Champions League already diminished before BT Sport’s boyband aesthetics

·8-min read
Bt Sport coverage Champions League final Credit: PA Images
Bt Sport coverage Champions League final Credit: PA Images

The Champions League final is supposed to be European football’s pinnacle: a global event. But did it feel like that? I’m not sure it did, at least not in the UK for the neutral football fan watching on TV.

No doubt it looked impressive, a massive full stadium always does, but the French authorities and UEFA once again showed they can’t organise a big game. The scenes outside of the ground were, for a while, very troubling. Inevitably, they tried to cover up their errors by laying the blame on Liverpool fans, despite Merseyside police saying fan behaviour was exemplary. That took the shine off it from the start; tear gas tends to do that. But it goes beyond that.

The game itself was a good contest, albeit one that seemed to have an inevitable direction of travel. There have been far worse finals, that’s for sure. But even so, there was a hollow, empty sort of feeling for the neutral. Did it have a real sense of occasion? If it did, it was rather diminished.

Partly this is because of how it was broadcast on TV in the UK, available on BT Sport 1 and BT Sport Ultimate for subscribers but shown free-to-air for Virgin Media customers on channel 532. The BT Sport app streamed it for subscribers and a free live stream was available on the BT Sport website and YouTube channel.

That is a very fractured mixture of pay TV and free-to-air. Okay, you can watch it on the BT Sport website, and there is little difference between watching a website or a TV channel, but this fragmented approach hugely reduces the feeling of it being a national event of importance to the masses.

Not many people watch football on BT Sport in the first place, which is why they give the final away for free. It’d be embarrassing to have to admit that only about 1.5 million people had watched football’s primo event, so they try to mediate that with the free options, in order to declare as large a viewing number as possible, a number that is never anywhere near as large as the one it would achieve on a terrestrial free-to-air channel. That cynical manipulation markedly reduces the Big Event feel. You don’t need to hype Big Events nor try to drum up decent viewing figures. But BT Sport do.

Since the Champions League as a tournament has been put entirely behind a paywall, thus excluding the vast majority of the population, you cannot expect neutrals to have an interest in European football when you’ve locked them out for the previous eight months. Again, this plays against it being a big, special event.

The TV coverage itself also didn’t help induce the feeling that this was a special day, though it tried. The pre and post show was unambitious and dragged its feet. The prospect of spending hours with these people did not make the heart beat faster. The boy band aesthetic of having them perched on stools holding microphones, only added to the lightweight, end-of-the-road, unimportant feel to proceedings. The blueness of the set made it look like a Tory party conference – not a good look unless you like corruption, bigotry and lying – so a massive reboot and redesign is needed to lift them out of this old-fashioned mire. A new approach to who they invite as pundits and presenters is glaringly obvious. This was Xerox stuff copied from a time that is gone. That they defaulted to four middle-aged men merely illustrated the fact.

 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images


Once BT Sport’s Saturday football coverage was different and new, not now. Perhaps this is inevitable when the company is trying to offload their rights after losing two billion quid showing football. They’re hardly going to take chances or invest in anything innovative for fear of throwing good money after bad. But standing still in broadcasting means you are going backwards.

On top of all that, as chaos reigned outside the stadium, they didn’t have anyone in the throng to report on it, thus making the broadcast feel outside of the loop, adrift from the real story and not accurately reflecting reality.

By contrast, 5live’s coverage was, as ever, on a totally different level, pulling in reports from people on the scene and quoting tweets from colleagues to help illustrate developments. Steve Crossman, hosting the show with genuine, unselfconscious enthusiasm, definitely helped the anticipation, but 5live does that for most games, big or small. That’s what is so good about them. There is always a passion for the game of Association Football, per se, wherever and whenever it is played, no snobbery, no elitism. There is no self-aggrandisement to their coverage and you always feel like you are amongst friends. This applies whether it’s a cup game from Shrewsbury or the Champions League final from Paris. It was certainly the best way to experience the match but, as such, not massively out of the ordinary as a listener. Their post-match dissection and also discussion on Sunday lunchtime were also very good indeed. People who don’t listen to the radio are missing the best football broadcasting.

But regardless of these issues, the game itself did not feel intrinsically special or different or elevated. Why? Familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt but maybe for the neutral, it does take the edge off excitement when it’s the sixth time they’ve played each other in eight years.

And here’s the opening ceremony to get in the way too. UEFA have installed this in a desperate attempt to make it more like the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Not one single person in the stadium or watching on TV wanted to see 10 minutes of this, in this context. Zero. But they persist. It jars and makes us realise the people in charge care nothing for us, other than for our money. That cuts another thick slice of specialness off the Champions League joint.

Then there is the cloak of death that is VAR draped over the game, just waiting to intervene. Even when it’s not used significantly, you can feel its weight, its presence. Here it ruled out Karim Benzema’s goal for something not visible with the naked eye which was far from clear and far from obvious. It makes the heart sink to know that football has been reduced to analysis by the VAR electron microscope. It isn’t possible to say this has made anyone feel happier, made the game better or made anything more fair. It has done the exact opposite of all of those things.

Also whittling away at the specialness was the spectre of the European Super League project which is far from dead, but simply being rebooted wearing a different hat. The knowledge that these two clubs and others like them care only about maximising money and are complicit in making changes to the Champions League merely to harvest more cash is more negative background noise. Greed’s oily mark stains all of us.

The fact that by and large the Champions League has hardened into a last 16 that is largely the same clubs every year, with a few exceptions, reduces the feeling that this is anything but a rich club competition. Eight different winners in 22 years is a pretty small cabal. It isn’t fatal, but it is a further hardening of the Champions League arteries.

Unless you’re a fan of those clubs, and maybe even if you are, the prospect of another game between teams that often play each other, season after season, dulls the cutting edge of football’s blade. Not by much, and all these diminutions are only fine, but they all add up to make the once special, not special for all of us not invested in either team.

And yet away from the Champions League, the Europa League and Europa Conference League finals both felt special, felt different, and felt part of the great European tradition. They were on paywall TV, thus denied to most football fans, but presented in a more lean way by Reshmin Chowdhury and Darrell Currie, avoiding the boy band aesthetic.

Frankfurt v Rangers and Roma v Feyenoord, are where European football’s heart lies as the Champions League, like the Premier League, becomes ever more a small self-serving cabal of rich clubs, forever concentrating the wealth amongst themselves, forever having to play each other because no-one else can compete with them.

All of these things, maybe small, in and of themselves, but when rolled together are why the game that should have been the pinnacle of the season, wasn’t and why the other two finals absolutely were.

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