Champions League, Meant to Dazzle, Settles for ‘You Again?’
By RORY SMITH
MANCHESTER, England — These are the games that are supposed to make the mouth water. When the Champions League resumes this week after its winter hiatus, it will do so with a slate of matches speckled with stardust.
On Tuesday, Barcelona, seeking a fourth crown in eight years, will visit the ambitious Paris St.-Germain. A day later, Bayern Munich, a semifinalist in each of the past five seasons, will host Arsenal.
Both are the sorts of showpiece occasions that warrant the bombast of the Champions League’s lofty theme music. These are four of the most famous, glamorous teams in Europe, each graced by some of the finest players in the world, paired up in games rich in subtext.
As Nasser al-Khelaifi, P.S.G.’s president, said when the draw was made that the French champion’s meetings with Barcelona might now be classed as a “derby.” This will be the fourth time in five seasons that their paths have crossed. Barcelona has invariably emerged with the upper hand. This time, though, Khelaifi says his team will be ready.
Bayern and Arsenal are just as familiar. They have met no less frequently since 2012, with Bayern twice eliminating Arsenal at this same stage of the competition. No wonder, then, that the Gunners’ manager, Arsène Wenger, chose to depict this encounter as a welcome chance for his team to “change history.”
It should then, be to the Champions League’s advantage that games between P.S.G. and Barcelona, or Bayern and Arsenal, have now become so richly textured. In practice, though, the result is different. It seems the familiarity of these fixtures is starting to breed contempt.
There remain matchups offering genuine novelty and intrigue in the Champions League’s first knockout round, of course. Leicester City and Napoli are both making their first appearance at this stage of the competition; Monaco, Sevilla and Bayer Leverkusen are hardly at the stage where they take a spot in the last 16 for granted. Two more fixtures have put old faces in new configurations: Benfica has played Borussia Dortmund only once before, and F.C. Porto and Juventus have not met since 2001.
Those shafts of light, though, are not enough to lift the creeping feeling of ennui that is starting to pervade what is supposed to be the glitziest, most glamorous competition of all. The Champions League is designed to be a carnival to celebrate the very best and brightest. Instead, it increasingly has the air of a parade.
Since 2010, three teams — Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid — have taken almost two-thirds of the available semifinal spaces. The pattern holds in the quarterfinals, where five clubs account for more than half of the 40 slots over the past five years.
Much of the Continent has been locked out entirely: In the past five years, only eight countries have been represented in the quarterfinals, and two of those — Cyprus and Turkey — have sent just one team each. The Big Five leagues of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, along with the Portuguese emissaries, Benfica and Porto, have provided the rest.
That the draw for this season’s round of 16 is so familiar is simply another manifestation of the trend.
What made the Champions League’s predecessor, the European Cup, so special, what imbued it with a sense of occasion in the days when only a league’s champion qualified, was the rarity value of seeing the Continent’s greatest teams in direct competition.
That has now disappeared, seemingly for good. There are plenty who do not see it as a problem.
“It is fantastic,” Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, said when asked, in December, if the dominance of the Big Five leagues had become a problem. He “prefers the best teams to be there,” he said, even if the best teams are always the same teams.
But there are signs that his view is hardly universal, that turning the one-night-only spectacular into an endless soap opera risks alienating audiences. When BT Sport, an upstart television network, paid more than $1 billion over three seasons to secure the Champions League rights for Britain in 2014, it did so in the belief that viewers would flock to its platform.
That is not necessarily a reason for UEFA to worry; indeed, in one light, it plays to its advantage.
Every three years, whenever the broadcast rights for the Champions League go out to bid, the European Club Association, the body that looks after the interests of UEFA’s constituent clubs, has a habit of suggesting that now might be the time to consider creating a breakaway European Super League.
The reasoning is transparent — the E.C.A. is hoping for a bigger slice of the pie from UEFA — but the effect is predictable. Each and every time, UEFA cedes more ground to the clubs; last year, the pressure resulted in an agreement that, from 2018 onward, 16 of 32 group-stage places would be given to England, Germany, Italy and Spain.
UEFA capitulates because it knows deep down that a super league makes economic sense for the clubs. To Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus and the rest of the Continental powers, it is the only way of enjoying the sorts of broadcast paydays the Premier League enjoys. Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli’s owner, is a longstanding, outspoken advocate of the plan; Florentino Pérez, his Real Madrid counterpart, was reported this month to be considering throwing his weight behind a super league after a dispute with La Liga’s governing body.
The appeal to the English clubs is subtler, but there are those who believe it is there. In a study of six years of financial data by Vysyble, a strategy and research consultancy based in London, it emerged that, despite skyrocketing revenues, the top seven Premier League clubs combined to post a 1.1 billion British pound loss from 2009 to 2015 (about $1.37 billion), largely thanks to spiraling wages.
“They have been bailed out because every three years the television deal is renegotiated and becomes vastly more valuable,” Roger Bell of Vysyble said. “Even then, they are struggling to make an economic return. If the television deal remains static — or even decreases — then they will all have problems.”
At that point, Bell said, a super league would become a viable proposition. Television rights and sponsorship deals would be enormously lucrative; it also would be possible to institute a salary cap encompassing all of Europe’s largest clubs.
This week’s Champions League fixtures should provide further compelling evidence of why such a project would work, and further reason for UEFA to worry. Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris St.-Germain: the best players, the biggest clubs, the purest glamour.
And yet it does not feel like an advertisement for a super league; it feels like a cautionary tale against one. Less proof, more a parable about the risks of overexposure, about the danger of what happens when you have too much of a good thing.