25 May 2009

Gimmick gimmick shock treatment

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That's specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn't work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]


I don't claim to be an expert on this "sport" thingummy, if I may be winsomely and falsely modest for just a sliver of a mo, but I do know this: watching it shouldn't feel like going to the birthday party of your spouse's cousin who you'd never heard of until the time said spouse mentioned said cousin's name several months previously when said spouse brought up said party in a conversation you can't remember.

Jonathan Wilson is right. Or, to be more specific (because that sentence does need narrowing down), he's right about the UEFA Cup, and about Shakhtar Donetsk's success. Good for them. Donetskians have earned the right to still, days later, be so hammered that they can't remember whether it's pronounced "Kiev" or "Kyiv" these days. It should be celebrated: as a moment of big-stage glory, as a day in the spotlight for those clubs whose heeledness is not at the same level as our mighty continentlet's hyperclubs.

That is the status of Europe's secondary competition nowadays. But it's a fragile one. A competition for those not quite good enough to make Big Cup will depend for its identity on Big Cup. When the latter admitted only national champions, such was the accumulation of high-quality teams that often gathered in the UEFA Cup that its gravity sometimes came close to that of its sister planet. By extending an invitation to the Champions League to more clubs, UEFA ended this, quickly making the idea quaint and fanciful. The UEFA Cup's secondary status, which was paid little heed in the days when it could be better than the European Cup, was made nakedly apparent.

It's a fine thing for it to exist to prompt triumphs for Europe's upper middle class. But, for one thing, it smacks of a "let them eat cake, and make sure the beastly urchins are kept well away from me while they're chawing on it, ugh, they make me want to wash my contact lenses in battery acid" attitude. There is an argument that the competition affords those eager to dine with royalty the chance to rehearse their table manners. Thrillingly, Sevilla and Zenit St. Petersburg gave us glimpses to a beautiful future — a future which never arrived. The fact that the participants in the UEFA Cup are so far removed from the elite makes the notion of such upward mobility a tenuous one. Access to the Champions League is access to the underclass of another hierarchy, one whose most affluent reside in a gated community patrolled by attack dogs and bastards.

The second-class nature of the competition leaves it with a problem. It is far more difficult for it to compel you to watch it; there is little inherent in the tournament that will have fans attracted to it without their consciously realising it. Fans in general, I mean; fans without a direct rooting interest in the competition. You watch a domestic league to find out who the best team in the country is. You watch the World Cup because it contains the best national teams on the planet. You watch the Champions League because it contains all, or practically all, the best club teams in Europe, and because it (so the unsteady theory goes) reveals who the continent's best team is. Leave aside the legitimate concerns one may have about the Champions League and its effect on European football; purely on the level of competition, that identity — a tournament for the best of the best — is its own raison d'être with its own inevitable attraction. The secondary competition doesn't have this.

The changes to the UEFA Cup brought about by those who their mothers presumably love have stripped away its identity. They almost seem designed to repel the curious. This is a dangerous approach when one can watch top-flight football from Friday to Monday and the Champions League on Tuesday and Wednesday. Even the most dedicated follower of the game will need to have the idea of another night's football sold to them. By taking away the UEFA Cup's best teams and feeding them to the 'roided-up Champions League, and then inflicting gridlock upon the Cup with a superfluous group stage, UEFA have failed. What remains for the fan is a gnawing sense of duty; that, on some level, one ought to watch just because. The pomp and ceremony of a continent-wide tournament is deflated by such flimsy commitment.

All this is not to say that the UEFA Cup, or the new Europa League, cannot be enjoyed. Sevilla and Zenit and Middlesbrough have given us some of the most engaging plotlines of the decade. Of course it can be enjoyed: it's a football tournament. The point is that these stories have emerged despite UEFA's tinkering. When a tournament is not lucky enough to be imbued with a lady-of-the-lake mysticism, it relies on whatever drama happens to happen; and, by the nature of things, it will happen, sometimes. But it won't happen all the time, and when it doesn't, it reminds you that it has become Just Another Tournament. It has no magic to fall back on. And when the body responsible for organising the tournament look like they are actually conspiring against it, this contempt for the competition will seep into its essence: If they don't care, why should anyone else?

Or am I being harsh on the blazers? Maybe they do sincerely believe in what they're doing, believe that they are genuinely enhancing football. Maybe they believe in the magical properties of the group phase, the official match ball, the guaranteed revenue stream, the erroneous application of the word 'league'. Homer bought the rock, didn't he?

Simpsons dialogue from the incomparable snpp.com


t'OM 25/5/09 3:26 PM  

I think, for me, the old attraction with the UEFA Cup was 2 legged knockout ties. If you assembled 128 teams (with about 32 seeded teams) and had straight out 2 legged knockout ties, that would be the sweetest deal. It would also work for TV as first leg: Interesting big team ties, second leg then gives you scope of who you want to cover (giant killings, tight ties etc). It would also give the competition differentiation from the juggernaut of the Champions League (I use the juggernaut analogy not only due to size, but the seriously long time it takes to build up any momentum).

Ahmed 25/5/09 5:55 PM  

there are countless ways to 'fix' the UEFA Cup. None of them happen to please the 'smaller' nations who want the limited 'prestige' that a Champions-League like format / cup offers.

straight 2 legged knockout ties with the top four getting wild card entries to next season's Champions League would make it much more interesting.

Fredorrarci 25/5/09 11:20 PM  

I think the need to distinguish the Europa League from the Champions League is a very good point. The CL can withstand the tedium that often accompanies the group phase because it's the CL. (It even managed to do so with two group phases.) The UC/EL season is almost strangled by its drawn-out process.

Also, I like the idea of granting Champions League qualification to the Europa League semi-finalists, or even just the winners. As I said in the post, the identity of the EL is dependent on its relationship to the CL, so such a change seems logical. I think this is how they do it in basketball and rugby, and it seems to work for them (correct me if I'm wrong, anyone).

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