5022 UEFA Cup: Of Course it’s Brok
by : Kieran McHugh
It would appear that, once again, UEFA in its infinite wisdom is about to tinker with the format of the UEFA, (BBC, 8th November,2007). A decision will be made in December to decide on a proposal to change the format to mirror the group stages of the Champions League. The idea is that the UEFA Cup’s already bloated second stage will involve 12 groups of 4 teams, playing each other twice, with the top 2 sides progressing to a round of 32. The 8 additional places will still be made up by the 3rd place teams from the Champions League group stages.
Tinker as it might with the format, UEFA is still struggling to find a place for the UEFA Cup. There is no doubt that the current 5 team second stage is bloated and farcical. Allowing the top 3 to progress and be joined by the makeweights from the Champions League means the group stage involves a whopping 80 games to reduce the field from 40 to 32 sides. The case for change is undeniable.
The case for the UEFA Cup to follow the Champions League in introducing home and away group matches at best rests on a wish to standardise the design of UEFA competitions. At worse it is an ill thought out proposal that just seems like it might be worth a try. There would still be too many games, (144), to reduce the competition by too few teams, (48 to 32). Quite apart from this, the UEFA Cup up against the Champions League bears no comparison at all.
From the days prior to the Champions League, (where many observers considered the UEFA Cup to be a harder competition to win than the knockout Champions Cup), the UEFA Cup has been systematically stripped of any prestige. Any glory from winning the competition is quickly tempered by the knowledge that, without the huge sums of money allied to success in the Champions League, the trophy itself is a mere bauble. It is quite possible, in prize money terms, to earn more losing every game in the Champions League group stages, than it is in winning the UEFA Cup.
The theory that the UEFA Cup was a trickier competition to win than the old Champions Cup is founded on the belief that a side might conceivably get to the latter stages of the Champions Cup having played Champions from leagues well down the UEFA pecking order. Progress in the UEFA Cup in those days would most likely have involved playing sides that had finished high up in the more competitive leagues around Europe. Nowadays these sides play their European football in the Champions League, and they are considered the elite.
Michel Platini’s thinking on the future of European competitions has largely centred on the Champions League. Why not? The players, fans and clubs all want to be involved and the tournament has, in strictly financial terms, proved an overwhelming success. The quality of football in the Champions League outstrips anything played anywhere else. It has long been a better competition as a spectacle than the World Cup. However, for those on the outside looking in, the picture is less clear.
Fans of clubs such as Leeds United, who chased the Champions League money and got their fingers burnt, will no doubt be a little less willing to indulge the UEFA line that the Champions League is some kind of altruistic panacea bestowing money and kudos on those deemed worthy. The gap in wealth between those in the Champions League places and those in the UEFA Cup places means that those chasing the sums on offer have to spend money on players and wages to give themselves a chance. Careful financial management and growth at a steady rate, (Everton under Moyes spring to mind), give hope to the second tier. However careful financial management and football clubs are as rare as lettuce leaves in Neil Ruddock’s fridge. Impatience and greed, alongside a pathetic UEFA Cup will mean more clubs fall victim to living the dream.
So the UEFA Cup is broke. Can it be fixed? Well, it can, but not by adding games to the fixture list of those clubs chasing the Champions League places in their domestic league. It’s a radical idea and one which will not go down at all well with the money men, but one which will see the UEFA Cup return to its glory days and mark it out as a different, identifiable competition from the Champions League. Don’t hold your breathe though, as you’ve heard it all before. A 2 legged knockout competition with no seedings and no second chances for anyone.
A cup competition where the winners progress until such time as there’s only one left standing? It’ll never catch on. Well, for the sake of it, why not throw in a Champions League place for the winners. That might make it interesting.