Jhe two best teams in Europe, the most successful club in the competition’s history, a brave underdog – in some ways the line-up for this week’s Champions League semi-finals is perfect. Each additionally offers an intriguing subplot: Pep Guardiola battling the curse of overthinking, Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool chasing an implausible quadruple, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema rampaging against the death of light, the prospect frankly hilarious of Unai Emery returning to Paris for the final and making a point at Paris Saint-Germain, a club that never took him seriously (maybe he could throw a three-day party to celebrate and invite Neymar is here to cut the cake as the Brazilian did during his 26th birthday celebrations).
And yet, and yet… the four clubs only come from two countries and those two countries are England and Spain, who between them have produced 62.5% of all semi-finalists over the past two decades .
Even foreigners are Villarreal. Their story is perhaps remarkable, a team made up almost entirely of Tottenham flops and targets hailing from a town with a population, as everyone now knows, of just 50,000, who overcame the might of the Juventus and Bayern Munich thanks to the tactical care of a manager who was essentially kicked out by Arsenal because his Vs sound a bit like Bs – but they come from La Liga. Anglo-Spanish hegemony continues.
There are no more foreigners. What other giant slayers have there been recently? Atalanta – a small club that has done wonders given its budget, but a Serie A team. Ajax – the biggest club in the Netherlands. Tottenham – a wealthy Premier League club with a huge modern stadium in London that is funded through tax exile. RB Leipzig – no closer to a fairy tale than Red Bull having used Sleeping Beauty in an advertising campaign; they may obey the letter of the Bundesliga’s 50+1 property laws, but they’ve erased its spirit.
Of the 80 semi-finalists over the past 20 years, 26 are Spanish and 24 English. Portugal provided one, the Netherlands two, with the rest coming from Germany, Italy and France. It’s no longer a pan-European competition, it’s a global tournament that has de facto franchises in a small handful of Western European countries.
UEFA’s decision to create the Europa Conference League is at least an acknowledgment of this, a competition which features six top-flight group matches for champions from countries such as Norway, Slovenia and Israel, as well as a number number of other mid-ranking matches. teams otherwise excluded from European competition. It brought together a diversity of quarter-finalists – from seven different countries – but it’s far too few, far too late.
Maybe 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 was not just about trade, but was a moment that vanished in the wind.
There was no fan protest against the takeover of Newcastle by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund; indeed, a vocal minority has attacked those who question whether it is healthy for this venerable community institution to be sold to a body representing a state accused of a catalog of human rights abuses.
Now that Chelsea fans have been forced by sanctions to consider their ownership, the main question seems to be which billionaire who could take over will spend the most money. Are Arsenal supporters worried about wearing a curse on their team’s sleeve at ‘Visit Rwanda’, whose chairman, Paul Kagame, has been accused, among a litany of allegations, of murdering 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 stadiums or on television around the world. It has never generated so much revenue. Yet everyone is still waiting for a bigger sugar daddy, wondering what billionaire or oligarch or sovereign wealth fund or hedge fund could buy them even glitzier players. This is the story of modern Britain: don’t ask the source of the money, just how much there is.
What were these protests about? If they were protesting against a system that perpetuates elite domination, that’s already there. In August 2016, in the interregnum between the suspension of Michel Platini and the election of Aleksander Ceferin as UEFA President, an agreement was reached between Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of Bayern and Andrea Agnelli of Juventus, which which means that since 2018, 30% of Champions League broadcast revenue is distributed on 32 sides in the group stage based on performance in UEFA competition over the past 10 years. Or to contextualize this, if West Ham qualify for the Champions League next season by winning the Europa League, they will receive 4% of what Chelsea get.
And yet this seam is not enough. The existing top flight are still looking to bolster their own positions, demanding that two places in the revised 36-team group stage which will come into effect from 2024 be allocated based on the coefficient. They are already incredibly rich. They already have huge established fanbases. They already have a system stacked in their favor, and they still want another safety net.
It means clubs can be as badly run as Manchester United and Juventus have been over the past decade and still be at the top level. It may have a different name. He can disguise his intentions. It may come in creepy increments rather than one clumsy hit, but Super League is here.
Football as a corporate entertainment product is thriving and undeniably good to watch, with the quality and drama of the later stages of the Champions League unparalleled. But football as a sport, football as an expression of something beautiful in the human soul, as the most democratic sport open to all, has been dying for years. All we do now is decide what the sarcophagus will look like.