Reds secured their place in the competition for the first time in five years last season was plain to see.
Qualification to Europe’s elite tournament is by no means the be-all and end-all for football clubs, however there is no denying the fact that managers, players and fans increasingly view the Champions League as the pinnacle of success.
It’s easy to see why this is the case; since its inception as the European Cup 59 years ago, it has been the one definitive competition to establish the strongest side on the strongest footballing continent on earth. To lift the famous big-eared trophy, one often has to overcome numerous league champions from across Europe, and while a slip-up can be afforded now and then in a domestic league campaign, losing a game in the Champions League – especially in the latter knockout stages – is far less forgivable.
It is frequently argued that the sheer difficulty of emerging triumphant gives the Champions League a level of prestige unmatched in the modern game. Judging by how some of this year’s participants have performed, however, one gets the feeling that the tournament perhaps does not merit the exalted status that has been attributed to it.
In a weak Group H, Belarussian side BATE Borisov have a goal difference of minus 20 after five games, with an aggregate loss of 12-0 to Shakhtar Donetsk standing out in particular. Elsewhere, Chelsea are far and above the superior side in Group G, beating German side Schalke 5-0 away on Tuesday, while the gulf in quality between Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich – all of whom had already secured their passages to the knockout stages with two group games to spare – and the teams which make up their respective groups is embarrassing. These teams, let us not forget, include Liverpool, five-time winners of the competition, Premier League champions Manchester City, and Italian heavyweights Roma.
If this glaring discrepancy between a dominant elite on the one hand and a relatively mediocre majority on the other continues, the Champions League is in danger of losing its lustre. A side that gets trounced by five or more goals simply does not belong in what is supposedly the greatest club tournament in the world, yet the competition in its current format needs such teams to make up the numbers.
So what teams actually deserve to be in the Champions League? The answer to this question is a simple one as it lies in its very name.
It ought to be a tournament for the champions – and only the champions – of Europe’s strongest domestic leagues. This was how the competition was played when it was called the European Cup, and this is how it should be played in the modern game.
By trimming down the number of teams participating to sixteen – with seeds being split into four groups of four – we ensure that it remains highly competitive, and the fact that the likes of Barcelona, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund would not be able to participate every year would make the Champions League the apex competition in world football, a wonderfully challenging tournament in which every game would carry great significance and only a truly special side would be able to win.
The Champions League deserves to be recognised as the best and most prestigious tournament in the game – as long as its name is taken literally.
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