BEFORE WE START, two things need to be made clear. Football is the greatest sport on earth, and I don’t support a team. Taking these two elements into account allows me the fortune of seeing the game for what it is in an objective(ish) manner. Conversely, I can never truly understand how it feels to see your team win a trophy, avoid relegation, or in the case of Barcelona versus Paris Saint-Germain feel the total euphoria or soul-destroying misery that came with that result. I hover in fandom purgatory, just enjoying the moment, but not feeling it. I get my thrills from the spectacle.
In the afterglow of the final whistle of the Monaco-Manchester City game, in this season’s Champions League last-16 round of fixtures, I thought about how fantastic the entire round had been. Eulogies were already pouring in from pundits and journalists alike about the incredible games we had witnessed. Including that never to be forgotten “where were you moment” when Sergio Roberto scored Barcelona’s sixth goal to complete the greatest comeback since Lazarus.
In this season’s round of 16, 62 goals were scored in 16 games at an average of 3.8 goals per game. It was fantastic for the neutral like myself, and even better if you were a supporter of one of the eight teams which progressed through the 29-day marathon that it took to go from 16 teams down to eight.
The quarter-final draw has thrown up some spectacular fixtures, but for me the draw is all about Leicester City, not because they are the only the English side left in the competition, but because it’s a story, a campaign, which will go on to become legend for Leicester fans and a just reward for the previous season’s incredible Premier League win.
During this period of reflection on the past month of Champions League football, my mind was drawn back to a previous Real Madrid-Napoli encounter. It was 1987, I was 14 and at the peak of my football obsession. Moreover, it was a game that featured my all-time hero Diego Maradona and a Real Madrid side full of talent, including the exceptional Emilio Butragueño.
This was not a Champions league fixture; this was better than that. This was a European Cup tie. The difference then was that it was a first round tie, not a carefully engineered last-16 fixture.
The Argentine had been instrumental in guiding Napoli to their first ever Serie A title and with it an invitation to the premier club competition in the world. In those days it was league winners only, unless you had won the European Cup the season before and were invited back to defend your trophy.
Bizarrely, the first leg was played in Madrid behind closed doors due to crowd trouble in the previous season’s semi-final against Bayern Munich. Madrid won an eerie game 2-0, before heading to Italy for the second leg. An early Napoli goal looked to have given the Italians hope but a Madrid equaliser killed the game and Napoli’s first foray into the European Cup was over after one round.
It is argued that this particular fixture indirectly brought about the Champions League or a version thereof. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian owner of AC Milan, watched the game aghast that two footballing giants could be drawn together so early in the competition. The fact that one footballing superpower would leave the competition so early did not sit comfortably with the Italian magnate. He also feared that the fate that befell Napoli could also happen to his beloved Rossoneri. From there he suggested a European Superleague, which would ensure consistent competition between the top clubs in Europe.
Read | Red Star and the immortal triumph of 1991
The Superleague didn’t happen, but the fear of big clubs going out in the early rounds had been acknowledged. UEFA decided it was in the big clubs’ best interests to have a competition where they could survive for as long as possible. As a result, the ever-changing Champions League replaced the European Cup.
In the European Cup, teams were at the mercy of the fickle hand of fate. Who would you be drawn against? It was an opportunity for most fans to unite behind their nation’s representative. A mini annual European Championships of sorts.
The draws were always anticipated weeks in advance. It was arguably the only reason I passed my GCSE geography. I would sit with an atlas reading the draw in the newspaper, looking at where the British clubs would be going, who had the longest trip to make, who would be going the furthest east, and what was the glamour tie of the round.
In the days before the internet and the fall of the Iron Curtain, a game any further east than Vienna and you would wait for testimonies or anecdotes about that country and what it was like to play football there. The playground would be full of stories of young boys’ dads who knew a person, who knew a person, who knew a person that once went there and they struggled to get out of the country alive or be allowed back to England. The European Cup draw was a time for fanciful tales of football, which may as well have been played on another planet for all that we really knew about it.
Then you would watch the highlights, usually on Sportsnight. There you would catch glimpses of some far-away stadia, usually with a running track around the pitch, and you would hear names that you recognised from World Cups, but here they were in an unfamiliar kit, playing with familiar style and brilliance. It took a while for me to reconcile that the Michel Platini in the black and white stripes of Juventus was the same player as the one with the untucked shirt and languid style of Les Blues from the 1982 World Cup.
Even more incredibly, you could have a situation where only one country had the potential for a fixture between two clubs from the same country. Back then, that was a real badge of honour as it meant your country were the current holders of the European Cup.
Such an event occurred in the 1978-79 competition. Nottingham Forest, under the enigmatic Brian Clough, had just won the league title and a first entry into the European Cup. Their opponents in the first round? The winners of the trophy from the two previous seasons, Liverpool. It was the tie of the round, and there no need for an atlas.
Forest won the first leg 2-0 then held the best side in Europe 0-0 at Anfield; they were on their way, having beaten the favourites in the first round, to winning their first European Cup. Despite the old format – which demanded winners only – having successfully defended the European Cup the following season, Nottingham Forest are the only side to win the European Cup more times than their own domestic league.
If familiarity was to pave the way for Clough’s Forest side to win the European Cup, it is nothing compared to the current familiarity with which sides now face each other. This season’s Champions League has seen Barcelona play PSG and Bayern Munich play Arsenal for a fourth time in five seasons. Surely familiarity breeds contempt, and for all other fans, boredom.
So we come to the real crux of this discussion. There are questions often asked that can never be really answered but prompt hours of intense discussion between ‘fans of football’ and ‘football fans’. Such as was Manchester United’s treble-winning side better than the Busby Babes? Or how good would Lionel Messi be if he had played in the 1970s? All these questions are unanswerable but enjoyable to discuss.
As I get older I have come to terms with the fact that I am definitely a traditionalist. Football previously had been defined by eras of great teams or domination of great players. Now I fear that football, specifically in England, will be defined as pre or post-Premier League and pre or post-Champions League. The majority of sports students I work with have no real understanding or concept of the tradition of the old First Division or the European Cup.
With that in mind, is the Champions League better than the European Cup?
For me, it all comes down to the fact that the European Cup was a competition that was the preserve of league champions. It was a reward for the previous x-number of games it took a team to win the league title. You were guaranteed a league winner’s medal and the opportunity to compete in the greatest club competition. On a personal level, they were almost as valuable as each other; it wasn’t just the value of earning more money as a player or club.
The straight knockout format created an element of anticipation and jeopardy for every team in the competition. But if you are going to win a cup competition, you have to be prepared to play and beat everyone else in it. Consequently, there is the potential for something that every neutral enjoys: the cup upset.
The two-legged format of every round except the final ensured that the work done in the first leg would have repercussions in the second leg. Just imagine if every round had the potential to be played with the same intensity of that extraordinary last-16 this year?
In the 1992-93 season the European Cup became the Champions League, the format changed to include group stages, taking away the drama of knockout competition and the potential for a Barcelona versus PSG comeback scenario.
In 1997 UEFA made the step of changing the competition, which – in my opinion – devalued the competition forever. They allowed league runners-up entry to the tournament proper. In 1999 that was further expanded to allow some countries to enter up to four teams. In the 2005-06 competition, there was the incredulous situation of five English clubs being entered into the competition.
How can a competition which had 25 percent of all the Premier Leagues’ clubs in it be classed as the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens? Why should teams from lesser footballing nations be expected to play in qualifying rounds? Winning a league title is winning a league title, regardless of the country.
Why should Welsh Premier League champions The New Saints have to play in a first round qualifying game on 28th June, while Tottenham finish third in the Premier League and automatically go into the group stages and start the competition on 14 September?
Read | Amsterdam’s last night of European glory
In this season’s Champions League, three teams – Barcelona, Juventus and Leicester City – were the only domestic league winners to top the eight groups. Teams who weren’t champions last season topped the other five groups. I appreciate the argument that you pay your money and take your chance, and if league winners aren’t good enough to top the group, the issue is with them. The current format does not give a divine right to league winners to top their groups, but it does give them an added opportunity to progress.
I also appreciate that money and media contracts have a lot to do with the structure and seeding of teams within the current format. The insatiable demand for football coverage on the television is one of the major driving forces, but should that demand override the ethos of the competition?
Don’t TNS deserve the opportunity to be drawn against Barcelona or Juventus? Surely the anticipation of that first round draw would be reward enough for the previous league campaign. Supporters of a small team in Wales sat waiting in anticipation, dreaming of what might be, as the names are pulled out of the hat.
The incessant drive for a top four place has, in some eyes, devalued the FA Cup competition. Arsenal’s perennial qualification has seen them play 11 successive seasons in the Champions League since they last qualified as champions. Do Arsenal fans really accept top four as success? Would Spurs players rather have winner’s medals in the FA Cup and League Cup over appearances in the Champions League?
I acknowledge these are questions which are frequently asked, but if the Champions League was once again the European Cup, these questions would be a moot point.
So I am drawn back to Leicester City. To me it is only just and proper that they are the sole English survivors in the Champions League. They earned their crack at the Champions League over 38 games last season, and now they are rightfully enjoying the reward that comes with it. Long may their journey continue.
If they are to be knocked out, the traditionalist in me hopes that it is against another reigning league champion and not the third-place finishing Athletico Madrid. If they were to go on and win it, they could, for one season at least, justifiably claim to be the best club in Europe.
Maybe the only reason the Champions League gets interesting around February time is because essentially, it goes back to being the European Cup.
By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44