Summon famous ex-players, print and fold card pieces, arrange the opaque plastic balls into the correct seed pots: the Champions League group stage draw is upon us today. An evening that walks the line between ostentation and cool, filled with close-up shots of smiling club officials, is coming to Istanbul. The countdown to the 2023 final – three years after Atatürk Stadium was supposed to host the final – has begun.
So why do you feel, as we prepare to give up so many Tuesday and Wednesday nights for next season, as if we’re coming at the end of the party? That the prestige and charm of this tournament is fading, that it’s getting too big, too old, and worst of all for a knockout football tournament, is very much to be expected.
The Champions League has dominated European football for a generation, but this year’s edition looks less dominant and more threatening than ever. Lots of claims will be made on his behalf this evening, and all season, but not quite as old as the old.
Any claim that the Champions League is the hottest show in town this year can’t stand a brief look at the football calendar. This is the season when the regular pattern of the season is broken into two. The wealthy end of club football, which had its own way in every major decision of the past generation, finally found itself in a vulnerable position, reluctantly forced to work around this year’s World Cup.
Like someone desperately trying to cram all of their clothes into one suitcase, the club game is scrambling to squeeze all of its regular games into this short fall. Hence this funny situation as the draw takes place today, 12 days before the first group match. All six group matches will be played within nine weeks, including one two-week international break after the first two matches.
So what should theoretically be a showcase of the best football in Europe would be a match-making exercise. It might even look like football in the age of COVID, when it felt as if matches were rocking every day just to pack the TV schedule, regardless of whether that was what players’ bodies needed.
Looming over all this is the shadow of the World Cup, which kicks off at Al Bayt Stadium, on the northeastern tip of the Qatar peninsula on November 20. The Premier League season, but after the upcoming international break it will be more present every day. Not only in the minds of the fans and the media, but crucially in the hearts of the players as well.
Ask a few hundred of the world’s best soccer players what their main priority is for the next 12 months. Surely the answer will be success in the World Cup, not anything they might win with their clubs. Even a morally tainted World Cup like this one, the World Cup that was never meant to be awarded to Qatar, will still for players retain a sheen of prestige, mystery and even romance. This is their chance to play their way into history.
What we don’t know at this point is what the second half of this season will look like, when players who have been physically and emotionally erased from the World Cup are forced back straight to the hamster wheel of the club’s game. Perhaps we will all quickly forget about Qatar and go straight back to the club narratives. By the time the Champions League knockout rounds begin on February 14, the World Cup final will be more than eight weeks behind, enough time to be saved mentally as part of football history. Or maybe it will affect the second half of the season, not so much in the minds of the fans but in the legs of the players.
Even the Champions League knockout rounds have lost some of their luster. The entertainment is still very good. Just looking at last season, it’s impossible to argue against the drama of Real Madrid’s victories over Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, or the tension of City’s victory over Atletico Madrid.
But plot twists are not the same thing as unpredictability. The streaming of high quality illuminated football content will always continue to improve. But take a step back and the overall results will be as predictable as ever. In the last 18 years, only two winners have come from outside England, Spain and Germany (Milan in 2007 and Inter Milan in 2010), with only four of the defeated finalists from outside the three major leagues (Juventus twice, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain). Once). Real Madrid have reached 10 semi-finals in the past 12 years. Bayern have reached the semi-finals seven times between 2012 and 2020. Liverpool have been in three of the last five finals.
The Champions League knockout stages are increasingly similar to the last few James Bond films: glossy, expensive, slightly exaggerated, and full of dramatic refrigerators. But the viewer still widely knows who will win and who will lose. The plot will surprise you, but it will always stay within a narrow path of consistent results. It just feels so dramatic at the very moment.
So far in late August, it’s easy to guess the composition of the quarter-final draw for March 17 next year. Real Madrid. Bayern Munich. Paris Saint-Germain. Barcelona if the new deals are gelatinous. City of Manchester. Liverpool. And maybe at least one of the other English clubs.
This will be the penultimate edition of the competition before the new format takes place, allowing two additional venues for Europe’s top leagues and an expanded group stage, where teams play eight matches instead of six. It’s another step in the direction of big league dominance, matches for matches, and eventually, the same big teams are there at the end.
The idea that Europe’s elite competition remains based on diversity, modernity, unpredictability – and above all for a level playing field – now sounds as remote as goalkeepers picking up the balls behind.
Yes, the winner tends to change year after year (although usually Real Madrid), but even that seems to be less important than it used to be. The fact that neither Manchester City nor Paris Saint-Germain have won the Champions League is arguably in his favour, and this shows how the jackpot cannot be bought as easily as the domestic leagues. (City have won the Premier League four of the past five years, and Paris Saint-Germain have won the League One after eight of the past ten.) But this big-eared trophy still belongs to the historical clubs of Europe.
But a look at the transfer market this summer suggests that doesn’t matter anymore. This was a rare summer when the best young strikers in the world, Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland, were both on the market. Each player had the opportunity to go to one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe, where in the cabinet there are a lot of European cups. But all of them decided against it: Mbappe refused Real Madrid to sign a huge new deal with Paris Saint-Germain, and continued to play alongside Neymar and Lionel Messi. Haaland chose to leave Borussia Dortmund for Manchester City. Winning the Champions League has always been the ultimate measure of prestige, but perhaps the next generation of players will feel differently.
The biggest threat to the Champions League comes from inside the house. This World Cup is a disruption and a reminder that there is something bigger and more famous than UEFA’s main competition. But it’s also the only time this will ever happen. The next few seasons of the Champions League will continue unhindered by the predictions of the USA, Canada and Mexico 2026 going into the future.
There is no greater threat to the Champions League than the case brought to the European Court of Justice by Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus (21 European Cups in between), defying UEFA’s right to sanction them for trying to create a champions’ rival. league. If the three rebellious clubs win the case (the next update is due in December), they could eventually choose to push again to create their own European competition, separate from UEFA, and posing an existential threat to it.
If that happens, it is inevitable that other clubs, currently in the orbit of the Champions League, will be drawn to the rebel competition. In an instant, claims that the Champions League is the pinnacle of club football will evaporate. Because how can this be discussed when some of the most successful teams in the competition are now playing elsewhere? This obviously marks the end of the era of Champions League dominance, the waters we’ve all been swimming in for the past 30 years. But that may indeed be the case, whether we know it or not.
(Top images: Getty Images; Styling: Eamonn Dalton and Sam Richardson)