The trouble with Europe

Published : Oct 07, 2010 00:00 IST

The sad truth of the matter is the greed of the big clubs and the fearfulness of UEFA — terrified lest they break away to devise a tournament of their own, a threat offered by the ineffable Silvio Berlusconi, owner of AC Milan and leading Italian politician — has turned the Champions League into a sham, writes Brian Glanville.

Whoever would have thought it? Manchester United of all clubs, fielding a deliberately weakened team — 10 changes from the previous League side — against Glasgow Rangers at Old Trafford in the European Champions League. United, who in 1968 became the first ever English club to win the European Cup, against Benfica, and then won it again in Barcelona versus Bayern Munich. What resulted at Old Trafford was a grindingly tedious European game against a dourly defensive ultra-negative Rangers side, which kept only one man upfront almost throughout and often left a forty-yard gap or more between him and their midfield. Of course it was a 0-0 draw.

The man who might well have cracked that massed Rangers defence with his elusive skills and his amazing menace with the head as well as foot was Bulgaria's Dimitar Berbatov, but he wasn't even on the bench. Neither was that supreme purveyor of passes, Paul Scholes. But the following Sunday in the Premiership, when Liverpool came to Old Trafford, Berbatov was sensationally effective, scoring all three of United's goals in a 3-2 win which deeply flattered Liverpool, one of them with a majestic header which had him soaring above Liverpool's ultra-experienced centre back, Jamie Carragher.

Sir Alex Ferguson, United's manager, might say that had he played Berbatov against Rangers, there was always the risk that he might have been injured. But that doesn't alter the fact that Ferguson, a veteran of so many European Cup campaigns, was manifestly putting greater emphasis on the Premiership than on the European Cup, supposedly the zenith of all European club competitions.

Critics might say that United have done something of the sort before. Notably when though holders of the FA Cup, they withdrew from the competition to play in a half-baked superfluous so called Club World Cup in Brazil.

But I never blamed Ferguson or his club for that. They were under intense but irrational pressure both from the Football Association and the government, in the shape of the then Minister for Sport, the noisy, shrilly aggressive Tony Banks, to go to Brazil, for fear that if they didn't it would count against England's chances of staging the 2006 World Cup. Well United went, sacrificed the FA Cup and needless to say England came nowhere near putting on the World Cup in 2006, Germany beating South Africa to the privilege.

Liverpool this season even under its talented new manager Roy Hodgson — who himself put out a much changed team at home to Steaua Bucharest in the now increasingly superfluous Europa Cup — hardly seemed a serious challenger on current form to United, their League record this season having been depressing.

But Ferguson's decision to snub, in effect, the Rangers game has led to a valid debate about the Champions League and what it has controversially become. Above all, there has been a call, though it is all too unlikely to be answered by UEFA, to return to the initial formula whereby every tie was decided on a two- legged, home and away, goal-aggregate basis, in other words, a genuine knockout Cup competition. In more recent years, the dubious practice has been to replace such a tournament with mini-league qualifying groups. Initially there were actually two group stages which were radically over-egging the pudding and occasionally brought the embarrassment of a team left with no chance of qualifying selling a match to a better placed opponent, as one Russian club certainly did to a French opponent.

Eventually UEFA came partially at least to their senses, abolishing the first group qualifying stage, so that now we have just the one which arguably in a so called Cup competition is still one too many. Indeed Ferguson may well have reflected that while a draw against fearful Rangers was always a strong possibility, there would be plenty of time in the ensuing group matches to acquire the points to proceed to the next knockout round.

The sad truth of the matter, however, is that the greed of the big clubs and the fearfulness of UEFA, terrified lest they break away to devise a tournament of their own — a threat offered by the ineffable Silvio Berlusconi, owner of AC Milan and leading Italian politician — has made the Champions League in effect a sham and a fiction, allowing the stronger countries to commit as many as four clubs. In the past, the only way a country could enter more than one club was when one of their teams held the trophy but had not won its own domestic championship. Thus it was goodbye to a tournament which after an uncertain start had become as lively and popular as the European Cup Winners' Cup. There was simply no place for it any more, as those clubs which might have qualified by winning their domestic competition would probably be eligible for the Champions League.

Also diluted and distorted was the UEFA Cup which had begun somewhat quaintly as the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, the bizarre qualification being that clubs had to come from a city that staged an industrial fair! But this tournament in due course mutated into the UEFA Cup, with a complement which sometimes rivalled the European Cup itself.

“If it ain't broke, don't fix it,” is the wise American saying, but UEFA have never seemed aware of it. So it is that they have clumsily cheapened the UEFA Cup, as it was, by enabling teams knocked out in the early stages of the European Cup to take part, and as often as not to win it. A situation made all the more ludicrous by the fact that the UEFA Cup's successor, the distorted brain child of Michel Platini, the UEFA President, the so called Europa Cup, is now so top heavy with teams that it has to begin in July; midsummer, which didn't stop Roy Hodgson last season, taking his Fulham team all the way from there to the final.

There is an old saying that war is too important to be left to generals. By the same token, European football is surely too important to be left to UEFA. But then UEFA themselves, even when Platini isn't implementing his distorted ideas, is at the mercy of the big clubs, who care above all for money.

So those superfluous qualifying European Cup groups will doubtless be with us forever.

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