“More European football is good for the game”: the evolution of the European Cup and what comes next

“More European football is good for the game”: the evolution of the European Cup and what comes next

What should we expect from football in the 2020s? The game has changed immeasurably since the 1980s and as we enter the fourth decade since the sport’s “dark days”, it is worth looking back on the man who got the ball rolling. 

For many in Britain, football in the 1980s was characterised by hooliganism, quagmire pitches and crumbling stadia. These murky conditions saw the game relegated to something of a fringe activity; one for the dedicated fan, not the interested neutral. There were few alternatives to the gritty in-stadium experience, with football on television rare and largely devoid of the trappings and niceties that we have since come to expect. 

Football was just not a part of the wider public consciousness as it is now, at least not 24/7. When all home nations failed to qualify for Euro 1984, the BBC and ITV barely bothered to cover the tournament. Only two games of the finals were broadcast live in Britain. Interest in football barely extended beyond the compulsory supporting of one’s own team, but a series of crowd-pleasing alterations would soon change European football forever. 

The 1987/88 European Cup saw two of the game’s most enduring attractions face off in a winner-takes-all two-legged tie. Drawn at home for the first game were Real Madrid, who were already streaks ahead in the all-time European Cup standings and about halfway through a run of five consecutive LaLiga titles. They would play Napoli. The Napoli. The one inspired, led and captained by Diego Maradona. The one who had, just months previous, bested some of the world’s finest teams to win the club’s maiden Scudetto, the first for Italy’s ostracised south. 

It was a mouth-watering tie but, due to the outdated seeding system and straight knock-out format used at the time, it was to take place in September’s first round. Madrid or Maradona: one of the competition’s biggest draws would be exiting after just two games. The Spanish side scrapped a 2-0 win in their home fixture, a penalty and an own goal the only cause for excitement, before a 1-1 draw in the return leg saw the Neapolitans eliminated. Maradona’s hotly-anticipated return the continental spotlight was barely a flicker. 

With fans robbed of a proper appearance from the greatest player on the planet, one man decided that European football needed to change, or be changed. This media tycoon had worked his way up from cruise ship performer to found Italy’s first private national television network, Canale 5, and became owner of AC Milan in 1986. Wanting to maximise the value of his media and sporting ventures, Silvio Berlusconi set about reshaping European football. 

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Berlusconi was one of the first to see football as a commodity, and a potentially lucrative one if packaged correctly. In an interview with World Soccer, he described the European Cup as “a historical anachronism”, and decried it as “economic nonsense that a club such as Milan might be eliminated in the first round … it is not modern thinking.”

Eager to bring about the changes he desired, Berlusconi soon found himself at the crest of a wave sweeping through European football. The 1990 World Cup had not been one for the neutrals. Plagued by negative tactics, it saw the fewest goals-per-game ratio in the tournament’s history (2.21) – and FIFA realised changes were needed. 

The offside rule was altered to favour the forward and many leagues began to award three points for a win in the hope of encouraging attacking play. Most crucially, the back-pass rule was introduced in 1992, a landmark change that instantly negated the tedious time-wasting tactics that had become commonplace in the 1980s. These changes were about improving the experience for those watching, creating a better spectacle for the audience.

While the game on the pitch evolved, there was downright revolution in England as the contemporary big five – Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham – led a game-changing split from the Football League. These top clubs had begun to feel their interests, and bank balances, would be better served by a new elite tier of English football, giving them more lucrative recompense for the broadcasting rights. In 1992, the all-singing, all-dancing Premier League was formed. 

Just as England’s big five would restructure domestic football, Berlusconi had set his sights on the broadcasting potential of the European Cup. In 1988 he commissioned the marketing agency Saatchi and Saatchi to design a ‘European Television League’, making his intentions for the project fairly transparent. 

The commission was given to Alex Flynn, who had given a talk entitled ‘A 10-point blueprint for football’ suggesting the introduction of a European Super League. Speaking to the Independent, Flynn says: “[I produced] what I thought he [Berlusconi] wanted – not necessarily what football needed. So this Super League was based on merit tradition and television. It was a league for the big television markets.”

Others around Europe were thinking along similar lines and Rangers, on course to win a record nine consecutive Scottish titles, agreed that the European Cup needed modernising. Campbell Ogilvie was the club’s general secretary at the time: “Domestically there was a ceiling,” he remembers. “And in Europe, you could be out after one round. That spurred on discussion for all clubs of our size – how do we take this forward? Can we get European football into some sort of structure where we could at least be guaranteed six games, three of them at home? That was where it started.”

Order  |  European Cup

While Flynn lobbied UEFA to consider Berlusconi’s grand plan of an 18-club European Super League, Ogilvie was building support for his more moderate league/knock-out hybrid. The Scot’s first two attempts were rejected by the governing body but as Berlusconi began to float the possibility of a breakaway European league, UEFA were left with little option. 

Fearing a Premier League-style revolt, an extraordinary UEFA congress in the autumn of 1991 approved Ogilvie’s proposals at the third attempt. “UEFA realised they might lose control of their own clubs, and that there was an awful lot of value in television,” says Fynn. “This huge threat of a breakaway league meant it was changed to a group format. I believe he [Berlusconi] used the Super League idea as a stalking horse.”

The competition was to begin in the 1992/93 season, mirroring the Premier League’s introduction and allowing UEFA to build a new image for its flagship competition. They enlisted the help of Television Event And Media Marketing (TEAM) to create a brand with gravitas; a marketable product that could provide the commercial rewards its entrants demanded. This new competition, named the Champions League, was given an anthem (Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’), its own house colours (black/blue and white/silver) and the instantly recognisable ‘Starball’ logo. Anthem, colours and a badge: the classic signifiers of footballing identity and ones that remain today. 

Initially the competition was comprised of two knock-out rounds and an eight-team group stage, a format designed to see the top sides play each other more frequently. This first season ended with a final between AC Milan – the side of Franco Baresi and Marco van Basten – and Marseille, the winners of the previous four Ligue 1 titles. 

While Berlusconi may not have enjoyed Milan’s 1-0 defeat, this meeting of European elites showed that this would be a competition for the big boys. No more Serbian winners here, thank you very much. 

The ‘group stage into knock-out’ structure was brought in for the 1998/99 season with a tedious second group stage briefly added at the start of the 2000s. In 2003, UEFA switched to the 32-team format used today with a seeded group stage to ensure the cream of the commercial crop reach the last-16. 

Since then the Champions League has only grown in importance, with entry to its group stages seen as a greater achievement than lifting one of those mere domestic cups. European football has become the Holy Grail, so much so that another reshuffle may soon be required to satisfy the lavishly financed elites that it helped foster. 

First held in 1955, it took around three decades for the continent’s top clubs to grow tired of the old European Cup’s limitations. History is cyclical and as the Champions League’s 30th birthday approaches, UEFA is again facing a battle to keep its members happy. This time the issue is not a failure to understand football’s commercial potential, but a reaction to some knowing it too well. The Premier League has become a cultural phenomenon and created an uneven playing field in European football. Their ‘product’, meticulously crafted and fiercely protected, has become unsurpassable as the biggest globally. 

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Its current TV deal is by far the largest in world football, giving all its clubs the financial power that most European sides could only dream of. The 2019 Deloitte Football Money League found that six of the world’s ten richest clubs are from England’s top tier. Even for those at the bottom, the Premier League offers lucrative rewards. Brighton place higher than Benfica, who have won five of the last six Portuguese league titles; West Ham, possessor of one top-half finish in the last decade, are worth more than Napoli. 

This advantage has become so great that Arsene Wenger, who brought a fair few game-changing innovations in his day, believes that European football will have to evolve. Asked about the prospect of a pan-European league, the Frenchman said: “It will happen and it will be soon because it is a way for other clubs to fight against the Premier League. You will certainly have a European league over the weekends. A domestic league will play Tuesday and Wednesday. I think that is the next step we will see.”

Once again, at the forefront of the change is an Italian businessman with a strong vested interest in one of the country’s most powerful clubs. But while Berlusconi is focusing his footballing attentions on Serie C side Monza, Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli has assumed the role. Agnelli, also chairman of the European Clubs’ Association, has put pressure on UEFA to help Europe’s top clubs maximise their commercial reach. The Italian has said his goal is “more international exposure, to develop our brands. Today everything is about brand exposure.” 

He has called for more continental games and fewer domestic, shifting the focus further towards European competition and elbowing the Premier League out of the limelight. In 2018 he proposed a new competition described as a ‘Pan European league system with continuity and opportunity to grow from within’. The Telegraph reported that his plans include a group stage comprising four groups of eight teams, guaranteeing at least 14 matches for each club. 

The purpose? More games between the top teams will make the broadcasting rights more valuable. The continental competition is expanded and exploited while the importance of domestic football is reduced.

Football may have changed since Berlusconi’s crusades in the late 1980s, but the changes that he forced through transformed the game. It is now a commodity, one that can be bought, owned and sold. European clubs understand that elite continental competition offers the chance to better market themselves, realise their commercial potential and expand their brands into new markets. Or as Andrea Agnelli puts it, “More European football is good for the game.”

By Will Gittins @WillGitt

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