I think my Dad might actually enjoy this, but I’ll grudgingly support Liverpool in this year’s Champions League final. Yes, those Reds fans will probably be obnoxious on Facebook should their team lift the trophy on May 26, but at least I can continue to hope their top division title drought continues.
Because the fact of the matter is that like every other fan out there, I’m sick of seeing what I like to call the ‘Big Three’ of Europe — Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich (maybe four if one includes Juventus) — dominate this competition. One has to go back to the 2007–08 season for the last time when the Champions League final did not have either of the Big Three for the right to be called Europe’s best club. And that was when people were complaining that English football had become a two-horse race between Manchester United and Chelsea.
UEFA must find a way to make the Champions League more competitive, and national football associations must find a way to do so with their own leagues. For all the talk about Atlético Madrid being the third horse in Spain, it is an aging and poor horse that can no longer compete with Real and Barcelona. In a way, the English game has continued to be competitive because of the TV money that comes in helps to level financial competition. Perhaps introducing a limit on players based on a harder salary cap (rather than the more general Financial Fair Play scheme that exists) could force bigger clubs to be more prudent with spending and limit their ability to attract talent with offers of absurd wages.
However, UEFA deserves props for reforming the Europa League, allowing its champion to compete in the next season’s Champions League — a decision that will give teams more incentive to compete heavily in Europe’s second-tier competition. Sevilla finished fifth, seventh and fourth in La Liga, respectively, when it recently won the Europa League — all three times requiring the Europa League to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition. Likewise, Manchester United finished sixth in England last season, and one expects Arsenal to finish in a similar position this year.
Yet the Europa League diminishes the quality of domestic competition. I can’t remember the last time that successive year-end Arsenal-Manchester United matches were of such terrible quality. The Europa League’s grueling schedule also doesn’t help. With all due respect to the lesser clubs in the competition, the average soccer fan probably does not care about what happens in the group stage as teams travel absurd distances just to fulfill their commitments. Streamlining this competition can help make it magical still — who doesn’t love the romantic nature of giant-killing? — and differentiate it from its big brother.
Of course, these are mere words coming from a kid who’s grown up watching soccer since he was seven years old. At the end of the day, I think UEFA has a duty to make its competitions more exciting to watch and more competitive, even as it tries to balance being fair to the smaller national associations.