By Ken Pendleton - EUGENE, OR (Oct. 13, 2005) USSoccerPlayers – In 1994, the European Cup morphed in to the Champions League. Financial stability was part of the goal, but the end game was to make this the most prestigious and popular competition in the world, ahead of even the World Cup. Even though this reinvention has been a rousing success, in terms of both international stature and gross revenues generated, it does not seem any closer to supplanting the World Cup. The reason why this has failed to materialize is worth exploring, because it says a great deal about globalization and the importance of ritual in sports.
The format of the European Cup had not changed much since its inception in 1955. In order to qualify, you had to be the champion of your domestic league or have won the previous European Cup competition.
There were a few minor changes. Up until 1969, there would be a third match at a neutral venue if the aggregate scores were level after two legs and a coin toss would be used if the teams drew that match. In 1971, penalty shootouts replaced coin flips and by 1984 this method, rather than a replay, was even used to settle the final.
I use the term “minor changes” because none of these alterations had a substantial impact on the financial structure of the competition, but it is important to note that eliminating the third matches and final replays often killed off matches because underdogs would often play for penalties. Thus, Steaua Bucharest in 86, Benfica in 88, and, most infamously, Red Star Belgrade in 91 didn’t even pretend that they were trying to score in the final.
Throughout this period, the draw was completely random and this is what set major changes in motion. In 1987, the bad luck of the 1st round draw served up a tie between Real Madrid and Napoli. Real won 3-1 on aggregate, but the important point, for the European soccer powers that be, was that Napoli were faced with a huge budgetary shortfall. How could a club be expected to plan their finances, especially when salaries were escalating dramatically, when their revenue stream could vary by tens of millions of dollars.
This is why we now have a first round group format. The big clubs wanted a guarantee that they would have at least six matches to generate revenue and the round-robin format, in which four teams play each other home and away, minimizes the possibility that the little clubs will advance. This is no doubt good for financial stability of the big clubs, and it may even be good for the small club’s accounts, but it has come at the expense of the romance of the competition.
The final important structural change began when the so-called “Champions” League began admitting runners-up and eventually third and fourth place teams from domestic league. This greatly benefited the big clubs, many of whom could now be more or less assured of regular appearances, but it entailed the absurd possibility that a team like Bayer Leverkusen, who have never won the Bundesliga, could nonetheless be crowned champions of Europe.
As Silvio Berlusconi – the owner of Milan, the Italian Prime Minister and owner of the biggest media empire in Italy – explained in 1992, the real goal, however, was to make the Champions League itself the most prestigious and popular competition in the world. “The concept of the national team will, gradually, become less and less important. It is the clubs with which the fans associate. A European Championship for clubs is inevitable.”
He proved correct to an extent. The Champions League is now a protracted affair that involves the biggest clubs for the better part of the soccer season, but not about the concomitant decline of national teams and, by implication, the World Cup.
The reasons for that failure, if that is the right word, lies in the very heart of the beast that Berlusconi and his pals have created. In 1992, Berlusconi predicted that, with the integration of the European Union, Milan would sign an increasing number of foreigners and play 80 matches a year. “Next season Milan will play twice very week: on Sundays in the Italian League, on Wednesdays in the European Cup, the Italian Cup, or television friendlies. This is why we must strengthen our squad.”
End result was cultivating a following from the millions of fans around the world, many of whom are not Italian let alone Milanese, who “could watch us through pay-TV.”
The Champions League has been a qualified success. It generates tons of TV revenue and matches from the group stage on are beamed around the world, but per match attendance has declined. Furthermore, domestic cup competitions are now afterthoughts and fans have no appetite for the prestige “television friendlies” Berlusconi tried to foist on them. Finally, attendance in domestic competition, which is still the heart and soul of the game for most clubs and supporters, is also in decline, in large measure because most clubs have no chance of winning their domestic leagues.
UEFA has tried to model itself on the National Football League: the Champions League is supposed to be like the Super Bowl and the sport is increasingly built around the revenue generated from television and modern stadiums with all their fan-as-consumer bells and whistles (e.g., luxury boxes and prawns for sale). But they have failed to understand the two most important lessons the NFL should have taught them.
A large part of the success of the NFL has been built on its ability to limit the availability of its product. Since the 1970 the number of games played during the regular season has only increased from 14 to 16 and the number in the playoffs participants has only increased from eight to twelve, which can in part be justified by the fact that the league has expanded from 26 to 32 franchises. Of equal importance, every team in the NFL has a realistic chance to turn its fortunes around within two years and most years ten or so teams have a realistic chance of winning the Super Bowl.
Simply put, watching 80 matches a year all but destroys the ritual of the sport for the fan (who cares about the regular season in the National Basketball Association) and it is hard to sustain interest when most matches are a formality or the club you support has next to no chance of winning anything significant.
Thank God Sepp Blatter’s proposal to hold the World Cup every other year died quickly The beauty of the World Cup, even if it has become bloated, is that fans get to watch players that they can identify with in a competition-a global event-that is overflowing with ritual. Fans will never care as much about a club in Milan as they do about their own country and if soccer doesn’t find a way to introduce some measure of financial parity Berlusconi will end up destroying the very club structure that he sought to elevate.