THERE are a few new things to watch out for in this season’s Champions League, the group stage of which will get underway this week. Referees will use the vanishing spray that was so successful in the World Cup, bookings will be wiped out on completion of the quarter-finals, and two clubs will make their debut in the competition proper.
Step forward Ludogorets Razgrad, whose first appearance in the group stage will be against Liverpool at Anfield. The Bulgarian champions only got this far thanks to a defender who saved two penalties in a shootout victory against Steaua Bucharest. Their goalkeeper, who was sent off in that match, is suspended for Tuesday’s game. His deputy is injured.
On the same night, Malmo will also take their bow, away to Juventus. The club who lost to Nottingham Forest in the 1979 final are the first Swedish side to reach the group stage since 2000, thereby vindicating the introduction a few years back of a champions’ route, which gave title-winners more chance of qualifying than fourth-placed teams from bigger nations.
Whether these teams have any chance of making an impact is another matter. Whether their appearance is enough to compensate for the irreversible flow of money to the continent’s richest clubs is something else again. In this, the 60th season of the European Cup, the 23rd since it was renamed the Champions League, the inequalities that are the competition’s biggest – perhaps only – weakness are wider than ever.
In what will be Sky Sports’ last season as official broadcaster in the UK – it has come to a pretty pass when even they cannot afford to keep up – power is concentrated in ever fewer hands. While the Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs of this world want to play each other as often as possible, and none of us are likely to complain when they do, you wonder about the repetition of these big occasions.
In this week’s opening round of group-stage fixtures, there are some mouth-watering clashes, but they are not new. On Tuesday, Arsenal are away to Borussia Dortmund for the third time in four seasons. On Wednesday, Manchester City travel to meet Bayern Munich, having played them twice in the previous three years. On the same night, Chelsea welcome Schalke, opponents they beat 3-0 home and away last season.
The Champions League helps the rich to get richer. While UEFA is right to argue that its prize money is only a fraction of domestic TV revenue, a complex formula – based on market share – ensures that it rewards better-performing clubs from the bigger leagues. Just by participating in European football’s blue-riband event, clubs attract the best players, raise their international profile and exploit the commercial opportunities it brings.
For many, this is as it should be, a product only of capitalism. But without the checking mechanisms integral to US sport – such as the Super Bowl winner picking last in the draft –it is increasingly difficult for underdogs to bridge the gap. As Celtic know to their cost, the Champions League is an exclusive party, to which gatecrashers from smaller, less affluent footballing nations can gain access only by punching above their weight. UEFA, already pleased with its champions’ qualifying route, claims to have met the challenge with financial fair-play regulations, but a word of caution is in order. The governing body punishes only those who spend what they cannot afford. Clubs with a turnover to support their ambition are allowed – not unreasonably – to do as they please.
And, however much it tries to protect the integrity of the game, UEFA cannot be expected to resist the kind of money BT Sport offered them last year. As of next season, the new kid on the broadcasting block will boost the continent’s biggest clubs even further with a blockbusting £897m deal that has blown the incumbent from the water.
Not only is this season the last in which Messrs Souness, Wilkins and Redknapp will sit in their gleaming Isleworth studio, poring over every detail from the Bernabeu. It is the last of Sky’s arrangement with ITV, which allows the latter to show one game live in every round of matches, as they will do with Ludogorets’ visit to Liverpool.
Of course, it is as well not to go overboard with sympathy for a satellite company that has had things pretty much its own way these last couple of decades. Since acquiring the rights to the Premier League in 1992, taking a grip of the Champions League in 2002 and tightening it six years later, Sky has done more than most to take the game away from its traditional, terrestrial audience.
They have done it in style, setting new broadcasting standards and transforming the Premier League into one of the world’s most vibrant competitions, but they have also priced many supporters out of the game, a process that will not be reversed by BT Sport’s spectacular intervention.
In the most significant television deal to be struck since Sky got its hands on England’s top flight 22 years ago, BT Sport will pay UEFA £299m per season, over a three-year period, to broadcast a total of more than 1,000 matches in the Champions League and Europa League.
This is great news for the clubs who will gain most exposure from the coverage, as well as for the players and agents whose wages will rise accordingly, but it is not so good for the fans who will suddenly find that the best competition in European football, the one that most excites an emerging generation of youngsters, is no longer available on terrestrial TV.
While BT have promised that every British team will be shown free to non-subscribers at least once per season, it is likely to be on satellite, cable or broadband platforms, rather than BBC or ITV. The best the latter two can hope for is a highlights package.
If you sit down to watch council telly on Tuesday night, hoping to see Ludogorets add a little romance to the cup with the big ears, you had better enjoy it.
There may not be much more where that came from.