By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 13, 2015) US Soccer Players – Are we kind of sorta supposed to feel a little bad for Chelsea? In the latest rendition of pay to play in Europe, Chelsea ticked all of the boxes. A chairman with a willingness to spend significant money. A manager that’s among the best in the world. A team that can sub in for a world all-star eleven if needed. A worldwide fan base that grew exponentially when the club started winning Premier League and Champions League titles.
Then UEFA had to go and screw it all up with a Champions League draw that put Chelsea up against a potential super club from Paris. PSG hasn’t operated with their substantial resources long enough to match Chelsea’s recent success. That doesn’t matter on the field, where their selection of world all-stars knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League.
In the aftermath, the discussion is about Chelsea deciding to challenge the officiating during the game. Pressuring the referee has its own traditions at all levels of professional soccer, with Chelsea only managing to lift it to the big stage. They won’t be the first or the last, and it’s worth the reminder that the referee is empowered to put a stop to that at any point courtesy of those plastic cards in his pocket. Past that, the organizers can always act retroactively. The media outrage is fine, perhaps even appropriate, but it’s not the story.
The story is the same one we see over and over in the Champions League, a meritocracy mixed with a plutocracy. The money normally wins. It’s part of the reason for the group stage, allowing enough games for quality to win out. The group stage is about removing the impact of the random result. Let them happen, there are enough games for a team to recover.
180 minutes in the knockout rounds changes things. With most teams playing the opening leg as cautiously as possible, that 180 minutes can quickly become significantly less time to get a goal. Against an evenly matched opponent, that’s a horror show for the elite clubs. The advantages of money aren’t there. Instead, it’s a return to direct competition that rarely exists domestically or in Europe. When it happens in the Round of 16 where there are still over-performing teams in the tournament waiting to make their timely exit?
With all due respect to the organizers of summer soccer tournaments marketed as more than friendlies, there really is no making this up. At least not until next year at this stage in a similar scenario. Even then, one of the money teams exits the money tournament.
This is what UEFA and the elite clubs wanted to build. The Super League by default, but overlooking the biggest advantage of a true league. In a league, every team plays a full schedule. The Champions League sends teams home at the end of every stage.
If you want to look for the weak point in how contemporary soccer organizes itself, you might as well start at the top. Guaranteed games has always been the point of the Champions League, and it’s also its problem. Those games need to count, but not so much that it calls into question how much clubs spend. It’s a balance for the clubs involved that seldom makes sense domestically but should at European level. Otherwise, why spend so much?
Chelsea or anybody else could realistically play for the Round of 16 on a budget. A good group stage draw, a second-place finish, home and away against a stronger club where they’ll take their chances, and see you again next season. There are plenty of clubs fine with doing that. It’s the pragmatic response to a competition that didn’t stress sporting equality by design.
By design, at this stage of the Champions League parity only exists between the richest clubs, something that should only work itself out after the first round of the knockout stage. It’s much easier to explain away a season where a team was one of the eight best in Europe than one of the top 16. The budgets make more sense.
What keeps the system in place is that it works. Chelsea didn’t go out to a club operating with less. They lost to a fellow rich team. The rest of Europe’s elite might have preferred both teams to still be in play in the quarterfinals, but it happens. It’s how often it happens that will predict the future of the Champions League.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him email@example.com.
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