PARIS — There will likely be stories, after all. There are at all times stories. The Champions League delivers them so regularly and so reliably that it’s unimaginable to dismiss the nagging suspicion that every one of this might just be scripted, the product of some complex simulation being run from a secret lair in Nyon.
Robert Lewandowski, clad within the blue and red of Barcelona, will return to Bayern Munich, only just a few weeks after forcing his exit. Manchester City’s visit to Borussia Dortmund will see Erling Haaland standing over again before its Yellow Wall, that great force of nature now not at his back but marshaled in his face.
And there will likely be scenes, too. Real Madrid, the reigning and apparently perennial European champion, will walk out at Celtic Park and wince on the roar of a spot that impressed Lionel Messi a lot that he keeps a Celtic jersey at home as a memento, an environment described by Xavi Hernández as “incomparable,” an arena where the host’s winning a lot as a corner generated a noise that made Antonio Conte think “the stadium was falling down.”
That’s what the Champions League does best, in any case. Like its great contemporary, the Premier League, the competition is as much an iconographical phenomenon as a sporting one. Even in those years — not so way back, even now — when its product was more noted for its caution, its risk aversion, its brutalist cynicism, its appeal endured due to the way in which it was packaged.
The searing lights, the swelling music and the packed stands across Europe all function immediately comprehensible prompts to observers and participants alike. They denote that what’s unfolding is the top of the game, the one thing that matters, the indisputable most important event.
And yet, for the primary time in three a long time, that is probably not true this 12 months. This season’s Champions League will likely be a staccato one. The primary two months of the tournament will bring an incredible rush of fixtures, six rounds of games played in nine breathless weeks, the one breather coming in the shape of an unwelcome and, on some level, somewhat greedy international break.
Then the competition that has spent 30 years establishing itself because the unquestioned and unrivaled summit of the sport — the place where the game’s leading edge is sharpened, where latest ideas bubble and sizzle, where players put their talent to the final word test — will likely be suspended in uneasy hibernation, put begrudgingly on hold from November until February.
Reluctantly, the Champions League — and the constellation of Europe’s great clubs who’ve come to treat it as their objective and birthright — will cede the limelight to the World Cup: five prime weeks in the course of the season handed over to international soccer, that anachronism of a bygone age, glossy club soccer’s unwelcome, ugly cousin.
There isn’t a shortage of reasons for club soccer to resent this intrusion: the financial ramifications of losing those weeks of television real estate; the potential risk of injury to players paid not by their national associations but by the clubs; the sense that the engine of the game is being forced to stall in order that the hood could be polished.
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But greater than all those, perhaps, is the unhappy reminder that, while the Champions League is essentially the most glamorous and most exclusive club competition on the planet, it is simply essentially the most glamorous and most exclusive club competition on the planet. The qualifier — “club” — tells a story of its own. For all the cash, for all the facility, for all of the stories and the scenes, the World Cup continues to be the most important show on the town.
It’s price pausing to reflect on why that is likely to be; in any case, it doesn’t fit neatly with what we assume modern consumers — sorry, fans — want from sports. As discussed on this space a few weeks ago, audiences are drawn to soccer games by two aspects specifically: the familiarity of the brands — sorry, teams — involved, and the stakes for which they’re playing.
The World Cup, just like the Champions League, delivers each in spades. There isn’t a brand recognition quite like being a nation state, together with your own seat on the United Nations and history of governmental corruption and fully equipped army, obviously. And there isn’t any tournament quite so doused in risk because the World Cup, during which one misstep can waste 4 years’ work.
In every other aspect, though, the World Cup comes up short. It cannot match the Champions League for prize money, or for star power — Haaland, like Mohamed Salah and the noted nation state of Italy, will likely be absent from Qatar — or, most important, for quality. The Champions League, now, is where the best soccer on this planet is played. The World Cup, in contrast, is pockmarked by flaws.
That’s unavoidable, after all. If Manchester City lacks a striker, it might exit and buy the most effective one it might find. Spain, because it has helpfully proved during the last several years, doesn’t have that luxury. Like everyone else, it has to make do and mend. Its coach doesn’t have the chance of countless training sessions to hone a system that may accentuate the team’s strengths and disguise its weaknesses; just a few days is all that is offered.
And yet, still, the World Cup possesses the standard of a Black Hole; it draws in the sunshine from even the brightest stars around it. The primary phase of the Champions League, just like the early rounds of domestic soccer, may have the texture of an appetizer, for fans and players. Games will likely be played with an awareness that no person desires to miss the most important course.
That, perhaps, suggests the World Cup has something that the Champions League doesn’t. That could possibly be rarity: the undeniable fact that even the best players might get only three shots at going to a World Cup after they can reasonably expect a dozen or so tilts on the Champions League trophy. It could possibly be the jeopardy that’s, for now, threaded into its structure. It could possibly be good, old-fashioned patriotic fervor.
Or it is likely to be mystery. It stands out as the flaws themselves that make the World Cup so appealing. It could possibly be that the tournament’s appeal is linked to the undeniable fact that Spain could turn up and win it or be eliminated within the group stage; that France, despite the amount of its quality, could possibly be eliminated on penalties by Switzerland; that South Korea can beat Germany and still not qualify for the knockout rounds.
The Champions League has, over time, lost all of that uncertainty. Every 12 months, it feels more like a parade of the inevitable. There will likely be stories and there will likely be scenes this season, as there are every season, but they will likely be rooted in the identical inequality meaning it’s already possible to be pretty certain of the identity of at the very least a dozen or so of the teams that may make the round of 16.
The identical can’t be said of the World Cup. Not one of the teams are perfect — none of them could be — and so the playing field is more level. The teams that do profit from a disparity of resources should not have the protection net of 5 more group games, or a second leg, or the prospect of the transfer market.
It’s the issues of the teams within the World Cup that make its appeal unrivaled. It’s the uncertainty that they convey that make it the most important event. It’s the unpredictability that generates what the Champions League lacks, and what it would like to think about attempting to capture over again.
The Death of the Group of Death
There are, now, two kinds of Champions League groups. One features two heavy favorites, two teams whose seasons will likely be defined by how deep they will advance into the competition — Paris St.-Germain and Juventus, for instance — and two comparative makeweights, in the shape of Benfica, say, and Maccabi Haifa.
These groups are something of a tease. The best way UEFA draws the groups signifies that the attention is drawn to those first two names. P.S.G. and Juventus, you think that: a clash of the titans. There will likely be real jeopardy here. This sensation lasts so long as it takes the observer to keep in mind that two teams qualify from each pool, and so the games between the 2 resident superpowers may, the truth is, mean nothing in any respect.
The second type of group is more interesting. Because of the quirks of the seeding system, these feature only one putative contender — Liverpool, despite its early-season form, or Chelsea, say — and three relatively evenly matched opponents: Ajax, Napoli and Rangers, or A.C. Milan, Red Bull Salzburg and (at a push) Dinamo Zagreb.
On this scenario, too, the superpower invariably makes it through — that’s the character of the trendy Champions League, during which all of us spend an awful lot of time ensuring that the thing that at all times happens will, the truth is, occur again — but it surely is usually with a lower points total and a level of gratitude that their rivals all managed to beat one another.
The only exception to this rule of two groups comes on those occasions when there may be a 3rd kind: when one team in a gaggle is notably weaker than all three of its opponents. That dubious honor, this 12 months, falls to Viktoria Plzen, the Czech champion, drawn to face Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
There are eight groups on this 12 months’s Champions League. That is the just one that doesn’t fit the pattern. That is the one one which shouldn’t be wholly predictable, that may nearly be described as a Group of Death, and even that is simply since it is unimaginable to be entirely sure how secure in itself this latest vision of Barcelona is likely to be. In peculiar years, even a club as famous as Inter would find itself succumbing to the inevitable, and European soccer could be facing as much as the prospect of a fall with none jeopardy in any respect.
Because of Jon Gilbert, to start with, for performing that most precious of services: holding me to account for my attempt last week to carry Gary Neville to account.
“Neville was railing against Glazer parsimony,” Jon wrote. “But that was nothing to do with buying players. Neville was apoplectic at the entire lack of investment in club infrastructure. He was hugely upset in regards to the state of Old Trafford, now a leaky rust bucket. The club lacks a number one training facility, the shortage of a sporting director has stifled progress and a soccer-competent leadership team is desperately needed.”
The last couple of points were, I believe, raised by last week’s newsletter, but I’ll concede the previous: Neville was speaking more broadly than simply complaining that United should lavish extra money within the transfer market. The decline of Old Trafford, the truth is, is a reasonably handy metaphor for the club as an entire: It still draws the crowds and rakes within the money, but it surely is trading on memory.
An issue, too, from Phil Friedman, soliciting an expansion to the suggestion that some revised version of the European Super League makes more sense for other teams from the continent than it does for the denizens of the Premier League. “Undecided I understand this thought,” Phil noted, which indicates a failure on my part to speak with sufficient clarity.
My logic — which can, caveat emptor, be faulty — is that the Premier League’s supremacy is now ensconced; its broadcasting income will proceed to spiral, and so its teams essentially haven’t any must seek a more glamorous competition elsewhere. Indeed, you could possibly argue that the Premier League will turn out to be a type of de facto Super League anyway, with every other domestic competition in Europe feeding into it.
For the elites of Germany, Spain, Italy and France (and potentially others) the one conceivable challenge to that hegemony is to affix forces. A league not only boasting Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Paris St.-Germain and Juventus but additionally drawing on the combined populations of the countries they call home would, I think, have the ability to generate revenues that may match those on offer in England, allowing those clubs to achieve access to the fortunes they so evidently consider they deserve.
That’s definitely to not say its advent could be welcome, after all. Regional leagues are an idea I can get behind; losing the variability offered by each domestic tournament could be a shame. It’s just that, from my vantage point, it has a certain inevitability about it, even allowing for the fatal flaw in any proposed Super League: the undeniable fact that someone would need to finish bottom.