Who came third the year Arsenal won the league at Anfield in 1989? Does anybody remember? Does anybody care? Indeed, who came fourth in 2007? Third when Manchester United won the treble in 1999?
Unless you’re a fan of Nottingham Forest (1989), Liverpool (2007) or Chelsea (1999), it’s doubtful you’ll be able to answer any of those questions. And rightly so. Because finishing third or fourth is, in the greater scheme of the history of football, nothing to get excited about, it’s not interesting, important or impressive. But thanks to European football’s ridiculous obsession with the Champions League, Arsenal fans are celebrating limping home a distant third as if it is their club’s greatest achievement since the Invincibles, just one that doesn’t come with a trophy or will be remembered by anybody in a year’s time. It’s been a successful season insist fans of the biggest club in London, now seven years now without a cup, because it means they have earned the right to play in the Champions League again (until March, usually). And they seem to believe it.
Ah, the Champions League, the bloated, vile, venal parasite of European football, with its hideous anthem and putrid stench of self-importance. How I hate this wretched competition. Yet qualifying for it is now deemed to be the greatest achievement of any club, more desired than mere trophies and finals. Clubs with trophy cabinets that used to gleam with silverware are now more interested in securing next year’s income stream, terrified about what might happen to the bank balance if they fail. Henry Norris and Arsene Wenger have more in common than we could have ever imagined when Wenger brought swashbuckling trophy-winning teary-eyed romantic football to the Emirates in 1998. Fuck success, fuck beauty, fuck romance, fuck football: give me the cash.
I don’t get it. I never have. I understand why money is important in football, but that doesn’t mean I want to have my nose rubbed in it. In 2003, Chelsea played Liverpool; the winner would finish third and qualify for the Champions League. This was, in financial terms, the biggest game in the club’s history, I was told by friends. It was more important than a cup final, they said. Well, I’ve been to a few cup finals, and that sir was no cup final. It was a squalid mudfight for cold hard cash, a stripping down of modern football to its ugliest essentials. And yet it was presented as if it was a thing to admire, and people bought into it. Why?
I hated it then and I hated it now, especially as the Champions League’s weight and wealth has expanded, rewarding failure in the rich leagues to the point where it has pretty much destroyed all European domestic football outside of England, Spain, Italy and Germany, and turning the FA Cup and League Cup into heavily sponsored footnotes.
It’s even turned the Europa League into a joke, in England at least. Patrice Evra said it was ’embarrassing’ that Manchester United were playing in the Europa this season, something you’d hope would make Uefa take a long, hard look at what they have done, although of course they didn’t. The Europa has its fans, but in reality it’s a sad and unlovable replacement for the splendid streamlined charms of the old Uefa and Cup Winners’ cups.
But nothing can be allowed to compete with the CL’s budget, which throws millions of pounds at so-so teams, encouraging billionaires to buy into the game in a bid to join the bunfight – something Uefa are now trying to ban without acknowledging the root cause, the disproportionate rewards offered by their beloved keynote trophy. Meanwhile, leagues, cups and the dignity and priorities of supporters all disappear beneath the whirling blades of Uefa’s deranged zombie lawnmower.
And now we have come to the extreme logic of the position, where we’re told that the main reason Chelsea should want to win the Champions League final on Saturday is so they can qualify for next year’s Champions League, as if the trophy itself is just something that comes free in a packet of corn flakes, and nobody bats an eyelid. How can this be right? What have Uefa been allowed to do to 57 years of history? And why does nobody appear to care?
“biggest club in London” should have come with inverted commas. I want to win the Champions League because it is the European Cup. Not because we might not get in next season. In fact with sky-high ticket prices, it might be a relief if we don’t.
Whichever “calculable” way you’d like to look at it (trophy count, fanbase, stadium), Gunners are the biggest club in London, like it or not.
But ad rem – you might regret missing the CL next season especially once the financial fair play comes in. This is the real problem, clubs have become overreliant on CL income. Once they miss it, they often go down really quickly (vide Leeds or – more recently – Villareal).
The reason why we Arsenal fans are cock-a-hoop this week has nothing to do with the financial windfall of the CL and everything to do with: a) fighting back from an appalling start to the season, when we were written off by all the pundits; and b) finishing above Spurs (St Totteringham’s Day to the initiated), who the same pundits were claiming were good enough to win the league, before Harry had his head turned.
Most Arsenal fans do not consider CL qualification to be a trophy, let alone an achievement on a par with the Invincibles, though we understand why Wenger insists that consistently finishing in the top 4 is worthy of respect. For all its faults the competition does mean you get to see some interesting continental teams in the flesh, which is better than the fare on offer in the domestic cups, and getting through to the knock-out phase can throw up some great games, such as the recent 2-1 and 3-0 victories over Barcelona and Milan. And no Arsenal fan who managed to get a ticket for Paris in 2006 would wish not to have been there, despite the disappointment of the outcome.
I’m sure the vast majority of Chelsea fans would agree with Blue Baby. They want to win the big-eared trophy, not qualify for next season’s moneyfest. Having cunningly engineered the absence of John Terry, they may even stand a chance of winning a penalty shootout.
I really enjoyed this article. It made me wonder: are you more or less able to claim to be the best team in Europe, which presumably is what the winner of the CL is, if you fail to win your domestic league the season before? Lots changes from one season to the next.
That said, could you convincingly say that finishing 6th and winning the Champions League makes you the top team in the entire continent?
Thanks for comments all.
A few things: Arsenal are emphatically the biggest club in London, by some distance, sorry Blue Baby. But Miko, the over-reliance on the CL income is precisely what I object to – clubs are locked in a panic room, beating themselves up about qualifying without expanding any serious energy on winning anything: that is wrong. Fight the fear.
From Arse To Elbow: good points, but would you take CL qualification over an FA Cup? A lot of Arsenal fans apparently would, which troubles me. The CL is a very good tournament, but it’s dreadful at the group stage – which is where much of the money comes from and is the entire reason for its hideous oversize.
Tom: The CL is sometimes won by the best team in Europe – it was last year, for instance – but it won’t be if Chelsea win it this year. But then again, It’s not for Champions and isn’t a League, so the whole thing is a fiction.
I’m a Man United fan, we’ve benefited more than most from the Champions League, but I couldn’t agree more with this article.
As Souness said the other month on Sky Sports, the Champions League, in its current format of groups stages (don’t forget there used to be 2) followed by a knockout stage was invented for the benefit of the big clubs, i.e. to ensure that, even if they suffered an upset, they could still be in the competition, pulling in the viewing figures and the money that the likes of Man United, Real Madrid and AC Milan do.
But as you’ve rightly pointed out, the CL has destroyed domestic football across Europe. Only a core group of teams with big stadiums or rich owners can win the league, and this is because the game has become obsessed with money. Just a look at how much it’s celebrated when a World Cup of European Championship breaks the record for most money generated.
Football has become about making money, and the problem is that if a club doesn’t follow suit then they’ll fall behind. But it isn’t just the clubs; it’s the associations, the governing bodies, the dignitaries, all of them.
The idiocy of all of this is best summarised by looking at the ticket prices and availability of tickets to proper fans for events such as the FA Cup final and the Champions League final. The game for the people? Bah, it’s just about squeezing every penny.
What an excellent article. The ‘Champions’ League, more so even than SKy or the Premier League, has wrecked football. It is a cartel designed to keep the rich clubs rich and stuff the rest. Smash the champions league and if the rich clubs then choose to cede and form their own league, let them; ban them from entering their own domestic leagues if they cede and the novelty would soon wear off. Of course, UEFA might lose a bit of cash in the meantime but who cares, apart from the suits at UEFA?
I think a lot of it stems from the analysis the likes of Alex Fynn (a former ad man) developed at the inception of the Premier League. His theory was that a match like Man Utd v Chelsea was an “event”, of interest to people across the entire country and large chunks of the world, whereas (say) Stoke v Blackburn was only of interest to people in Stoke and Blackburn. He thought that to maximise TV revenue, the number of event games should be maximised, and non-event ones minimised or abolished (he criticised the PL as it was ultimately set up for not going far enough in this direction). While this idea of “events” doesn’t reflect how real fans watch football, it’s probably true for casual viewers, many kids (particularly in areas of the country that aren’t football hot-beds), and for overseas markets. The question is, how many “events” can you have before the currency gets devalued? In the case of the CL, it seems it was a second group round…
Hear hear. The champions league should have been just that – a league of 10 champions playing each other home and away, maybe with a grand final at the end. That way the Uefa/Europa league would always be a strong & prestigious tournament – you could even guarantee the winner a place in next season’s CL to give it extra clout.
Can’t see much changing anytime soon though unfortunately …
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