Of Champions and Also-Rans

UEFA Champions League theme song

Tuesday and Wednesday nights: waving flags, chanting anthems; a sense of pride. And in this culture, a guest coming home on either of these days is no God. Rather the guest is treated as Satan, the devil. Demolish the guest; vanquish him before he catches you. Yes, this is the culture of champions; also-rans do not have a place here.

So, who are these champions? We say they are the teams, the people and the matches that make up the league, make this game so beautiful and keep us engrossed through the year. But let’s ask ourselves, how much of that is true. Some questions keep cropping in my mind, time and again. For instance, do we consistently see good quality football throughout the year when we watch UEFA Champions League matches? Does the current format allow all the champions to participate in this competition? Can we afford to see some also-rans playing on a Wednesday night when a potential champion is sitting pretty at home?

Well, before we try to find answers, let’s first understand who we refer to as champions and also-rans.  Try to figure out how the Champions League evolved from the European Cup. And finally, chart out our options to ensure that on a May evening every year, we get the best team of Europe on the podium.

This article tries to focus on the above points, and subsequently propose a format, fresh or utilised, which will hopefully be acceptable to determine the ‘champion of champions’.

But before I get into the intricacies, I would like to highlight an incident that worries me somewhat. Otelul Galati, who has failed to secure a single point so far in the competition, is playing on a Champions League match day, while Kenny Dalglish, coach of Liverpool – a club which has won the trophy five times, is sitting at home on an early winter evening, sipping coffee.

We barely get much information on clubs like Otelul Galati, BATE Borisov, Trabanzspor, Maccabi Tel-Aviv and APOEL Nicosia as their domestic leagues are not generally telecast live. A few highlights here and there and some random videos available on the internet is all we get to know of them. Some football purists and pundits dig deep to find more about them alright, but not common viewers. This, however, does not imply that they should not get a chance to play in the Champions League. Logic is sometimes blurred by emotions, and big names always eclipse the lesser fortunate ones. We sometimes live in denial and refuse to accept that a Liverpool or a Juventus can be sitting out while a relatively unknown club from Cyprus plays in Champions League.

Owing to the history and the legacy of these mighty clubs like Liverpool and Juventus, we don’t quite want them outside the League. Now, who wants to miss out on a chance to see top European clubs playing against each other?

This page enlists the country coefficients of different European countries which determine the number of participating clubs from that country in UEFA Champions League. Let’s look back at some of the previous formats that existed in European Cup. It was a complete knock-out system with two-legged ‘home and away’ ties. A so-called big club may anyday lose to a relatively smaller club. Though the two leg home-away format practically eliminates the chance factor, the knock-out scenario, I believe is not quite the most suitable way to judge who will be the best team in Europe. Stade de Reims, the runners-up club in the first edition of the competition and also in 1959, now plays in Ligue 2, second division of French League. And such examples abound.

If we look at years that followed, clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt, Nice, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wiener Sports Club, Vasas SC, Shamrock Rovers and SK Rapid Vienna were regular visitors to the later stages of European Cup.

This brings us to the question as to whether the knock-out format was solely responsible for their progress (or lack thereof) in the European Cup; or maybe it was the age before the petro-dollar and globalisation, which is why a good Hungarian midfielder played for Vasas SC, instead of Manchester City: debatable. Guess people valued the clubs from their country to a great extent, and a lot of medium-ranked clubs had good players, and thus performed well. Nottingham Forest which won the competition in 1979 and 1980 consecutively is now languishing in the second division of English football. Malmo FC, Austria Vienna and FC Koln reached the semi-final of the 1979 edition along with Forest. Barring FC Koln, none of the other teams are even doing the rounds in major European football these days. Malmo FC, however, surface in UCL at times.

In the last few years, with the exception of Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona and Manchester United were arguably the two best teams in Europe, and they locked horns twice in the final. But the main drawback of the current format is in the collection of teams at the group stage, and in the fact that the second round is a knock-out round.

The face of football in Europe has changed. The competitive balance has also shifted. A whopping amount of money is floating around in clubs, agencies, and transfer agents. Insurance of players are at an all-time high, players’ values are totally re-organized. Since money took over, clubs like Malmo and Vienna began to fade away. On the other hand, clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea emerged as ‘Powers that be’, with apparently not much of history and success in European football. Some talented players who used to play for Sparta Rotterdam, Shamrock Rovers or Standard Liege are now travelling to either Chelsea, or Manchester City, or some other clubs backed by wealthy owners.

Some trends that seeped in the Champions League:

1. Top-nations have become increasingly powerful; one of them being England, and its performance is particularly prominent, while Germany’s performance has remained somewhat static. With its powerful performance, England has overtaken Spain and Italy in the past few years. Similarly, the French have overcome the period of downturn in the European Champions League, and their performance has significantly improved. Check out the latest UEFA coefficient rankings for 2012 and 2013.  .

2. The excellent performance is not only concentrated in a few countries, but in a few clubs too. Only 11 teams of the five top-nations can improve their performance constantly in the European Champions League.

3. The results of the European Champions League have become more predictable. After the year 2000, the top 10 nations are more-or-less constant in terms of their performance.

One consistent decline is that of Netherlands. PSV Eindhoven and Ajax Amsterdam were two clubs who were generally regular visitors at the later stages of UEFA Champions League. Ajax formed a dynasty in mid 70s, and that brand of football is now calling the shots in world football through FC Barcelona. But the club has almost sunk into oblivion. Though they returned to the Champions League in 2010 after a long hiatus, the glory is all but lost. Portuguese clubs have emerged. Portuguese clubs, I would say, always provide a good competition. They generally remain in Pot 2 and Pot 3 during the draw, and make a seemingly uninteresting group stage interesting.

Which format should UEFA adopt for Champions League?

Before moving onto the discussion on the various types of formats that have been followed by UEFA for this competition over the last couple of years, I express my disapproval of the existing system. There lies an inherentflaw in the system. UEFA calculates the coefficients two to three years in advance. For instance, they are now calculating the country coefficients for the 2013-14 season.

In a dynamic football world, where a club slips into oblivion from the pinnacle of stardom in a matter of months, such treatment is far from fair. Since the European Cup changed to UEFA Champions League in 1993, the format has remained somewhat dubious. There have been a lot of knock-out games to start with, and in the end two groups of four were formed with group leaders advancing to the finals. By far it certainly wasn’t an optimal approach adopted to identify the best team in Europe. After two seasons, UEFA made a radical change in the format from the 1994-95 season. Four groups would play in the initial stage, followed by knockout rounds from quarter-final onwards. Some sense prevailed, and Ajax Amsterdam won the title for the fourth time. Few could argue that Ajax was the best team at that time in Europe, with most of the Dutch powerhouse players playing for Ajax at that time.

Then a slightly different format surfaced, with six groups in the initial stage. Group champions directly qualified for the QF stage, and two best runners up joined them in the QF.  Real Madrid won this year after 35 odd years, with a host of emerging players donning the all-white colour. That was Madrid’s first of three titles they would triumph (1998, 2000, 2002).

The 1999-2000 season saw another change in format, with eight groups being introduced for the first time in the first round. The top two teams from each group qualified to the second round, and those 16 teams were divided into four groups. This format provided very interesting match-ups in the second round, and became a real test of character and continuity for the participating clubs. The finalists of the competition would play 17 matches altogether in the competition.

Sadly, this format lasted till 2002-2003 season, as a lot of top clubs in Europe complained of being burdened with too many matches. Clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Juventus ended up playing more than 65 matches in the season depending on their success in domestic cup competitions. So this format was scrapped from 2003-04 season, and instead of four groups, a knockout round started with 16 teams from the second round onwards. This format is common to the FIFA World Cup, adopted since 1998.

Let’s discuss the best possible format to adopt in the UEFA Champions League and find the leading European team in a season.

Comparing some of the match-ups from the last season’s 16 team knock-out phase – Chelsea vs. FC Copenhagen, Manchester United vs. Marseille, Inter Milan vs. Bayern Munich, and Arsenal vs. Barcelona – two of these match-ups were final line-ups in the last five years. Bayern Munich and Inter Milan were finalists in the 2010 season. Both Barcelona-Arsenal and Inter-Bayern match ups were intriguing, and to be fair to other clubs, they all deserved to be there at later stages of the tournament. Instead, we saw Schalke 04 and Shakhtar Donetsk playing in the quarter-final stages. If we had a 4×4 format, we might have seen a second round grouping like this:

 In all likelihood, our last eight would have been Barcelona, Spurs, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Real Madrid.

If you go through the line-ups of the last 16 teams in the last few years of UEFA Champions League, you will come across many of them. So, how effective is this format really? To begin with, some teams have to play at least four games less every season.

Instead of playing six matches in the 4×4 second-round format, a team is playing just two home-away matches. Four matches mean four weeks to be squeezed into an already-tight calendar. With all the international matches, Euro and World Cup qualifiers and domestic competitions, this is surely a challenging task. The clubs from countries of smaller quotients might even argue that this approach lessens their chance of reaching the QF of Champions League. Considering the prize money for each round in UCL, this can be a big issue for teams that depend a lot on UCL qualification for purchasing players and sponsorships.

Whether we want to see the big guns all the time in the last eight, or do we leave the door open for the comparatively smaller teams and rely on ‘chance’ is a matter of endless debate. My personal take is always to get back to the 4×4 second-round format.

Here’s a revised structure I have worked out. The following format can not only accommodate more teams but also leave room for big guns to lock horns at the later stages of the competition.

First round: Knock-out home-and-away. (48 teams; Total matches 48; each team plays two matches).

Second round: 24 teams divided into eight groups, three teams in each group, round-robin home-and-away (Total matches 8X6 =48; each team plays four matches).

Third round: Eight group champions divided in two groups of four teams. Round-robin home-and-away (Total matches 12X2 =24; each team plays six matches)

Semi-final: Knock-out home-and-away (four teams; four matches; each team plays two matches)

Final: One match.

According to this format, the total number of matches in UCL will remain the same (125); the finalists will play 15 matches instead of 13 in the earlier format.

The main advantage of this format will be (depending on which side of the spectrum you are in) that the big teams can be a part of the round-robin format in the last eight. This format will also rule out the possibility of the same two teams meeting each other more than once during the course of the competition, before the final. Most importantly, if the initial number of teams is increased to 48, UEFA can think of including more teams from countries like England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Netherlands and Portugal into the main draw. Countries with higher coefficients will get more berths, and can have five to six slots. Liverpool, Juventus and clubs alike will not have to sit home for a comparatively poor season.

Although I find this to be an enhanced system, there is a catch to it. I do not claim it to be ‘flawless’. I realised there are a few drawbacks in this format as well. The so-called smaller teams get only two matches to record an upset in the first round. Consider this year’s scenario. Manchester United was defeated by Basel in the last match in the first round group stage and thus failed to qualify for the round of 16. This was possible because United failed to win few other matches, and Basel managed to win some matches against weaker opponents. Had this been a two-legged tie head-to-head between Manchester United and Basel, United probably would have been more cautious and would have won the tie. So this again raises the question, which teams do we want to see in the later stages of the UCL.

Two groups of the last-eight stage, according to the suggested format, can look like this-

Group A: Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich

Group B: Real Madrid, Arsenal, Inter Milan, Chelsea.

This is just a random choice; Liverpool, Juventus, Manchester City, Benfica, Ajax, Lyon, Tottenham, Leverkusen and many other clubs can feature in that list. But the take-home point is, instead of just two Barcelona-Bayern Munich match-ups, we would see all these teams play with each other twice. Chances of APOEL Nicosia vs Otelul Galati match-ups are eliminated in this format. At least I feel this re-constructed structure will give the so-called smaller teams a chance to achieve ultimate glory, theoretically. Only factor is, their margin of error will get even shorter.

But this is a competition, which can easily be termed the toughest in football, and it deserves to be so. The group stage provides all the clubs a chance to compete and cause an upset. But when the going gets tough, opportunities and a proper stage should be provided for the tough ones to get going. It all depends on who you want to see fighting for the Champions League trophy, come mid-May. If you want Marinos Satsias of APOEL Nicosia to lift the trophy at Allianz Arena, then the current format would suit just fine. But if you want to see Wayne Rooney trying to slide past Iker Casillas, or Robin Van Persie slot home a header past Victor Valdes or Lionel Messi’s sublime touch and Manuel Neuer’s helpless look, then vote for the 4×4 second-round format; or alternately consider  the new suggested format. It’s your ‘choice’!


Subhashis Biswas is a professor of chemistry and a student of football genetics. Likes to travel to historical places, loves reading and creative writing in Bengali. Subhashis can be reached at subhashis.7@gmail.com. Subhashis maintains a blog at www.subhashis-mindcafe.blogspot.com