May 5, 2012
May 12, 2012
May 7, 2012
The Champions League is back. Some leading clubs, such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea have made convincing starts, while others, such as Barcelona, Internazionale, and Manchester United - the past three winners of the tournament - have disappointed.
Barcelona, winner of last season's Champions League and Spanish La Liga, was held to a 2-2 draw at home by AC Milan, the Italian champions. In the group's other match, Viktoria Plzen, the Czech champion, tied 1-1 at home with BATE Borisov, champion of Belarus.
Why do Barcelona and Milan, some of the best teams in Europe, play in the same competition as Viktoria Plzen and BATE Borisov, teams that cannot nearly match their pedigree? It would be a significant accomplishment if Viktoria Plzen or BATE Borisov could survive for a season in the Spanish top flight, let alone win it.
These teams do, however, have a good chance at creating an upset in the group stage. It's possible that Barcelona and Milan will rest some of their best players in Champions League games so that they may concentrate on more challenging domestic games.
The very presence of minor teams such as Viktoria Plzen and BATE Borisov means that their more famous rivals will take the games less seriously. Thirty-two teams are in the group stage. These teams are not tops in Europe. A more sensible approach would be to pick the 32 best in Europe.
However, this is not the Union of European Football Association's plan. Instead, UEFA, the tournament's organizer, tries to make the competition as diverse as possible in order to reduce the financial and sporting gap between the best and worst European leagues.
UEFA does this by establishing criteria that ensure that some of the best teams are excluded. For example, the English Premier League only has four slots, thereby leaving out Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. The Italian Serie A only has four slots, so Lazio and Roma can't take part.
UEFA president Michel Platini might have the best of intentions. But the gap has shown no sign of decreasing, despite the skewed qualification process for the Champions League. Europe's emerging leagues have improved independently.
In Russia and in Ukraine, large investments made by the government, major corporations, and wealthy individuals have attracted better players. In Greece and Turkey, the increasing financial clout of teams who are already among the best in Europe have improved the league as a whole.
A more cynical approach to solving the mystery behind UEFA's illogical policy might be that Platini is trying to attract votes from countries that aren't known for their soccer. After all, if he were to concentrate his attention on half a dozen top countries, it would mean political suicide. He would lose his reelection bid in 2015.
Caving into political demands aren't unheard of in the murky world of soccer politics. As we well know, Brazil's Joao Havelange was able to defeat Sir Stanley Rous of England in the FIFA elections of 1974 by promising Africa, which has more FIFA members than any other continent, more openings the World Cup.
But by focusing on political gain when making decisions on tournaments, rather than the latest trends in the sport, soccer's various governing bodies have lost legitimacy in the eyes of fans.
The group stage of the UEFA champions league should be accessible to Europe's best teams. That means allowing more room for Premier League and Serie A teams. Barcelona, the best team in the world, won't put its best into the Champions League early stages if it plays against Viktoria Plzen or BATE Borisov. But if it faced a stiffer challenge in the group stage, the Champions League would become more interesting.
Turning the Champions League into a more attractive tournament, however reasonable it may seem, will not be easy. But if Platini wants to rise above the petty politics of UEFA, and further establish himself as the favorite to become the next FIFA president, he will need to reform the Champions League.
FIFA's motto is "For the game, for the world." It is up to UEFA to apply it.