More. Always more. Everything that happens in football now is about expansion. Make every tournament bigger. Play more games. Produce more content. Generate more revenue. On Wednesday, the UEFA Executive Committee discussed plans to reform the Champions League from 2024 onwards, specifically the idea of rejigging the group stage to the so-called Swiss System, which will, of course, ensure more games.
A formal announcement had been expected on Wednesday, but that has now been pushed back until April 19, largely because a small group of the super-rich clubs—understood to be a coalition of the Spanish sides and at least two clubs with U.S. owners—has rejected UEFA’s proposal for a 50-50 share in a joint venture that would control the commercial rights of the Champions League. That, in turn, has created a backlash from other members of the European Clubs Association (ECA), most notably Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. But whoever actually is in charge, nobody expects anything other than agreement on the adoption of the Swiss model.
Quite how serious the hold-up is is not yet clear, but this is a critical moment. If UEFA gives up control of the competition, it is finished as a serious governing body. It will no longer have any influence to check the whims of the superclubs. The Champions League will have become an autonomous Super League in all but name, and there will not even be the pretense that Europe’s premier competition is being run for the good of the game, or for anything other than enriching the already extremely rich.
That the formal acceptance of that has itself been delayed by greed is not surprising. This whole business is about greed. It’s about the acceleration of a process that has been going on for a little over three decades. It’s about the triumph of neoliberalism in football.
But let’s begin with the basics. Nobody denies that the group stage of the Champions League, as it stands, is a gloomy trudge. Andrea Agnelli, the chairman of Juventus and the ECA, got that right. After the draw, you can go through each group, highlight the two obviously richer teams and be relatively confident they will progress. Very occasionally some quirk of the seeding will lead to an unusually tight group (as when RB Leipzig, whose coefficient is low because it is a relative newcomer at the elite level, was drawn alongside PSG and Manchester United this season) or some big club (usually Inter) will mess up, but generally the gulf between rich and poor is too great for those games to be anything other than highly predictable.
The shift in tone as the tournament moves into the knockout stage is obvious. This season’s was not a classic round of 16, far from it, but it did feature one tie of exceptional drama and quality: Porto’s away-goals victory over Juventus. The second leg was a tie that had everything: a favored side in trouble, an unlikely comeback, a stupid red card, a dogged rearguard action, an unexpected game-changing free kick, one last dramatic twist. It was a game that transformed Cristiano Ronaldo, for turning his back in the wall, into a villain and, implausibly, Pepe, a hero. It highlighted the immense promise of Federico Chiesa and confirmed the emerging talent of Sérgio Oliveira. It brought joy, and it brought sorrow. Crucially, there were consequences: progress to the quarterfinal for Porto and yet another premature exit for Juventus. There was jeopardy—and that feels like the key.
It’s perhaps, though, worth pausing and going back to basics, perhaps the most basic question of all: what is sport? Football boomed in the English public schools in the 19th century. It was partly because, with its demand for physical endurance, courage, strategy and calmness under pressure, it was seen as a tool for honing the skills required to run the Empire. It was also partly because Muscular Christianity, the prevailing doctrine of most of those schools, saw physical activity as worthwhile in itself, not least because it prevented what they euphemistically called “solipsism” (for it is a “truth universally acknowledged” that a boy left to his own devices will masturbate, a practice that at the time was thought to be not just a moral fault but to be physically debilitating; the sermons of the Reverend Edward Thring, headmaster of Uppingham School, contain numerous references to the belief without ever actually naming the practice that so concerns him, and he was far from alone).
The Football Association was formed in 1863 by teams of former public schoolboys, largely because they wanted a standardized set of rules to play under, no matter which school or university they had come from. As the game spread, and spectators began to pay to watch, the early ideals began to shift. Professionalism was introduced in 1885, which for many was a betrayal of the early ideals of the game, but it was essential to allow working-class players to give up their day jobs to focus full-time on football and to travel to away fixtures.
The league was founded three years later to provide structure, partly to establish a meaningful competition to determine a champion, and partly because regular games meant regular income for clubs. At that point, though, the legislation forbade directors to profit from their clubs: the idea was that clubs held a specific social, perhaps even moral function and that revenues should be reinvested. Other countries never had such legislation, and it was almost a century later that it was lifted in England. By then, football was establishing itself as a television sport and the world was adopting an increasingly untrammeled capitalistic outlook.
The tipping point for European football came in 1987-88 when Spanish champion Real Madrid beat Italian champion Napoli in the first round of the European Cup. For Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of AC Milan, this wouldn’t do. Forget sporting merit, forget the unseeded draws that had been such a key part of the European Cup’s charm since it had begun in 1955, he saw a financial imperative to ensure the biggest sides didn’t crash out after just one game.
And so, in 1991-92 came the first group stage, initially comprising two groups of four. It has gone through various formats since, expanding and expanding to the modern format with eight groups. For a while it worked even from a sporting point of view. In the 1990s, the group stage had a palpable tension, a sense that these were the best sides on the continent—and they did come from all over Europe: the likes of Nantes, Panathinaikos and Dynamo Kiev all reached the last four in the 90s.
But the finances of the Champions League created a self-perpetuating elite: the superclubs. The Champions League final has become the preserve of the three Spanish giants, Juventus, Bayern Munich, PSG and a smattering of Premier League teams. When Ajax reached the semifinal two seasons ago, it felt like a fairy tale, so disadvantaged are Dutch clubs. Yet Ajax is a four-time European champion. The distribution of prize money is such that Barcelona made twice as much from reaching the last four that season as Ajax did, just because it comes from a country with a bigger TV market.
It’s a structure that has broken domestic football. France, Italy and Germany are effectively monopolies, even if COVID-19 has created some unpredictability this season. Spain is essentially the preserve of two clubs, with Atlético Madrid providing an occasional challenge. Even in the Premier League, where vast domestic TV rights mean Champions League revenues are less relevant, the last three seasons have seen the champions win with 98 or more points, totals that would have seemed unimaginable even a decade ago.
Which brings us to the existential question: what is football for? Is it about something inherent in the game, about competitiveness—and skill and beauty—for its own sake? Or is it about the production of content to generate revenue for the big brands? Increasingly, it feels the latter is true.
Jose Ángel Sánchez, the general director of Real Madrid, has compared the club to Disney. He was an architect two decades ago of the galacticos project, which was of limited footballing success but raised the profile of the club enormously. Juventus may come to see its signing of Ronaldo in the same way, despite a series of early exits from the Champions League. Increasingly, it feels, football is moving away from a focus on actually winning matches. At least one club is exploring the possibility of producing a semi-fictionalized soap opera set in its offices. Everything is about the generation of content and the promotion of the brand.
That has profound implications for how football may look. In traditional terms, Porto’s success against Juventus was a brilliant game of football. But in a content production sense, it may be that the more attractive game was Juventus’s victory away to Barcelona at the end of the group stage. The result didn’t matter, as both sides had already qualified, but there was Lionel Messi against Ronaldo, two enormous names wearing the shirts of enormous brands, pitted against each other. Who cares if three months later barely anybody could recall the result; content generation is not about posterity.
This brings us to the Swiss model. There will be 36 teams, four more than at present. They will each play 10 games, based on seedings to ensure a range of opponents. All results will be logged in one huge league table, with the top eight sides progressing immediately to the last 16 and the next eight playing off against the third tranche of eight for the final eight places in the knockout phase.
At present, the group stage comprises 96 games after which 16 teams are eliminated. The new format will take 180 games to eliminate 12. The football calendar is already straining with the volume of matches. Last season, even before the pandemic, Liverpool was forced to play a youth side in a League Cup tie because it was playing in the FIFA Club World Cup 24 hours later. This season has been characterized by complaints about scheduling from Jürgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and others, as they have seen their players succumb to a series of the sort of soft-tissue injuries that result from fatigue. In England, presumably, the League Cup will have to be abandoned or modified, striking at the revenues of smaller clubs, increasing the advantage of the elite even further.
But let’s assume time is flexible and players can play forever without breaking down. Imagine a team wins its first four games in this new structure: it would effectively have qualified and could afford to rest players for its final six games. The scope for arranging mutually beneficial draws late in the competition would be enormous.
And where, exactly, is the tension? Perhaps there would be some intrigue in who finished eighth and who ninth, but the only real drama would be around 24th and 25th, about whether (to go by UEFA coefficient) Villarreal or Bayer Leverkusen or (to go by this season’s groups) Red Bull Salzburg or Olympiakos won the right to lose to Porto or Sevilla or in a playoff. Oh, brave new world, to have such drama as the payoff for surrendering to the elite!
The Swiss model is, as anybody who has given it a moment’s thought must realize, a terrible idea—at least if the aim is sporting merit, integrity and jeopardy. If the aim is an endless slew of games between big or biggish teams, few of which mean anything, though, then it is ideal. And perhaps that is what football wants. Perhaps the modern audience places brand recognition above more traditional sporting considerations.
In which case, you begin to wonder whether this is sport at all. Why not just follow the path of wrestling and script the whole thing, as the Argentinian writers Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares suggested in their 1967 short story “Esse est Percipi,” which imagines a world in which all football is actually just a script read out by an actor playing a commentator on the radio, a subterfuge persisted with to distract the masses from the misery of their everyday lives.
The superclubs are a symptom of a collapse of the traditional values of football, and their solution to that collapse is to trample them some more. They have correctly identified the problem: the group stage is boring. But their solution is to take the problem that causes that—massive inequality—and make it worse.
Forget even romantic notions of clubs as hubs of their community, of symbolic vessels of local identity. Forget the charitable work many actually do in their areas, working with disadvantaged children, coordinating food-banks and supporting hospitals. All of that was secondary, all of that came from the boom in football in industrial Britain in the late 19th century and the birth of the professionalism.
Go back to something even more basic. Go back to why anybody plays sport, for the joy of exercise and occasional virtuosity, for the thrill of matching yourself against a peer, and ask yourself what the proposed new format has to do with that.
So opposed are the superclubs to any sense of merit, that the plan is for two of the four new places created in the pre-knockout phase to go to those sides with the highest coefficient who haven’t already made it: more revenue in perpetuity, another safety blanket against running the club so badly you fail to qualify despite all the advantages available to you (and you can see why Agnelli would be attracted by that).
It feels as though a crisis point is being reached, as though the farmers are circling the golden goose, knives drawn, and the only question that remains is who pays for the dry cleaning afterwards. At some point, UEFA has to call the bluff of the superclubs. This slice by slice despoilment is only delaying the inevitable crunch. At some point, UEFA has to cut the superclubs adrift, let them go and let them sink or swim with their content production. It has a duty to football, and the new model of the Champions League, a Super League by stealth, is barely that anymore.