Enjoy the Champions League's last-ever 'Group of Death'! Next year's 'Swiss Model' is going to kill the competition's early excitement

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UEFA has decided to replace the group stage with one big league from 2024 on, meaning more games but far less drama

Silvio Berlusconi always felt that the principal problem with the old European Cup was that "the imponderable prevails''. As far as he was concerned, there were too many variables; just too great a chance of bad breaks or incorrect calls ending a continental campaign.

For more than 30 years, the European Cup was a straight knockout between domestic champions, meaning an unlucky draw could see a heavyweight contender dropped in the first round - as happened in 1987, when Real Madrid got the better of Napoli 3-1 on aggregate.

Berlusconi was present at the first leg at Santiago Bernabeu and was disgusted by the inevitability of either the champions of Spain or Italy being eliminated at the earliest possible stage of the competition. The following year, after Berlusconi's Milan had taken Napoli's Serie A title, he told the Corriere della Sera: "We must transform the European Cup into a continental league, a formula that would afford clubs economic certainties. Imagine that with a couple more players you could play double the number of games. We would go to play in Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon - not in some remote provincial town.

"There is no point in demagoguery: teams of a certain level, capable of counting on a certain audience and consequent revenues, must have the right to compete with one another on a regular basis."

  1. 'We need a European league'

    'We need a European league'

    Such thinking was nothing new - even at Milan. In 1964, the club's technical director at the time, Gipo Viani, told the fanzine Forza Milan: "We need a European league. The ideal version of the football of the future is to be able to provide a super-spectacle.

    "Don't you understand why people are deserting the stadium? You need to give the public [games against] Real Madrid, Benfica etc. and then you will see that the stadiums will fill up again, even without ticket price reductions. You have to try to create a championship with all the best European teams. It could be done by linking the Italian league and the European league, with the intensification of the teams’ calendar.

    "So, each club would have a suitable number of players, and this would serve to enhance many young players who today, unfortunately, cannot be conveniently launched into the senior side and instead languish, sometimes for months, among the reserves."

    Berlusconi, of course, was more concerned with the monetary benefits for the clubs involved than player welfare - and discussed the idea of creating a European Super League (ESL) with Madrid president Ramon Mendoza.

    As former Milan director Umberto Gandini said during a conversation with CalcioMercato on Twitch, "The birth of the Champions League in 1993 was a consequence" of those talks, as UEFA sought to remove the threat of a Berlusconi-led breakaway by adding a group stage to the old European Cup.

  2. 'The lesser of two evils'

    'The lesser of two evils'

    The ESL threat never went away, though. It instead became something of a 'boogie-man', regularly summoned by Europe's elite to scare the game's governing bodies into giving them more power - and more money.

    UEFA's nightmare was finally realised in 2021 when an ESL was hastily formed, but Berlusconi and Mendoza's dream - which had long since been embraced by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and his Juventus counterpart Andrea Agnelli - died a sudden death, with a fan backlash in England leading to a collapse of support among Premier League clubs that proved fatal to the breakaway competition's hopes of success.

    UEFA nonetheless sought to appease Europe's biggest clubs - still reeling from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic - by giving them an expanded Champions League. So, next year will herald the arrival of the 'Swiss Model', which will see 36 teams (up from 32) competing in one giant league stage. Every club will play eight different opponents, with four of the games at home, and four away. The top eight sides will progress directly to the last 16. The teams ranked ninth to 24th will face a play-off to reach the knockouts, essentially providing the strongest sides with a safety net if they do slip up in two or three games.

    It could have been worse, of course. The original plan was to have 10 rounds in the league stage - and include two teams based on past performances in the Champions League. Thankfully, both ideas were abandoned after a major backlash - but, at the end of the day, UEFA has still managed to squeeze four new match days into an already-congested calendar, so it’s no wonder that Ilkay Gundogan argued that in comparison to the ESL, the revamped Champions League was merely "the lesser of two evils", and felt compelled to ask, "Is no one thinking of us players?"

  3. Vicious cycle of sustained success
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    Vicious cycle of sustained success

    Furthermore, while the 'Swiss Model' is obviously a hugely positive development for regular participants in the Champions League, it is a major negative for those that do not.

    Broadcasting money is obviously a hugely significant source of revenue for clubs. For example, the Premier League, with its colossal overseas TV rights deals, is now being accused of killing European football because of its staggering dominance of the transfer market.

    However, the biggest distortive force in European football over the past decade is the distribution of money derived from featuring in UEFA club competitions (UCC) - which is precisely why we see the same sides winning certain domestic titles season after season, and the same teams competing in the Champions League year after year.

    European qualification, then, is self-perpetuating, in that it generates a level of increased income among the participants that creates a vicious cycle of sustained success that is almost impossible to break. Consequently, European Leagues fought hard for an increase in solidarity payments to non-participating clubs during the next UCC cycle (2024-27) and, thus, welcomed UEFA's decision to increase the projected annual €4.4 billion (£3.8bn/$4.7bn) share from four to seven percent.

    "In absolute figures, this will result in distributing €308m to non-participating clubs (up from the current €175m) as from season 2024-25," read a European Leagues statement. "This is an important result for the whole European professional club football ecosystem and the leagues are proudly supporting UEFA in such an achievement."

  4. Some clubs more equal than others
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    Some clubs more equal than others

    However, because of the ever-increasing prize money on offer in the Champions League, the rich are still going to get richer, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will only continue to grow.

    That suits the elite just fine, of course. The pandemic put the fear of god into them, as it brutally exposed the financial fragility of an industry that has long since lost the run of itself. Their ridiculously brittle business models very nearly collapsed because of the loss of revenue during lockdowns.

    Consequently, while Agnelli, Perez and others tried to argue that the ESL was essential for the survival of every European club, they were obviously only interested in protecting their own economic interests. Agnelli, let’s not forget, was horrified by Atalanta - the kind of club from a provincial town that Berlusconi arrogantly mocked - 'taking' Roma's place in the Champions League just because they had proven themselves to be the better team on the field of play.

    Roma, Agnelli argued, should not have been 'punished' with exclusion from Europe just because they had underperformed for a solitary season - which obviously undermines the whole point of playing games. It is the very antithesis of not just football but sport in general, as it renders results irrelevant, and sporting merit meaningless.

    So, when Perez argued that "the best should always play the best", he was really talking about maintaining a sporting status quo through economic inequality. Europe’s aristocrats really do not like new faces upsetting the old order. Indeed, while Perez and his kind proclaim that all clubs are equal, just like the pigs in Animal Farm, they believe that some are more equal than others.

  5. 'More boring, no-stakes football'
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    'More boring, no-stakes football'

    However, there was a fundamental flaw in the ESL, and it's also present in the revamped Champions League: the absence of jeopardy. Fans, viewers, consumers - or whatever the game’s major stockbrokers want to call them - do not just want to see the best against the best, they also want drama. They want twists and turns, surprises and shocks. They certainly don't want the outcome to be a foregone conclusion - or worse, for it to be inconsequential.

    As Ronan Evain, Executive Director of Football Supporters Europe (FSE), has repeatedly pointed out, increasing the amount of European games won't just "increase the gap between and within leagues" and "strengthen the dominance of wealthy clubs", it will also result in "more boring, no-stakes football".

    "Fans wanted reform too but, I'm sorry, you cannot pin the blame for this kind of revamped Champions League on fans," Evain told GOAL. "You won't find any match-going fans that want more European games. There might be a demand from broadcasters or markets outside of Europe for more matches, but there is no demand from the fans going to games on a weekly basis.

    "They don't want more games because they can't afford more games. There is a limit on what a fan can invest into football. So, if you add more games and higher TV subscriptions - which, let's face it, is the idea behind it all - well, then, fans are eventually going to say enough is enough.

    "We can all see that football is struggling to manage its finances. Top clubs are not the super-rich businesses we were told they were. We’re realising that these are mismanaged companies with very little cash reserves. So, what we are witnessing now with the Champions League expansion is football's attempt to deal with this crisis, internally.

    "What we, as fans, were hoping for was that this difficult period would be used for a deep reflection on football, how it is run, and its relationship with local communities and society in general. Instead, a lot of the major stakeholders are spending a lot of money and effort rushing through a format that will do nothing to address the imbalances within the game."

    Equality isn't incompatible with entertainment; on the contrary, it creates it.

  6. Money must conquer all

    Money must conquer all

    The current Champions League format is far from flawless. Because of the gross financial disparity which the tournament has facilitated for years, many groups are painfully predictable, and characterised by mismatches and dead rubbers.

    The focus, though, should have been on addressing the tournament's defects (and the distribution of wealth), because even in spite of the seeding process, the current group stage has retained an ability to produce fascinating draws.

    This year is a thrilling case in point, with Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan and Newcastle all placed in the same pool. There is only one guarantee in 'The Group of Death' - that two teams will not survive. As a result, it should - or at least could - be engrossing from start to finish. Because equality equals entertainment.

    However, the imminent abolition of the group stage means we'll not see the likes of it again. So, enjoy it while you can - because the tweaks and threats definitely won't end here. The 'Swiss Model' is just the start.

    The 'boogie-man’ will most certainly be back - because if the pandemic panic proved anything, it's that the cost of early European elimination is still too great for clubs that are so badly run. The ultimate goal remains the complete removal of risk - because the imponderable cannot be allowed to prevail. Nowadays, money must conquer all.