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Don’t Reject the Champions League’s Changes Out of Hand

todayMarch 12, 2021 3

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Say what you like about Andrea Agnelli, but at least he is not afraid of a bad idea. Even by the standards of Agnelli, the Juventus chairman, this has been a fairly spectacular week, a seemingly never-ending stream of free-form thoughts about the future of soccer, each one somehow worse than the last.

There was, first, a stout defense of the coming reform of the Champions League, the so-called Swiss Model, which would see 36 teams qualify for the tournament and then play 10 group games, rather than six, all of them against different opponents.

That was just Agnelli getting started, though. It is perhaps easiest to think of him as soccer’s equivalent to Stewart Pearson, the policy strategist/vapid marketing guru skewered so perfectly in “The Thick of It,” the British political satire. Legacy places in the Champions League? Banning elite clubs from buying each other’s players? Selling a subscription to the last 15 minutes of games? Yes, and ho (Parental Guidance: R).

The reaction to all of these suggestions, of course, was what even Agnelli, presumably, has come to expect: a panoply of derision and disdain, the sort that in a strange sort of way unites soccer’s various warring tribes in hostility to the machinations of a smart, urbane businessman who seems determined to play the role of cartoonish supervillain.

That so many of his ideas emerged in a week in which Agnelli’s Juventus was unexpectedly and dramatically eliminated from the Champions League by F.C. Porto simply served to underline his hubris. This, after all, was the sort of drama he wants to negate, inflicted by the sort of team he wants to disenfranchise. He got, in short, what he deserved.

But while that reaction is both understandable and largely justified, it is not desperately constructive. Just as with Project Big Picture — the set of ideas tossed around by the owners of Manchester United and Liverpool for reform of the Premier League and leaked late last year — the immediate rush to outrage means that the islands of common sense in Agnelli’s thought torrent are swept away before they can be properly explored.

Take, for example, the last of his suggestions. Why would it be bad, precisely, to sell the rights to watch the last 15 minutes of games? Of course the clubs would benefit from the tapping of another revenue stream, but who suffers?

Those who wanted to watch the full match could still do so, through whatever subscription package they currently enjoy. But maybe others — those not able to afford it, those without the time to benefit from it, those who do not wish to watch an entire game — could use a cheaper, shorter, more ad hoc alternative.

There will have been plenty, for example, who might have wanted to watch the denouement to Juventus’s game with Porto, once it became clear that it might prove more compelling than anticipated. So why not let them?

That the idea could be dismissed out of hand is, in part, down to the fact that it was Agnelli who proposed it. He is, after all, not only the chairman of Juventus, but the president of the European Club Association, too, a body that is designed to represent the interests of all of its members but — in the popular imagination — is largely deployed to lobby for the game’s established elite.

As such, it is assumed that everything that is in Agnelli’s interests is automatically tinged with not just self-interest, but also greed. The expansion of the Champions League, according to that argument, is designed to enable a handful of clubs to make more money, at the expense of everyone else, furthering the financial chasm that yawns between teams in the major leagues, and between the major leagues and the minor ones.

The idea of legacy places — allowing teams with more European pedigree to leapfrog those with less, ensuring that the traditional powers always have access to the Champions League, regardless of where they finish in their domestic leagues — is seen as offering them a backstop, inuring them from the consequences of failure, breaking the contract that sport should be in some way meritocratic, ensuring their money keeps flowing.

This is, doubtless, true. Agnelli is not advocating anything that would damage his, his club’s or his collaborators’ interests. But it does not follow that those who stand in his way are acting out of some sort of higher purpose. This week, several clubs — most notably Crystal Palace and Aston Villa — led the resistance to the reform of the Champions League, insisting that it would irrevocably damage domestic competitions.

And they are right, but their motivations are no purer than Agnelli’s. Crystal Palace and Aston Villa benefit very nicely, thank you very much, from the status quo. They have been made immeasurably rich by their mere presence in the Premier League; they will reject any move that endangers their place on that particular gravy train.

It is here that the problem becomes broader, more pernicious. There is a reason Agnelli — and John W. Henry, the owner of Liverpool, and Joel Glazer, his counterpart at Manchester United, and the powers-that-be at Bayern Munich and Juventus and all the rest — keeps having bad ideas, and it is one that cannot be put entirely (though that is relevant) to the big clubs’ greed for trophies and for profit.

It is that on some fundamental level, the economics of soccer as they stand do not work, and they did not work even before the coronavirus hit, creating a colossal hole in the accounts of (almost) every club across Europe, rich and poor alike.

Ideally, at this juncture, it would be possible to pinpoint just one problem — the spending of Paris St.-Germain and Manchester City, the wealth of the Premier League or the growing gap between haves and have-nots — and then to identify a panacea that would make it all better But that is not how it works. Fairness in top-flight European soccer is a vast and unwieldy and complicated issue, and one without an obvious solution.

For the grand houses of continental Europe, the issue is the relentless march of the Premier League. For the big clubs of the Premier League, it is being expected to win an arms race against teams backed by nation states. For those teams, it is trying to crack a cartel that is arranged against them.

For the teams that fill out the five major leagues of Western Europe, it is finding a way to overcome the enormous financial advantages of their opponents. For those leagues that are not considered the major powers, it is identifying a way to compete with the Big Five, and to deal with the deleterious effect on competitive balance of the Champions League itself.

And that is before we get further down the pyramid, to the teams struggling to breathe away from the continent’s top divisions. It is this that makes it too hard to sympathize with the plight of Crystal Palace, which currently makes more money than A.C. Milan and Feyenoord and Legia Warsaw and Panathinaikos and all but a couple of dozen other teams in the world. It is this that means it is dangerous to assume that what is good for Crystal Palace is good for soccer as a whole.

There are, unfortunately, no easy answers. But that should not dictate that all suggestions for change are shot down, or that the underlying assumption should be that they are all rooted in bad faith, or even that self-interest itself precludes an idea’s having merit.

The people who own clubs are within their rights to want steadier, more predictable incomes, or more restricted spending. It is not feasible to demand, as we currently do, that they just throw as much money against the wall as possible in pursuit of short-term success. Fans, above all, should know by now that such an approach rarely ends well.

That is not to say that Agnelli has yet hit upon the answer. Legacy places for historic teams defeat the purpose of sport, though they are not exactly unprecedented: In South America, there have been various experiments — rarely for good reasons — to make relegation a punishment for years of underperformance, not just a single bad season.

Expanding the Champions League — though not something that is personally appealing — has more positives, should the extra places go to national champions from lesser leagues, expanding the horizons of the competition, though even that might then have a distorting effect on those domestic tournaments. (Banning transfers between elite clubs makes no sense: How else would Agnelli, for one, have unloaded Miralem Pjanic’s contract?)

But none of this should disguise the need both to talk about and institute change. The status quo might work for a handful of teams — the ones, largely, that finish in the top 15 of the Premier League pretty regularly, and possibly Bayern Munich — but it locks out the vast majority; according to a report this week from Football Supporters Europe, fans* are finding it increasingly off-putting.

[*This is a subject for another column, but the issue with these sorts of surveys is that they represent a specific cohort of fans, not a broad spectrum.]

It is incumbent on everyone, then, to have the courage to have ideas: not objections rooted in tradition, not utopian daydreams, but concrete, considered suggestions. Would cross-border leagues help teams from smaller nations compete? Should elite teams be allowed to sign strategic deals with partner clubs? Is there a way to make the Champions League more compelling? How do you address competitive balance within and between domestic tournaments? (Answers below.)

All of them will have drawbacks. All of them will elicit criticism. But it is a conversation we must be prepared to have, not one that should be shut down just because someone, somewhere, finds it does not align with his interests. Partly because that is the only way anything will change. And partly because if we do not, one of Agnelli’s ideas might just stick.

a) Yes, it’s obvious; b) yes, so is that; c) you’d start by changing the seeding; and d) squad and spending limits, and a combination of a) and b).

The news seeped through as Jürgen Klopp was licking his wounds and Diego Simeone was basking in glory. It had been one of those electric Champions League nights: Atlético Madrid had eliminated Liverpool, the reigning champion, last March, storming what was supposed to be fortress Anfield with that distinctively Cholísta mix of strategy and steel.

And then, as the managers were picking over the bones of what had happened, as 56,000 people were drifting into the night, the news flickered through from Italy. Daniele Rugani, the Juventus defender, had tested positive for the coronavirus. The club was sending its squad into isolation for 14 days. Its opponent the previous weekend, Inter Milan, quickly did the same.

That was March 11, 2020, a year and a day ago. Even in the slightly frantic, vaguely frazzled surroundings of a press box, it was apparent that what had played out in front of us was not the story. It seemed obvious, even then, that the night’s theme was not just Liverpool’s facing up to an immediate future with no European competition.

The World Health Organization had declared a pandemic. Across the Atlantic, Rudy Gobert had tested positive, bringing the virus into the N.B.A. Sports in the United States was shutting down. Over the next 36 hours, Europe reached the same conclusion. The patchwork solutions that had tried to hold back the tide — games in empty stadiums, games being postponed — gave way.

In England, at least, the tipping point was Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, and the Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi testing positive. The Premier League, until then content to stick its fingers in its ears and blunder through, called an emergency meeting. A few hours after insisting the show, that weekend, would go on, the league confirmed it would be mothballed. Nobody could be quite sure that it would come back.

Two things now stand out about those few days. One is specific to Britain. It is important to remember that, at the time of Arteta’s positive test, the British government was dallying. The country was still almost two weeks from being locked down. Officials were encouraging people to go to work. Some 56,000 people had been allowed to go to Anfield, including some who flew in from Madrid for the privilege. A quarter of a million had been admitted to horse racing’s Cheltenham Festival.

Looking back, it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that it was the abandonment of the Premier League that concentrated a few minds and forced a few hands. Its elite soccer league is, deep down, one of England’s most high-profile institutions. Its sudden absence denoted, in the most incontrovertible tone, that the pandemic had arrived.

The other, broader thing is that for all the criticism, for all the missteps and the arguments and the questionable motives, soccer deserves credit for finding its way back: its players for enduring the schedule; its executives for conjuring solutions; the countless, unheralded staff members at clubs and leagues and broadcasters for making it work. Soccer is not perfect. Sometimes, it is not even good. But in what has been an inordinately difficult year for so many, it has, in some small way, helped.

Last week’s column on Manchester City — a team that inspires an intellectual response, more than an emotional one, at least in my eyes — prompted many of you to get in touch to set me straight. Matt Noel highlighted not only that Pep Guardiola has been able to “make some tweaks and reunite” his squad, but also the “style in which City plays … is nothing short of miraculous, delicate and ephemeral.”

I have no arguments there and, of course, it is not for me to dictate your responses to any team. I was, as the vernacular goes, simply offering you my truth. “I love watching City,” Charlotte Mehrtens wrote. “The skill is such a joy. You claim this football lacks soul? That’s like saying a choreographed ballet lacks soul.”

This is a great parallel, because there is something inherently balletic about City, and also I find that ballet leaves me a bit cold, too. I appreciate the art and the skill, but I could do with a bit of talking. The issue here, then, may be that I am a philistine.

David Ittah took exception with the idea that Guardiola has invented a new position for João Cancelo. “Marcelo has been playing exactly that role for many years at Real Madrid,” he wrote. He has indeed: Nobody loves Marcelo, pound for pound the greatest signing of all time, more than me. But Cancelo’s role is much more structured, much more part of the tactical blueprint, than the freestyle approach that makes Marcelo a joy.

And a wonderful idea from Ian Greig. “Why not try to make a virtue out of the loss by holding games on out-of-the-way unknown pitches in remote places. Pitches without stands, or fans in beautiful places, rural Scotland, Georgia. Years ago I watched a game near Syanky in Poland, a lovely site surrounded by pines. I hold the memory dear.”

Consider me on board. Let’s play the Champions League final in Lofoten. Or Qeqertarsuaq.

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