Friday, May 13, 2011

No More Lustre: Has The UEFA Champions League Lost Its Glamour?

So as FC Barcelona managed to sweep their bitter rivals Real Madrid and Manchester United FC brush aside German hopefuls FC Schalke 04 in the 2010/11 edition of the UEFA Champions League, there’s one thing that creeps into mind when you look at the two finalists for the final at Wembely: Normalcy.

The Champions League is European football’s (nay, the world’s ) most elite and prestigious club footballing tournament, where the very best of European clubs get the chance to cut their metal and test their grit against other European footballing elite. It’s literally the stuff dreams are made of. Mouth-watering group stage encounters, nail-biting semi-finals and a melting pot of the world’s footballing elite players competing to lift the coveted trophy at the end of the tournament.

Quite romantic when you think about it. After all, imagine the prospect of a (say for example) Marseille taking on Juventus in the quarter-finals to see who will take on the winner of Chelsea FC and Valencia in the final. It could be about the “little clubs” fighting and battling against European royalty and brushing them aside to hold that illustrious trophy at season’s end.

But as recently history will tell you, it’s been far from that. The romance and the thrill of the ties in the Champions League is slowly and surely fading away. This season’s edition sees FC Barcelona take on Manchester United in what no doubt should be a very entertaining affair. But it’s become all too typical. For the past few seasons (since 2000) the Champions League trophy has only been placed in the trophy cabinets of four different footballing nations (England, Spain, Portugal and Italy), with Germany’s Bayern Munich making the final twice but losing to Inter and almost to Valencia on penalties(Valencia CF in 2000/01 and Inter Milan 2009/10).

So you can only imagine the lack of variety when it comes to the passing of the trophy. The only season when the trend was bucked was when a Jose Mourinho led Portuguese outfit FC Porto to a 3 – 0 victory over French side Monaco in 2003/04. But a tie like that hasn’t been had in a while because of the dominance in this point in history has been confined to the four footballing nations, but yet more specifically to FC Barcelona and Manchester United. Kudos to both teams making the final, an achievement for any fan of the sides to be proud of. It’s been labelled as the rematch of 08/09 final where FC Barcelona ran riot over Manchester United, beating them 2 – 0 in style.

It’s great prospect to watch. If you’re a Manchester United or FC Barcelona fan. But what about to the footballing neutral? Can it be that Europe’s prestigious club competition has become too top heavy? Or that the game of football has become the play thing of billionaires and global brands as opposed to actual teams? It would be stupid to say or even think that the game between two of Europe’s biggest teams would be anything short of entertaining. But it’s the same old thing again and again.

It’s a sad thing to say, but it seems there cannot be a variety in the Champions League anymore. Those with some of the deepest pockets in Europe can only be successful and simmer to the top of the European footballing stew.

How great would it have been to be a FC Schalke 04 or a Tottenham Hotspur fan during this season of the Champions League. Just a few mere wins away from reaching the grandest of all club footballing finals the world over. But yet look at their games in which they were knocked out. Tottenham lost a crushing 0 – 5 on aggregate (losing 4 – 0 in the opening leg) and FC Schalke, the team from Gelsenkirchen who carried the imaginations of many (including myself) were systematically thrown out of the Champions league by Manchester United 6 -1 on aggregate, despite the heroics of goalkeeper Manuel Neurer . The fairy tale run of the underdogs came to a screeching halt and those romantics who dream, dreamt for too long.

But this isn’t to take away from the skills and talents of Manchester United or FC Barcelona. They both have incredibly talent squads, brilliantly tactically minded coaches with both an arsenal of attacking weapons and an inventory of defense strategies to complement their playing styles. Both squads should be commended on their achievements because after all, you don’t become champions of your leagues by sheer luck and chance.

But on that night on the 28th of May when both teams grace the grass of Wembley Stadium in London, one team will come out the victor. But who really loses here? Without pointing out the obvious (the team who loses), it’s the imagination of many a footballing fan who has grown tired of seeing the “topheavyness” of European football battle it out. Again.

Is there space for the imagination for the footballing romantic? Yes, but it can only exist in that form, in the imagination. Reality can deal a cruel blow for many a fan.

By Marcel Abboud