If Eric Cantona’s philosophical speech talking about football and immortality is anything to go by, UEFA Champions League, going into its 65th edition, might prove to return to its accustomed grandeur this time around. September will have well and truly arrived when the all too familiar anthem will bellow out loud and clear in Milan and Lyon on Tuesday night.
With the return of the annual competition, a flurry of anticipatory questions swarm the heads of the football faithful will Liverpool gegenpress their way through to another final? Will Cristiano Ronaldo finally break the curse of Turin? Will Pep Guardiola be able to put an end to his nine-year-long drought? Will Bayern Munich and Barcelona put enough effort to voice their superiority this year?
Will the unbalanced financial scales in the European competition be able to provide healthy competition to the ones crowned at the top of the hierarchy?
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport, the 53-year-old Frenchman had said after accepting the 2019 UEFA President’s Award in Monaco back in August. Whether Cantona was merely quoting William Shakespeare’s King Lear, or he was indicating to the inequalities is unsure, but this much is known, that his statement does stand strong with the hypotheses that the rich clubs do "kill for sport" in the premium-tier of Europe.
Barring Ajax’s inspiring quarter-final win over Juventus and Red Star Belgrade’s home win against Liverpool last season, there has been hardly any other instance of a club triumphing over another with higher annual revenue in the competition. Despite Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations and Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) interferences in the financial workings of the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, what is likely, is that the trend of the weak getting eaten up like fodder will continue without a strong show of the rule hand.
With clubs like Club Brugge, Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, FC Salzburg, and even Atalanta and Lille, making their way into the competition this season, what stands as the realistic expectation? Knowing the dominance of the European giants, no bookmakers would even dare to keep the odds even close to equal. At most, their involvement is merely seen as a part of the process, to keep the cogs of the machine turning on and on, so at the end of the day, a Liverpool or a Real Madrid would go on to lift the trophy.
What did surprise even the hardened fan last season, amidst the Lionel Messi freekicks, the Cristiano Ronaldo celebrations, the VAR-induced meltdown of Manchester City, was Erik ten Hag’s Ajax afflicting pain to Goliaths left, right and centre. Along the way of beating Real Madrid and Juventus, and almost ending their 23-year-long wait for a Champions League final, the youthful side from Amsterdam, Netherlands became the talk of the town. Just how, Leonardo Jardim’s AS Monaco side had shocked and awed all in the 2016/17 season, when they had made their way to the semi-finals.
For any competition to thrive, the system has to adhere to the very meaning of the word, and try to break the eternal cycle of the smaller European clubs to exact some semblance of equality, akin to the times before the mass globalisation of the sport. Red Star Belgrade, winners in 1991, have won four of the last six domestic seasons, but are already preparing for their imminent knockout after being clubbed with Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur in Group B. Similarly, Dinamo Zagreb, even after winning 14 of the last 15 domestic seasons, will have to mentally brace themselves for being stuck in the vicious cycle of exiting the group stages, taking the money, winning the domestic league and again qualifying for next season’s UEFA Champions League.
Meanwhile, the reform plan proposed by European Club Association (ECA) leader Andrea Agnelli is still stuck in the pipeline, as his idea of introducing eight-team groups from 2024 has faced quite the opposition. Not to mention, how the majority of the 169-club UEFA-hosted meeting last week let their disappointment known about the idea of making Champions League a closed competition by giving 24 of the 32 teams guaranteed slots to return. Although Agnelli’s plan of inaugurating a 64-team, third-tier competition after Europa League will theoretically grant "fairer access" to lowly ranked ECA members, the indecisiveness attached with the entire process of reform can be seen as a warning sign.
If the repetition in the script isn’t shunned, wherein a little sporting strife isn’t introduced in order to bring about a healthy competition amongst all, then the quest for attaining the Big Ears by the end of next May might risk becoming predictable. With the group stages churning out the expected results till the end of the year, the very essence of witnessing the Davids hailing from Serbia, Croatia, Austria etc. downing the Goliaths of England, Spain and Italy will become lost to the spectators.
In Cantona’s mind-boggling acceptance speech during the UEFA Ceremony, he had added, "Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state and so we will become eternal." Little did the players, coaches, club officials interpret that in order to become eternal, immortal, competition is always a necessary ingredient. Killing it for sport, for more broadcasting revenue, for more sporting content to be viewed on YouTube which just glorifies the tricks of the multi-millionaires against daily wage footballers, isn’t the way forward.
Maintaining the authority of Europe like the Sheriff of Nottingham is all fine and dandy, but it is with the inclusion of Robin Hood, that the plot thickens and the tale adds to itself more enthusiasm. If the upcoming Champions League fails to deliver such a tale, with Atalanta’s Duvan Zapata stealing the limelight, or Club Brugge’s Simon Mignolet upsetting Paris Saint-Germain’s attack, then amidst all the celebrated, well broadcasted and talked about wins, there might be a loss hidden somewhere within.