Tournaments for the sake of tournaments

UEFA President Michel Platini's Europa League experiments have robbed the tournament of its sheen.-Pics: AP

With constant tampering of formats, tournaments run on with a bloated list of teams, robbing them of any character. But then, the World Cup itself has been enlarged beyond belief, to its present top heavy complement, the compact 16 team finals a nostalgic memory, writes Brian Glanville.

Football is awash with a superfluity of tournaments; though in at least one respect, there is a tournament too few. That is the much lamented European Cup Winners' Cup. When it began, I confess I was somewhat sceptical about it. I remember expressing my doubts to Sir Stanley Rous, the all powerful secretary then of the Football Association and later President of FIFA. My reservation being that though certain European countries had historically thriving Cup competitions, as in England, Scotland, France and Spain, others such as Italy hardly took their Cup tournaments seriously, if they had them at all.

The Italians were particularly indifferent. They used to begin their Cup competition weeks before the all important Campionato started, a hold and corner affair in which major and minor clubs were mixed up in a prolix process. Rous' response to my objections was that he hoped a European Cup Winners Cup would stimulate interest in Cup tournaments in countries where it was lacking and in the event, I think that he was proved right.

Certainly there would be many dramatic and exciting finals and in those happier and easier times there was even the opportunity to stage a replay (which you don't now get, even at a World Cup final) such as there notably was when Chelsea defeated Real Madrid at the second time of asking in Athens.

But the greed of the big European clubs put an end to this engaging tournament. They insisted on greater representation in the major competition, the European Cup itself, bloating it horribly, enabling as many as four different teams from the same country to participate. So much so that the name European Champions Cup became a misnomer, in effect an offence under the British Trades Description Act. There have been finals contested by two teams neither of which had won its county championship.

Third round League Cup action between Chelsea and Fulham at Stamford Bridge. Empty seats in the background, a common feature of the lackadaisical tournament.-

Moreover, instead of the simple, effective and attractive system whereby teams competed on a home and away basis, with qualification decided on goal aggregate — or, in due course, on away goals counting double — we were subjected to a series of mini-leagues, at least one tier of which was so redundant that in due course it was abolished. Money, of course, was at the root of it all. UEFA had little choice but to succumb to the demands of the richer clubs, fearful that they might break away and form their own competition. And what of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, which became the UEFA Cup and is now, Heaven, help us, transformed into the so called Europa League?

The original idea was arbitrary even to the point of being somewhat daft. The Inter Cities Fairs Cup was open only to cities which staged an industrial fair! In due course however the so called Fairs Cup gathered impetus, expanded to embrace countries which had no Fair at all and transmuted in time to become the UEFA Cup, with places going to teams high up in their respective League tournaments though not high enough to contest the European Cup itself.

In the absence of the Cup Winners' Cup, this tournament became steadily more attractive, but in due course it was surely blemished by UEFA's bizarre decision to allow a limited number of clubs eliminated early on from the European Cup itself to take part in the secondary competition. Which, in this case, too, has resulted in two teams contesting the final both of which had started in the European Cup itself.

What you might call the reduction ad absurdum was surely reached a couple of seasons ago when Fulham, who had been labouring doughtily through the rounds from the previous July, found themselves in the final up against an Athletico Madrid team allowed to compete after European Cup elimination. That clubs should, in any case, be forced to contest the earlier UEFA Cup rounds from mid-summer was in any event a parlous imposition on players' energies.

The same situation now exists in the successor tournament, the alleged European League. Some clubs obliged to play in mid-summer, and all taking the risks in having to travel colossal distances (London to the Faro Isles or Ukraine for instance with Fulham) on a Thursday, then facing a home League game on the following Sunday. The present tournament might be named Platini's Folly, since the former French star, now President of UEFA, wanted to enlarge the UEFA Cup to include minor clubs from outsider countries.

Then there's the English Football League Cup which has existed under an abundance of sponsor's names. Conceived by the Football League's Secretary, Alan Hardaker, as a rival to the historic FA Cup, it limped along for a time as an obscure midweek home and away tournament. Then he had the brainwave of staging the final at Wembley and somehow contriving a place for the winners in the UEFA Cup. These days, many of the competing clubs simply put out reserve teams, something of a travesty, but quite explicable.

The final itself becomes a major occasion, but is rather like the cherry on top of a crumbling cake. QPR's manager Neil Warnock openly declared he was glad when his team was knocked out in their first game. Many crowds are miniscule. A tournament which might be called Hardaker's Revenge limps on; utterly unbalanced. But then, the World Cup itself has been enlarged beyond belief, to its present top heavy complement, the compact 16 team finals a nostalgic memory.