Paul Parker

Fixture fiddling taking buzz out of game

Paul Parker

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The Champions League is more about the 'league'

The way the Champions League knockout stage is organised is taking the buzz out of big European nights, and indicates a move to a continental super league.

The last 16 has been spread out over a month, with the first and second legs broken up over a fortnight each. You get two games on a Tuesday, two on a Wednesday, and a week before the other two matches are played. Then they do it all over again.

And when you consider how long the group stages go on for – and the sprawling mess that is the Europa League – everything points to the end-game: a season-long European Premier League and Championship.

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Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1991; Sporting Lisbon won the Cup Winners' Cup in 1964.

Fans hark back to the knockout format, when every game was make-or-break and unfancied sides from Eastern Europe or Belgium could go on amazing runs and reach a final or even win it.

But the fans clearly don’t matter. There was a token nod to what we wanted when they abolished the hastily-introduced ‘double group stage’ after much complaints.

But it was a token withdrawal as the solution was just to drag the knockout phase out over a month, which is what we’re seeing at the moment. In terms of timeframes and excitement, it’s more like a mini-league than a knockout.

If anything they realised the second group stage was a step too soon for the fans, and that they needed to ‘phase in’ their plan to expand the tournaments, meanwhile making the Europa League even more bloated.

Remember when you had four to eight Champions League matches on the same night? It was so exciting, there was such a buzz about it - no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t keep an eye on everything so there was always a surprise when a goal went in somewhere.

But it’s not in UEFA’s interests to have the fans excited, passionate – it’s in their interest to have as many matchdays as possible, so they can eke out every last drop of advertising and sponsorship revenue from the televised games.

When the matches are on at different times and different days, more people can watch individual matches and the income for UEFA increases. Which is nice for them.

About 20 years ago most people laughed off the idea of a continental league system, but no-one’s laughing now. And it’s not just European club football that is following this model.

The European Championships is being played all over Europe. UEFA say it’s a one-off but I don’t think so. Again, it’s great for revenue – more casual fans will be able to attend individual matches, which plays into the hands of corporate hospitality and maximising UEFA’s brand over as many countries as possible.

But again, the ‘real’ fans will be hurt. Real fans of national teams travel en masse to tournaments, camping out or staying in hostels or whatever they can afford, attending every match in huge numbers and giving the support and passion the Euros or a World Cup deserve.

What we will now see is these Euros games being more like home friendlies or qualifiers, with loads of occasional fans eating hot dogs and getting the tube home afterwards. Meanwhile, the hardcore travelling supporters will be completely priced out of following their team from the groups to the final. You’d have to be a millionaire to be able to afford to hop about 13 different countries in a month – and millionaires don’t always make the best football fans.

And it doesn’t just extend to continental and international football – you can see it happening in England too.

The FA Cup is increasingly being shunted towards a midweek format, so it can be separated from the Premier League at weekends, while the League Cup gets marginalised even further.

Why did Manchester United play Reading on Monday night? Why wasn’t that on a Sunday? Why is Chelsea’s match with Middlesbrough on a Wednesday? Last year’s final was a late afternoon kick-off, and this year’s will be at 5.30pm. Why? Because it’s Saturday night prime time. Who cares about the travelling fans, about the joy of watching an FA Cup final on a sunny afternoon. It’s all about telly.

There’s a wider agenda at play here, a method to the madness.

Club football will go on most of the year, with marginal breaks, but tournaments spread out. The same applies for international tournaments. League formats are less exciting, less ‘buzzy’ than the intensity of knockout competition, but the authorities don’t care.

It’s easy to say ‘TV is ruining football’, but the tail is wagging the dog. TV money revolutionised the game in England first and Europe is following suit. Fair enough.

But they have to remember who pays in the first place and, with attendances dwindling and fans of top flight clubs becoming less interested by the year, there is a danger people could get bored and just walk away from it.

One thing in England’s favour is that it doesn’t really affect Championship clubs and below, and that we have a deep passion for lower league football. Perhaps real football fans will start supporting these teams, their local teams, in even greater numbers. But it’s a big maybe.

As it stands fans of Premier League clubs could soon find themselves going for a month or more without seeing their team play at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

Do we accept this because of the benefits – which arguably won’t trickle down to the clubs that much – or do we stamp our feet and demand change?

Money rules over the majority, and I feel there’s nothing we can do about it.

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