With clubs putting as much importance into qualifying for the next season’s Champions League as performing well in the current, Simon Smith asks what the point of the competition is…
Much has been made in recent weeks of the apparent unwillingness of Premier League clubs to participate in the dreaded Thursday football squad exhauster that is the Europa League. The earlier season push for Europe reached its absolute peak with victories over Arsenal for Southampton’s on New Year’s Day and Tottenham’s in the north London derby keeping the victors in the Champions League places on both occasions. But, with predictable familiarity, the enthusiasm for European football seems to have left both squads once the top prize became out of reach. Spurs and Saints have joined Liverpool on the list of suitors seeking to avoid the booby trap fifth place that consigns a team to the Europa League.
The size of the competition, endless travel to far off destinations in Turkey and Ukraine, and distraction of continually playing on Thursdays and Sundays are often touted as legitimate reasons for the Europa League being a poisoned chalice. One need only look at what Liverpool achieved – well, almost achieved – in their season bereft of midweek continentalism to see the damage it can cause, and so on. This is well covered ground.
What I want to know is, why don’t we see the same sort of thing in the Champions League? I mean what has the top level of elite European Club football ever done for the Premier League clubs? Besides the televisual and marketing exposure, commercial opportunities, additional revenue and pulling power when attracting players in the transfer market, is there an actual footballing reason for being in the competition?
You might argue that just by being there, participating in the Champions League is reward in itself. Much like the Apoel Nicosias and BATE Borisovs of this world, were Arsenal and Liverpool just happy to be along for the ride? The size and ambition of both surely transcends this; after all, it wasn’t so ridiculously long ago that they were finalists and winners respectively. In terms of providing exciting occasions for the fans, an opportunity to test their mettle against the continent’s best and the faint possibility of progression to the latter stages, Champions League qualification has obvious merit.
However it’s becoming increasingly clear that this merit comes at a cost. And I don’t really mean for the likes of Chelsea this season or Manchester City in recent years so much as for the plethora of clubs forever caught in that squabble for the fourth and final place in the competition, none more so than Arsenal (however touted their ambitions of being slightly above the likes of Spurs, Southampton and Everton). Arsenal have found themselves in an endless cycle of qualification, strife in the competition, the extra games causing fatigue and injuries, an early spring exit, and then a late season desperate refocus on the league to strive at all costs to acquire the elusive fourth place again. And for what, to go through the exact same again next season?
I’m not suggesting the Premier League teams finishing fourth have no chance of winning the Champions League, although it would be unlikely to say the least. But in the age of the new level of big clubs above even the old elite establishment – the new supermegaelite of Real Bayerlona – there seems to be something self harming and short sighted about Arsenal’s repetitive and self-detrimental cycle of never being able to succeed in the competition without keeping an eye on next year’s qualification or grow that extra level and mount a real challenge on the league without the distraction of Europe. Much like a heroin addict is blinded by a need for the next hit, so Wenger is too caught up in each campaign to take a more meta look at how it might assist or hinder the campaign after and indeed after that. Might it not be far more productive to, if not deliberately avoid the competition, focus solely on either participation or qualification on alternate seasons?
It’s within this context that I want to lavish some retrospective praise on a much maligned and now defunct competition; long time joke of UEFA, the Intertoto Cup. This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of the format’s recognition by the governing body, and if we can acknowledge that by the time it was abolished in 2008 it had become a warped and relatively pointless format that ridiculously created eleven winners, there is cause to believe in the 1995 competition. Within its inherent ridiculousness there were the nuggets of some genuinely good ideas. For example, teams had to apply to join it and non-application was for the most part seen as acceptable; there was nothing wrong with passing the opportunity to the team below you in the league to enter.
Why not admit the drawbacks that go hand in hand with the benefits of Europa League qualification and give teams outside the top four the opportunity to apply, or perhaps more importantly not to, so that if Tottenham, Liverpool and Southampton genuinely don’t want to be involved, then they need only defer the place to Swansea. After all, if they have such certainty that it will be a disadvantage in the league, then why not allow a direct rival to inflict it upon themselves? The Europa League has in farness already implemented another good idea from the Intertoto in the form of winning providing qualification to a higher tournament, the Champions League. I would have loved the idea of this happening earlier, a plucky small Premier League side without focusing once on the league climbing to the Champions League via the Intertoto and then UEFA Cups, however unlikely that dream would have been.
What the problem with European participation boils down to is that once qualification is achieved, participation cannot truly be enjoyed because a greater importance is placed on qualification the next season – this all without anyone stopping to question the ludicrous logic behind never actually enjoying the merits of the reward for doing so. Often the media discuss the detriment to the league campaign that Europe can bring, but in some ways the real damage we seldom address is the damage a league campaign does to a European one. It’s not that the Premier League top four shouldn’t be seeking Champions League football; but they ought to at least ask themselves why they are.