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MARTIN SAMUEL: Champions League carve up is in place to reward European elite for their failures


It would have taken the much-quoted heart of stone not to laugh on Wednesday night as Real Madrid, peddlers of the European Super League, traipsed in at half-time 3-0 down to Covid-stricken Shakhtar Donetsk.

Equally when, in second-half injury time, they thought they had levelled only for the goal to be — correctly — disallowed for offside. Just one thing could have made it better: had any of this mattered.

As it was, Real Madrid lost the first game of the Champions League group stage, and there really is nothing more meaningless; unless it is the fifth or sixth matches of the Champions League group stage with your team already through, or out. 

The Champions League 32-team round of the competition wasn't designed for excitement, but to give Europe's elite more matches and the freedom to be useless and still qualify

The Champions League 32-team round of the competition wasn’t designed for excitement, but to give Europe’s elite more matches and the freedom to be useless and still qualify

The 32-team round of the competition wasn’t designed for excitement, but to give the elite more matches and the freedom to be useless and still qualify.

Now imagine how that will play out if UEFA expand this to 36 teams, and schedules of 10 matches each? How many games will Real Madrid be able to lose and make it through then? 

Atalanta got out of their group last season with seven points from six matches, which would equate to four wins in a 10-game format. So if the richest get their way, they might be able to lose six matches in the re-shaped Champions League, and still progress to the knockout stages.

Across the previous five seasons, Champions League groups have included the following results: RB Leipzig 0 Lyon 2, Napoli 1 Liverpool 0, Red Star Belgrade 2 Liverpool 0, Paris-Saint Germain 2 Liverpool 1, Paris-Saint Germain 3 Bayern Munich 0, Atletico Madrid 2 Roma 0, Tottenham 3 Real Madrid 1, Atletico Madrid 1 Benfica 2, Manchester City 1 Juventus 2, Juventus 1 Manchester City 0, Arsenal 2 Bayern Munich 0 and Bayer Leverkusen 3 Monaco 0. 

And what do those results have in common? Each time, the losing team went on to reach at least the semi-finals. In Liverpool’s case, when they won it in 2018-19, they began by losing three of six group matches.

So the elite have already removed as much potential jeopardy as is possible from a competition supposedly worthy of champions, and now they wish to dial it down even more. Worse, they wish to do so using the ‘Swiss system’ structure prevalent in American sports leagues.

It is so called because it was introduced for a chess tournament in Zurich in 1895, but it has subsequently been used in many of the greatest sports: badminton, croquet, curling, Scrabble, Pokemon, the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game and ultimate frisbee.

The Swiss system is utilised when there are too many competitors for a round-robin. Instead, after initial pairings decided by seeding or a draw, opponents are matched according to ability. Winners play winners, losers play losers and, as rounds progress, the ties are decided by those closest on cumulative rankings. 

Everybody does not play everybody, but the schedule is devised for maximum fairness. So that won’t be happening in the Champions League where seeding is invariably used to protect the richest, rather than make them in any way vulnerable. 

Real Madrid were rocked by Shakhtar, but the system means they still have lots of chances

Real Madrid were rocked by Shakhtar, but the system means they still have lots of chances

If each club plays 10 of 35 possible opponents — and not home and away — they might sling in a couple of marquee fixtures for the broadcasters, but nothing will be left to chance. 

This is to guarantee the same old names reach the last 16, as they do now. Last season’s Champions League knockout stage contained 11 of the 16 clubs that had made it through the previous season, and eight of that 11 were present the year before, too. It was 1996-97 when Real Madrid were last not involved in the Champions League knockout round, and that was because the club did not qualify for the competition at all.

Since the Champions League has included a group stage, Real Madrid have never failed to progress once involved. If they are in it, they’re going through: because in Europe everyone plays by the rules of the elite.

As they will again, for while the creation of a closed-shop European Super League may be a hollow threat and more of a negotiating tool, the architects of Project Big Picture are clearing the League Cup out for something, and it is likely to be an expanded European fixture programme. Yet will it fly? People like tournaments they can understand.

One of the reasons the 39th game met such resistance is that it seemed intrinsically unfair that 19 home games and 19 away against the same opponents was being corrupted. Even if first played 20th and second played 19th, all the way through to the point where 10th met 11th, it did not seem right. And 10 matches, five home, five away, with 36 clubs having 36 different schedules will also sit uneasily.

It’s the American system? Few over here understand American systems. Try telling the average football fan that Major League Baseball comprises two 15-team leagues that play by slightly different rules, each made up of three conferences, but clubs from the different leagues do play each other in the regular season. Some of them. 

Zinedine Zidane lost the opening match of their group yet Madrid will likely still qualify

Zinedine Zidane lost the opening match of their group yet Madrid will likely still qualify

So that in 2019, the New York Yankees played the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays 19 times, the Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians seven times, the Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers six times, the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Mets four times and the San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers three times. 

The Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, St Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates they did not play at all. But other teams in their league did. That’s the Swiss system.

Yet, like most of the American franchise models, it does at least strive for fairness. No team has retained the World Series since the Yankees won three straight between 1998 and 2000, and the last seven years has seen 10 different franchises in the final.

That is not the aim of Europe’s elite. Real Madrid have contested four of the last seven Champions League finals and their reaction to the appearance of new faces such as RB Leipzig, Lyon and Atalanta in 2020, has been to agitate for a European Super League by invitation only. 

If they settle for an expanded format instead, it will be skewed once more to favour the wealthiest. The only joy may be that this is one carve-up too many. When the UEFA Cup was in its death throes, one of the decisions that killed it off was a group stage that eschewed the home-and-away format.

To progress, Manchester City played FC Twente and Paris Saint-Germain at home, Schalke 04 and Racing Santander away, and one midweek did not play at all. It was a hopeless format that devalued the competition, while going against the intrinsic fairness of previous schedules.

For it isn’t football’s traditions that have grown stale. Nobody is bored by long-standing rivalries, and the idea you play once at your place and once at theirs. What is stale is this dance of the dead every few years, the same entitled clubs trying to seize a bigger share of the pot, offering nothing truly new, nothing very exciting, no risk, no danger, their fear of failure seeping from every pore. 

But not sporting failure, for they are immune to that. Real Madrid can lose to Shakhtar Donetsk and shrug because they have fixed the system. But the balance sheet, the numbers, they are not good. 

And they created this game, just as they will presume to create the next one. So they really haven’t anyone else to blame.

United debt piling 

Manchester United used to be £203.6million in debt; now they’re £474.1m in debt. 

Look, coronavirus has hit a lot of businesses hard. But just as well it’s the type of debt United and the rest of their elite allies made sure doesn’t concern UEFA’s Financial Fair Play mandarins. 

Otherwise they might be in the tiniest bit of trouble. 

Manchester United's debt has soared to £474.1m amid the coronavirus pandemic

Manchester United’s debt has soared to £474.1m amid the coronavirus pandemic

Liverpool montage strikes questionable chord 

Before Wednesday night’s match against Ajax, and for the second time this week, television viewers were treated to an emotional montage about Liverpool — all Shankly, Paisley and this means more. There was one before the Merseyside derby, too.

Yet as we now know, it’s a club owned by American venture capitalists who would sell the rest of English football, European football or your grandmother down the road if there was a buck to be made. So maybe give the string section the night off.

History points to ‘Spursy’ Spurs

Jose Mourinho was tetchy when told that losing a 3-0 lead at 81 minutes to West Ham was a little ‘Spursy’. He insisted Tottenham’s fragile history was not his concern.

Then again, on the last five occasions that a home side in England’s top division has led a league game by three goals at half-time and failed to win, three times that team has been Spurs.

Even Jose must admit: that’s a little bit Spursy.

Jose Mourinho says Tottenham's history is not his concern, but a pattern is emerging

Jose Mourinho says Tottenham’s history is not his concern, but a pattern is emerging

Wenger sees Rashford’s hunger to reach the top 

There will be an interview with Arsene Wenger in Saturday’s Daily Mail. He talks about his future, about an invitation from Daniel Levy, about Arsenal, loyalty, potato farming and, of course, sumo wrestling. You know, the usual.

He’s also head of global development for FIFA and, as such, an influential guy. When we met he had not long finished a study on the age at which the best footballers begin to stand out. Not just the good players. 

Despite his vast experience Arsene Wenger finds it difficult to predict greatness in football

Despite his vast experience Arsene Wenger finds it difficult to predict greatness in football

Wenger was talking those that travel to the very top: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry. He said that shown a group of promising 18-year-olds, even with a life immersed in football, he could not predict with any certainty who would succeed. Wenger had Lilian Thuram at Monaco at that age.

‘If you had said to me he would make 142 caps, the record for France, I would have advised you to change jobs and write about basketball,’ he said. ‘And I’ve told him that, many times. Having spent my life in football, I cannot predict at 18 who will make it. You can see who will not make it, but the rest is difficult.’

Wenger says the study shows there are two ages of separation. The first is small and occurs at 20. A group will move away from the rest. The next is at 23, and is huge. ‘Those that will make it in the top league, you might see that at 20,’ says Wenger, ‘but at 23 the ones like Messi and Ronaldo go really high up.’

Marcus Rashford is 22.

Wenger believes we will soon see whether Marcus Rashford can become the world's best

Wenger believes we will soon see whether Marcus Rashford can become the world’s best

‘I know,’ said Wenger. ‘And I think about that when I see him because we will soon find out — how high can he go? Can he go to the very top, because the talent is there, you can see it, you can smell it. Will he go as high as we all hope he can go? It is the smallest group that makes it there. If I think about Thuram, he was mentally so strong, a good combination of intelligence and motivation, leading a life focused on what he wants to achieve. This is about the mental side now.’

Wenger was speaking of Rashford the footballer, of course. But given what this remarkable young man has accomplished these last months, and what he might have done with a Government less wilfully cloth-eared, it would appear many of those qualities are already in place.

Now we wait. More from Wenger on Saturday.

Knock knock, who’s there? A farce of a doping probe 

Salwa Eid Naser, women’s world 400-metre champion and the third fastest over that distance in history, has escaped a doping ban on a technicality. 

One of her three missed tests was struck off, after it was revealed a confused doping control officer knocked on the door of a storage room containing gas canisters by mistake.

There was sympathy for the official, with a report stating the numbering on the buildings around Naser’s Bahrain residence were very confusing. It also emerged Naser had not put a phone number on the WADA athlete system and lived in an apartment with no intercom or buzzer. It was almost as if she was trying to hide.

In controversial circumstances, Salwa Eid Naser has escaped a doping ban on a technicality

In controversial circumstances, Salwa Eid Naser has escaped a doping ban on a technicality

‘I’ve never been a cheat,’ said Naser. ‘I only missed three drug tests which is normal.’

Actually, it’s not, although one is reminded of the proverb about ducks. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. 

The same logic might apply to athletes who don’t provide testers with a phone number or a doorbell.

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