The two best teams in Europe, the most successful club in the history of the competition, a gritty outsider – in some ways the lineup for this week’s Champions League semi-finals is perfect. Each offers in addition an intriguing subplot: Pep Guardiola fighting the curse of overthought, Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool chasing an implausible quadruple, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema raging against the dying of the light, the frankly hilarious prospect of Unai Emery returning to Paris for the final and making a point to Paris Saint-Germain, a club that never took him seriously (perhaps he could have a three-day party to celebrate and invite Neymar along to cut the cake as the Brazilian had him do during his 26th-birthday celebrations).
And yet, and yet … the four clubs come from only two countries and those two countries are England and Spain, who have between them produced 62.5% of all semi-finalists over the past two decades.
Even the outsiders are Villarreal. Theirs may be a remarkable story, a team made up almost entirely of Tottenham flops and targets hailing from a town with a population, as everyone surely knows by now, of only 50,000, who have overcome the might of Juventus and Bayern Munich thanks to the tactical ministrations of a manager who was essentially written off by Arsenal because his Vs sound a bit like Bs – but they come from La Liga. The Anglo-Spanish hegemony goes on.
There are no outsiders any more. What other giant-killers have there been recently? Atalanta – a small club who have performed miracles given their budget, but a team from Serie A. Ajax – the biggest club in the Netherlands. Tottenham – a wealthy club from the Premier League with an enormous modern stadium in London who are funded by a tax exile. RB Leipzig – who come no closer to a fairy story than Red Bull having used Sleeping Beauty in an advertising campaign; they may obey the letter of the Bundesliga’s 50+1 ownership legislation but they have obliterated its spirit.
Of the 80 semi-finalists over the past 20 years, 26 have been from Spain and 24 from England. Portugal has provided one, the Netherlands two, with the rest coming from Germany, Italy and France. This is not a pan-European competition any more, it is a global tournament that has de facto franchises in a tiny handful of western European nations.
Uefa’s decision to establish the Europa Conference League is at least an acknowledgment of that, a competition that offers six high(ish)-profile group games to the champions of places such as Norway, Slovenia and Israel, plus a number of other mid-ranking sides otherwise shut out of European competition. It threw up a diverse spread of quarter-finalists – from seven different countries – but it is far too little, far too late.
Perhaps nobody cares; perhaps even to think that football should be more inclusive, to yearn for Reims and Nottingham Forest, Malmö and Steaua Bucharest, is to be hopelessly nostalgic. The protests that surrounded the collapse of the proposed European Super League a year ago hinted at a desire for another world, for a way of doing things that wasn’t just about commerce, but it was a moment that vanished on the wind.
There has been no fan protest against the takeover of Newcastle by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia; indeed a vocal minority have attacked those who have wondered how healthy it is for this venerable community institution to be sold off to a body representing a state accused of a catalog of human rights abuses.
Now that Chelsea fans have been forced by sanctions to contemplate their ownership, the main question seems to be which billionaire who might take over will spend the most money. Are Arsenal fans in any way concerned that they bear on their team’s sleeves an imprecation to “Visit Rwanda”, whose president, Paul Kagame, has been accused, among a litany of allegations, of assassinating political opponents?
This is the tragedy of modern English football. It has never been so successful. It has never been watched by so many people, either in the stadiums or on television around the globe. It has never generated so much revenue. Yet still everybody is holding out for a bigger sugar daddy, wondering which billionaire or oligarch or sovereign wealth fund or hedge fund might buy them even more glitzy players. This is the story of modern Britain: ask not the source of the money, just how much of it there is.
What were those protests about? If they were protesting against a system that perpetuates the dominance of the elite, it’s already here. In August 2016, in the interregnum between the suspension of Michel Platini and the election of Aleksander Ceferin as Uefa president, a deal was driven through by Bayern’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Juventus’s Andrea Agnelli that has meant that since 2018, 30% of broadcast revenues from the Champions League are distributed to the 32 sides in the group stage based on performances in Uefa competition over the past 10 years. Or to contextualize that, if West Ham qualify for next season’s Champions League by winning the Europa League, they will receive 4% of what Chelsea get.
And still this stitch-up isn’t enough. Still the existing elite are looking to fortify their own positions, demanding that two places form the revised 36-team group stage to come into effect from 2024 be allocated according to coefficient. They are already incredibly rich. They already have huge established fanbases. They already have a system stacked in their favour, and still they want another safety net.
It means clubs can be as badly run as Manchester United and Juventus have been for the past decade and remain at the highest table. It may have a different name. It may disguise its intentions. It may be come by creeping increment rather than in one clumsy swoop, but the Super League is here.
Football as corporate entertainment product thrives, and is undeniably good to watch, the quality and drama in the latter stages of the Champions League unprecedentedly high. But football as sport, football as an expression of something beautiful in the human soul, as the most democratic of sports, open to all, has been dying for years. All we are doing now is deciding what the sarcophagus will look like.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism