The menace of Michel

The UEFA President’s latest suggestion, which would bloat the already bloated European Champions Cup out of all logical recognition, has been greeted with incredulity and disbelief, writes Brian Glanville.

Of the egregious Sepp Blatter, profoundly compromised President of FIFA, an ironic German journalist once said, “Sepp Blatter has 50 new ideas every day, and 51 of them are bad.” Alas, you could now say much the same of Michel Platini. A glorious footballing talent for France and Juventus, but an increasing disaster in his present role as President of the European body, UEFA.

Platini’s latest suggestion, which would bloat the already bloated European Champions Cup out of all logical recognition, has been greeted already with incredulity and disbelief. Yet it is only the latest of a continuing series of dubious plans. It is all too clear that Platini, who seems to have made common cause with the discredited Blatter, would like to succeed him as the top man at FIFA. He would be not so much a worthy successor as a sadly similar one.

Which is not for a moment to impugn Platini’s undoubted honesty and integrity. What he does and what he advocates are simply the product of a somewhat muddled mind. Thus, he surprisingly and even shockingly supported Qatar in their ludicrously successful bid to stage the 2022 World Cup despite the fact that, in footballing terms, this tiny country has no valid football history at all and that its roasting hot summer climate makes it just about the last sensible place to stage a World Cup tournament.

Yet, compounding his inexplicable support for the Qatar bid, Platini added insult to injury, illogicality to fatuity, by going along with the idea that the tournament be played out of the hot summer season, in the European winter; thus obliging the European countries to turn their League and Cup schedules upside down. The offer of the Qatar football authorities to provide closed and air-conditioned football stadia for the competition made strictly limited sense. What of the wretched spectators, who would be forced to contend with the stifling heat in the streets outside?

Platini has already inflicted on European football the top heavy and increasingly marginalised Europa tournament. It is top heavy with a plethora of teams supposedly testifying to the democracy of the competition, but in actuality simply prolonging it beyond all reason, with little or no hope of making progress. So it is that so many “lesser” teams are doomed to take part as early as July.

Platini’s latest daft idea is to combine the European Champions tournament with the ailing Europa League to involve no fewer than a gargantuan 64 teams. The dire prospect would be that, after a series of preliminary matches, the 64 teams might divide up into 16 groups of four. Next to eight groups of four before a knockout phase is reached for the surviving 16 teams, and so grindingly on to the Final.

All this would entail excluding the preliminaries a massive 19 games to win the tournament rather than the present 13. “Maybe Platini could invent a 13th month to play it in,” suggested an ironic columnist, who also reflected on the equally grotesque alternative that the knockout phase could begin with 32 teams, making it likely that numerous minor teams with no ultimate hope of success would be involved.

The truth is that the present Europa tournament, with which, in his unwisdom, Platini replaced the reasonably functioning UEFA Cup, has been increasingly marginalised and of less and less concern to the major clubs which have much bigger fish to fry at home.

Yet, whatever the confusion and irrelevance of Platini’s ideas, the truth is that in both Europe and world competition the pass was sold long ago. When the European Cup began in 1955, it was a knockout competition in which teams met each other home and away, the winner emerging on superior goal-difference. There was even time for play-offs. Things worked perfectly well for some years, until it was decided that the earlier stages should be decided on a mini-group basis. Not only that, but there would be two such group phases.

The dire consequence of this was that, well before the last group game of the first stage had been completed, certain clubs already knew that they had no chance at all of qualifying, with the looming temptation that matches could be bought and sold which, on occasion, they were. Today there is but one group phase, but it is arguably one too many, as we see all too clearly by examining the group stages of the final round. Dead rubbers, as the saying goes, are all too prevalent. Thus, Borussia Dortmund, already qualified, were at home to a Manchester City team already eliminated. Thus in Group B, Arsenal away to Olympiakos and Schalke at home to Montpellier, knew they were qualified though Arsenal, fielding a much weakened team in Greece, could notionally win the group and thus get an easier draw in the next eliminating round.

Let us not talk of Platini’s desire to overload the European Championship finals beyond good sense. After all, has not the World Cup itself been steadily devalued and stirringly overloaded, first by the ineffable Joao Havelange, then by his all too appropriate successor, Blatter? And why such meaningless tournaments as the so-called Club World Cup, another which, perhaps inevitably, has been expanded beyond reason and imposes large burdens on European teams already weighed down with fixtures?