Champions League in need of revamp?

MAY 31 ― Now the smoke from the fireworks has cleared and the dust has settled on Real Madrid’s penalty shoot-out victory in Saturday’s Champions League Final against Atletico Madrid, the unsatisfactory climax to club football’s primary tournament has left a somewhat sour taste in the mouth.

For starters, there is the disappointment that yet another major title was decided by the randomness of a penalty shoot-out.

On this occasion the unlucky man was Atletico right-back Juanfran, who crashed his effort against the upright to allow Cristiano Ronaldo to blast home the winning kick.

Maybe in France for this summer’s European Championship, or in the United States for the South American Championship, it could be Ronaldo’s turn to miss. Or Lionel Messi’s. Or anyone else, because penalty shoot-outs are a complete game of chance where anyone can score, anyone can miss and the eventual outcome has nothing to do with the game itself.

I hate penalty shoot-outs. Sure, they are exciting and dramatic. But that doesn’t justify all their negative qualities which make them an utterly unsuitable way of deciding any sporting event ― never mind a major trophy.

The fact that the word most closely associated with shoot-outs is “lottery” says it all. Football games should be decided by skill and teamwork, not just by whacking the ball towards the goal and hoping for the best, and another alternative ― any alternative ― would be a very welcome development.

Another common complaint following Real’s triumph on Saturday is that they did not really deserve to win the trophy because they benefitted from such a soft route to the final.

Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos lifts the trophy as they celebrate winning the Uefa Champions League against Atletico Madrid in the final at Milan May 28, 2016. — Reuters picReal Madrid’s Sergio Ramos lifts the trophy as they celebrate winning the Uefa Champions League against Atletico Madrid in the final at Milan May 28, 2016. — Reuters picHaving been drawn against Roma, Wolfsburg, Manchester City and Atletico in the knockout stages, Real were only required to beat teams who finished 3rd, 8th, 4th and 3rd in their respective domestic leagues, while Atletico were forced to overcome the champions of the Netherlands, Spain and Germany (PSV, Barcelona and Bayern Munich).

That is hardly Real’s fault and can’t be held against them ― you can only beat the teams you are presented with. But neither is it really fair that one team can, by the luck of the draw, be given a much easier task to win the trophy than another.

The problem is that the name of the tournament is impressively inaccurate: the competition is not a “League” and it does not consist of “Champions.” Once the wheat has been sorted from the chaff in the group stages, it’s only inevitable that a knockout format will, by sheer chance, be more favourable to some teams than others.

The alternative, of course, would be to change the format of the competition into more of a round-robin format, and this is something being seriously considered by both Uefa and the leading clubs.

As always, their prime motivation is commercial: it would be far preferable for every big club to be guaranteed a certain number of games every year against their peers, rather than running the risk of being restricted to just a handful ― as happened this season, for example, to Barcelona, Paris St Germain, Juventus, Chelsea and Arsenal who were all eliminated prior to the semi-finals.

Turning the Champions League into a true league, where everyone plays everyone twice, rather than the current compromise between a league and a cup, would be warmly welcomed in the corridors of power at many leading clubs, especially if the most powerful and financially attractive clubs were guaranteed participation.

That last point doesn’t currently happen, with Manchester United’s absence from the competition again next season providing a clear example of why many top clubs feel the format should be changed.

United haven’t played in the knockout stages of the Champions League since April 2014, when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Bayern Munich, meaning there will be at least a four-year wait for their next top-level European encounter (spring 2018 is the next time they can reach the knockout rounds).

As far as the moneymen in suits are concerned that is simply far too long, and the commercial appeal of guaranteeing teams like United a place in a league format elite competition ― even if they fall upon hard times results-wise ― is obvious.

From the fans’ perspective, a true league competition would offer advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, watching the best play against the best on a regular basis would be a welcome development ― why should we have to watch Real Madrid pummel Malmo when we could be seeing them take on Manchester United?

But a round-robin league format would remove much of the drama of two-legged knockout ties, making each individual game less important because there would be plenty more opportunities ― until the final stages of the competition ― to recover from a defeat or two.

And, of course, a “closed” system whereby top clubs, like Manchester United, were guaranteed participation irrespective of their results on the pitch, would remove the romance of teams like Leicester suddenly and unexpectedly playing their way into the elite.

The current state of affairs, however, is too dissatisfactory for too many powerful and influential people and organisations to remain intact, and we can expect the big clubs to enforce a major shake-up of the Champions League in the next couple of years.

If only they’d do the same with penalty shoot-outs…

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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