'No, I don't know what happened to that unicorn'
Well bugger me, it’s the Champions League this week. AGAIN. Where are we up to at the moment? Oh, it’s the penultimate group games. Well, that could be exciting – maybe Real haven’t qualified ye- oh no, never mind. Maybe United-Rangers will be a mouth-watering contest, as surely United need to go and get a win to be sure of- oh no, no they don’t. What about a real continental fixture? Maybe if Panathanaikos get something off Barcelona at home it’ll make things diffi-, oh no, Barca’s last game is at the Camp Nou against a team with no wins. Well they still want to win their group of cour- NO. NO THEY DON’T. NO ONE CARES.
The Spurs group is quite interesting, admittedly. Rafael Benitez’s reign at Inter continues to implode and Gareth Bale continues to be ridiculously compared with Lionel Messi. Plus Arsenal’s usual collapse provides a touch of drama, at least until they thrash Partizan (no wins, scored one, conceded 10) at home in their last game. Generally, the big clubs have given shoeings to everyone else and the other three teams are fighting for scraps. Upon one of them wheezing breathlessly into second place in the group, they have the winter off before getting thumped by the equally untroubled winner of a different group.
As things currently stand, the teams topping their groups are as follows: Spurs/Inter, Lyon, Man United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Real Madrid (with AC Milan second and both qualified) and Shakhtar (with Arsenal second). If teams cannot be separated for qualification they are judged by the results between them, overall goal difference, then goals scored, then their highest UEFA ranking over the past five years. And if you try and tell me that isn’t geared towards making sure the most recently successful teams qualify, you need your head looking at.
It may begin to come across here that I am not of the opinion that the Champions League is particularly well run, well organised or fair. What I actually believe is that in managing this tournament, UEFA are so in thrall of the continent’s traditional powerhouses and their associated glamour that they might as well have the final at the Camp Nou every year, invite Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to play on opposing teams no matter who makes the final, and rename the trophy the ‘Jose Mourinho Cup’ before following the Portuguese around Europe with it.
Oh yes UEFA, I like nothing more than seeing the same clubs serenely cruise through group stages every year, play for goalless draws away from home in EVERY knockout tie they contest and then set up ‘not to lose but get goals’ at home. You have essentially attempted to expand the competition by REMOVING ALL THE COMPETITIVE ELEMENTS FROM IT.
Believe it or not though, something actually changed about the Champions League last season. Unfortunately, it was the overall prize pot, which increased by about 30% (to a eye-watering €740.4m) as a new three-year sponsorship cycle started. Rest assured though, it was still weighted in favour of the big boys in a manner not dissimilar to Rik Waller sitting on a seesaw with Ronnie Corbett.
The biggest earners, as you might expect, were Inter Milan, the tournament winners (€48.76m). But who's that behind them, in second place? The runners-up, surely. No, it's Manchester United, who earned €45.81m. Bayern are third, with €44.86m, despite having two extra appearance fees worth a total of €9.2m. Three other teams (Arsenal, Barcelona and Chelsea) earned between €30 and €40m. All those names are rather familiar, I think you'll admit.
The reason United have earned so much despite only reaching the quarter finals is their (and the other English teams') share of what's imaginatively called the 'Market Pool' pot (total fund €337.8m) is €83.01m, or about 25%. This sum is calculated based on the relative value of the English TV market, apparently. It also takes into account the teams' finishing position in the league the previous season, and how far they got in the Champions League tournament this qualified them for.
That explains the 'market' bit. Presumably the 'pool' bit is the pool of supermodels' tears the club executives sit naked in as they quaff champagne from the hollowed out horns of unicorns.
The lowest earners in last season’s competition were also as you might expect – those for whom the Champions League constitutes a glorious and rare pay day, the sides who are seldom able to claim UEFA's ludicrous 'performance bonus' (money gained for drawing or winning matches). The competition just isn't designed for them, financially or otherwise, and it's not fair at all. Here's why.
What's the last group game you can remember being remotely interesting in the Champions League? My memory is shit, but I can think of maybe Rubin beating Barca at the Camp Nou as the one standout result of the last few years. And yes, I'm sure they got a little performance bonus, but then Barca got plenty of chances to recover from what was a bit of a cockup and won the group. Rubin finished third and were out, with minimal share of the revenue from an entrenched system based on countries' TV markets. They had beaten BARCELONA in Europe. AWAY. Don't they deserve to be in the next round?
How often can Rubin beat Barca? Once in a blue moon. Barca, nine times out of ten (or five times out of six, to make this analogy easier), will beat clubs like Rubin. It is the usual story for all the 'lesser' clubs in the Champions League. 'Achieve a bit if you want', UEFA says, 'but thanks for playing and fuck off. The knockout stages aren’t for you. It's the big boys' turn to hog the spotlight and line our pockets.'
Now it is a long way down from this high horse, but it turns out I quite like it up here. And having watched the end of Real Madrid's game with Ajax last night I am now even more convinced that the group stage renders the majority of its matches meaningless. First off, Real totally outclassed Ajax. It wasn't even a contest. Ajax aren't in brilliant financial shape and only received €1.7m from exiting the Europa League in the round of 32 last season. Real earned €26.8m from reaching the round of 16 in the Champions League (Porto received €18.7m from reaching the same stage). It's quite a mismatch and persistent rewards following persistent qualification has created a self-fulfilling prophecy every year.
Second, Real took this piss. Getting two men sent off for second yellow cards, for deliberately timewasting is a disgrace. It's disrespectful to their opponents, both Ajax last night and the other teams in the group. But that's the way the Champions League is now. A nice collection of occasional spectacles that earn the big boys plenty, keep the small boys quiet with an occasional pay day and enables UEFA's cash-cow Mourinho-Barca-Ronaldo-Old Trafford-Messi-Rooney-Milan wet dream to continue unabated.
Bring back a tournament of knockouts, because this is a joke.