Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The European cannon is(n’t) here

The Champions League returned to North London this week after the winter sabbatical we were back down to the bare knuckle business of knockout football, albeit with our noses bloodied and our glass jaw exposed. Arsenal under the lights, the ear splitting falsetto of the theme tune before kickoff, the crisp, sense softening kiss of continental lager in far flung town squares. There is much to enjoy about the Champions League (usually), which long ago left international football as a wheezing dot on the horizon as football’s pinnacle.

It is not difficult to explain or understand the appeal of the world’s best players duking it out for European supremacy. Yet I still maintain a slightly cool distance from the competition. I know exactly why it is important and what makes it such a spectacle. I know this because (I like to think) I have a grasp of simple logic. And I suppose this is the best way that I can describe this reluctant disconnect, my brain understands, comprehends and celebrates Arsenal’s participation in it. But somehow I do not emotionally respond to it as much as I think I ought to.

There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. Unfastening myself from my Arsenal ties for a moment, I find the competition format deliberately breeds predictability. The seeding system protects the behemoths and keeps them apart until the quarter finals at the earliest. Last season, Arsenal v Bayern Munich was the most closely contested of the second round matches. This year, Manchester City v Barcelona looked a good tie on paper, but it feels like an anomaly until City inevitably climb the rankings.

I am very attracted to the idea of watching the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Robben strut their stuff. But I just find it less entertaining watching these footballing Adonis’s (Adoni?) repeatedly pounding on the little guy for 8 matches in what has essentially been rendered an exhibition format. The Superclubs are insulated against competition to protect their interests and I find the opening stages of the tournament virtually unwatchable as a result. Of course, this leads to a vicious cycle whereby the Superclubs are able to ring-fence their vast wealth and move further and further away from the Champions League plankton. The tournament becomes perpetually uncompetitive as a consequence.

Those at the bottom of the food chain are actually satisfied with this arrangement for purely fiscal reasons. Nowadays, they stand absolutely no chance of competing to win the trophy, so they are happy with a format that guarantees them three home games, at least one of which will be against one of the A listers. It comes down to personal taste I suppose. Personally, I am entertained by competitiveness as much as quality. When I think of other competition formats I observe closely- the WSL, Copa Libertadores, even the F.A. and League cups, I see a sense of unpredictability that I just don’t see in the Champions League. Not until it approaches its final curtain in any case.

The quality of the WSL, Copa Libertadores and the domestic trophies does not come close to the Champions League. Yet they have a volatility that makes them a lot more fun to me. The Libertadores group stages began last week with São Paulo Corinthians as one of its opening contests. A local derby contested between two of the competition favourites, the result of which you knew would be crucial in shaping the group. Last year’s tournament winners feature in the same group. I would love for the Champions League to be allowed to begin on such lip smacking terms.

It is important to re-emphasise that almost none of the clubs partaking in South America’s foremost club competition would make it out of the Champions League group stages. It is organised not nearly as well and it is still seeded, its uncertainty is rooted more in the volatility (and administrative incompetence) of South American football in general. Much of its entertainment value is accident rather than design. Yet I feel the Champions League could be an awful lot more ‘fun’ than it actually is. Clubs like Borussia and Atletico Madrid have come closer to giving it the level of excitement it deserves, again, almost by accident rather than design.

Re-attaching my Arsenal ties, one could accuse me of sour grapes. As an Arsenal fan, you could suggest that I am jaded by pique because our chances of winning it are slim. (Disclaimer- this piece was written prior to the Monaco game). There may be some truth in this. If, for instance, I were a fan of Everton, Newcastle or West Ham, I would probably harbour similar suspicions about the Premier League, which has also become a financial dick-swinging contest on a smaller scale. I often wonder how interested I would be in the Premier League at all had I fallen for a club outside of its well-furnished interior.

However, I think the historical angle may inform my bias more than Arsenal’s status as outsiders. Arsenal are simply not a storied European club. They have never won the competition for a start. Prior to Wenger’s reign, they were not consistent participators in it. Supporters of Liverpool and Manchester United will have either grown up with or been reared on stories of fabled evenings in the European cup. I suppose on a personal level I do not feel rooted in either the European Cup or its current ‘superleague by another name’ incarnation.

My Granddad had very few European Cup yarns to spin and it was not really there for me in my early years of supporting the club. I recall the sting of losing to Benfica in 1991. That was about it until I was 14 years old and just beginning to develop enough pinko, liberal cynicism about ‘what this means for the game’ to be guarded about it. I was able to recognise its greed as much as its entertainment value. In contrast, I saw Arsenal win the F.A. Cup and the League Cup at Wembley in my first year as a season ticket holder, aged 9.

That’s not to say both of those (now corporately sponsored) competitions are purer than the driven snow when it comes to desire for the paper stuff. But I have a childhood connection with those competitions that I have been unable to foster with the Champions League. It incubates me from their cynicism a little. That said, I would dearly, dearly love for Arsenal to win the Champions League. In fact, I would likely take it over the Premier League at this point, given the luxury of choice. I understand how important it is for the club, the manager and the supporters.

I desperately want to fling that monkey from our backs and toss it into the sea. I think, to be honest, I would just like people to fucking well shut up about us having not won it too. My enjoyment of last season’s F.A. Cup win was at least 50% informed by not having to read the sentence, “who have not won a trophy since 2005” any longer. But once Arsenal does it for the first time (assuming they do in my lifetime), I think I would revert to preferring the league title.

On Sunday’s Match of the Day 2, Noel Gallagher said that the Champions League “hasn’t really taken off” at Manchester City. They have struggled to sell games at the Etihad out. They even outwardly chanted about their indifference to the competition in a home defeat to CSKA Moscow. This will probably change as they inevitably rise up the UEFA rankings and winning it becomes more likely. I wonder how Chelsea fans feel in this regard. They have no real history in the European Cup either, but I suspect the fact that the trophy has been more attainable for them in the last decade has fostered a connection.

I hope this piece does not sound like I regard Arsenal’s Champions League participation with studied indifference. I do not. I do not regard any competitive Arsenal game with indifference really. I don’t regard the League Cup with indifference, and I wouldn’t the Europa League were we in it either. I am democratic with my affection! I am emotionally invested in all of our games. But I voluntarily do not ‘consume’ close to 75% of the Champions League through disinterest, which is an indictment on such a prestigious cup.

I understand the competition’s lustre, history and status. It is incredibly difficult to win and doing so represents club football’s greatest sporting triumph. I realise that it is a crucial crutch for a club operating at Arsenal’s level and how it facilitates the ability to compete. That final phrase, ‘facilitates the ability to compete’ symbolises my trouble in a way. It’s the language of a boardroom Powerpoint, which hardly gets the heartstrings swelling. More than this, I just don’t find the majority of very entertaining.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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