By J Hutcherson (Sep 18, 2018) US Soccer Players - The 2018-19 Champions League group stage began on Tuesday with the competition once again trying to figure out its future. This is the first season of additional automatic group stage spots for the top domestic leagues and the introduction of two time slots for each match day. In other words, once again UEFA is changing things.
We already know how this goes. The elite clubs and the elite domestic leagues they play in pressure UEFA for changes. UEFA asserts its authority as European soccer's governing body by making a lot of those changes. All involved then decide in real time whether or not they're getting what they want. What the super clubs want is more and what UEFA wants is control. Those two things only occasionally synchronize for the good of the fans turned consumer.
Asking what's good for a tournament that decides the best club in Europe is a different question. Nobody in power is all that interested in asking that since it works against the business plan. Instead of focusing on quality, the Champions League era focuses on guaranteed games in the Fall turning into the old knockout competition in the Spring. That the Fall schedule can't help but put together groups and games in search of meaning becomes an unavoidable problem. It isn't, but that's not the point.
UEFA is in the business of tournaments, turning the European Championship at national team level and the Champions League at club level into two of the biggest moneymakers in world soccer. That's an accomplishment, full stop. It's also a situation where criticism can easily settle on unavoidable issues. Namely, is this the best the organizers can do?
There are others. It's certainly fair to ask where we are in the arc of the Champions League era. This was a revamp intended to quiet talks of breakaway super leagues. That's UEFA doing its job to protect the traditional order both for itself and Europe's domestic leagues. It's taken over two decades to transform the Champions League into the current version. It's not fair to compare what we have in 2018-19 to what the European Cup used to look like. Critics should account for all of that development, revamping, and the occasional reset. They'll end up at the same point regardless, that this is a tournament in search of the meaning it once had.
As we know it, the Champions League is trying to do too much. It's still staving off any talk of a breakaway European super league by trying to be a super league by proxy. It fails at that, something that the super clubs who would make up that league like to remind them whenever they want something. It also takes the long and laborious route to decide the best team in Europe. This isn't a competition for the underdog or the outsider, with teams from the top leagues the only ones in serious contention once the knockout stage begins.
Getting past that may be impossible. UEFA has allowed too much to seep into the ideal of a confederation championship. There are too many deals based on an inflated schedule, too many pieces that are only staying in place because the current version is good enough for them. The concept of reforming the biggest club competition in the sport almost sounds silly.
UEFA is unlikely to make that move, certainly not if it means confronting the super clubs in a meaningful way. They won't face off against that other ideal, that a breakaway super league would immediately answer all issues while giving the fans exactly what they've always wanted.
We don't know that a European super league would succeed immediately. We don't know if all of the super clubs would be willing to sign on. We do know where all of those clubs play currently. It's the Champions League occupying that slot, with UEFA doing what's necessary to keep their order in place.
It's hard to set a timer on how long this situation will continue. The talk of a super league rises and falls, normally falling apart before it appears as a serious option. That's been the situation since the late 90s, turning predictions of a super league into a waste of effort. It could happen, and it probably should've by now. That's not exactly helpful in predicting the eventual end to the Champions League era.
Right now, UEFA should be happy with what they have. The super clubs seemed satisfied with the latest changes. There's no rumors of a push for something different. Those predicting an eventual collapse of the global broadcast rights market are in the same situation as predicting a super league breakaway. It could happen.... The bigger threats like FIFA imposing a new transfer system that pushes the super clubs to consider their options or starting a more lucrative and meaningful Club World Cup are part of doing business at this level. Things will change, but UEFA keeps rolling with that and keeping their Champions League model in place.
That may be the biggest takeaway right now. UEFA broke the European Cup model when it no longer served their purpose. That's what created the Champions League in the first place. There's no reason to think that UEFA will be willing to reconsider their own tournament all over again.
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 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Learning to like the Nations League
- 5 things worth watching this season in Europe
- UEFA and its Super Cup
- Manchester United's Mourinho already managing expectations
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