Football: Soul of Europe's spectacle in peril

Champions' League: Unwanted guests at the feast take their turn in a competition under threat of extinction
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The Independent Online
IN THE 1950s it brought Di Stefano and Puskas, bewitching figures in white. In the 1960s there were the Lisbon Lions and Best and Charlton's joyous epitaph to the Munich disaster. The 70s, Cruyff and Beckenbauer, Liverpool and Forest, were followed by the 80s horror of Heysel. Redemption came with a Dutch flourish at Milan and Ajax.

It is this heritage, both glorious and tragic, that has made the European Cup the most prestigious club competition in the world. But everything has a price and, as the game hurtles towards the millennium on the accelerator of television's riches, the competition's soul is about to be sold.

Tonight, at a dozen stadiums from Porto to Athens, the European Cup, its classic format already bastardised and bloated, will begin its last stand.

At Old Trafford it will do so with pride as Manchester United and Barcelona, two of the competition's giants, do battle. In Austria it will do so shame- facedly. It is bad enough hosting a game in the 14,000-capacity Arnold Schwarzenegger-Stadion, what really embarrasses the Champions' League is that Sturm Graz and Spartak Moscow are unwanted guests at the feast.

Outside of their own borders the results of neither team would warrant a second glance. Yet they are involved in the sport's richest club competition while Milan, Paris St-Germain, Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and Marseilles are not.

Those five clubs have been approached to join the European super league proposed by the Milan-based company, Media Partners. All have a greater claim through achievement, resources and prestige to be part of such a league than Graz or Spartak but, unlike those two, they all failed to win a place on merit.

It is hard enough already for the unfashionable and unwanted. Of the first wave of championship winners Uefa sent over the top back in July only two, HJK Helsinki and Dynamo Kiev, have survived to this stage. They join seven other champions, and seven clubs who were runners-up last year - including Manchester United, Internazionale and Bayern Munich.

It would be churlish to deny that these appear bigger draws than the likes of Litex Lovech or Skonto Riga, to name two of the champions who perished in the qualifiers. It is a fair assumption that, if the aim is to find the best team in Europe, it is more likely to be found in Italy than Estonia. Why then, should Italy not have more representatives? Such a view does fit in with the competition's original conception.

Provoked by the claim of Stan Cullis, the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, that his club were the best in Europe Gabriel Hanot, the editor of the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, invited the representatives of leading European clubs to a meeting. They were chosen on reputation, not because they were champions.

The following season - 1955-56 - 16 clubs staged the first competition, including Hibernian who had come only fifth in the Scottish League. Of that 16 only Real Madrid and PSV Eindhoven will be playing in the Champions' League tonight. Milan, Sporting Lisbon and Anderlecht may come under consideration for a super league but most of the others - such as Stade Reims, Rot-Weiss Essen, Saarbrucken and Hibs - have long since declined.

Defeating the transitory nature of success - and even Manchester United and Milan have been in their respective second divisions - is what the super league is all about. For newcomers to the party, like Kaiserslautern, Lens and Athletic Bilbao, this is the season to impress: they might be asked to stay.

But by whom? Media Partners or Uefa? The latter, football's European governing body, took over the competition in its second year and kept control until now, gradually giving concessions to the bigger clubs, most notably when they created the Champions' League format in 1992 and then extended it to runners-up last season. Both steps have been financially successful but, instead of sating the big clubs, the adjustments have merely increased their desire for a bigger share of the cake.

Uefa's leaders are now split between appeasing the big clubs and countries, which generate the wealth, and assisting the smaller ones who, in the corridors of Uefa and world body Fifa power, cumulatively have more votes.

Compromise is in the offing. Uefa is desperate to retain control of the European game and few clubs wish to step outside it. Meanwhile the weaker nations are painfully aware that crumbs from the rich man's table are better than nothing. Uefa met representatives of the major leagues on Monday and will do so again in four weeks' time. In the meantime it seeks a solution which would retain the integrity of domestic leagues, allow the biggest clubs the certainty of more matches against each other while retaining the possibility that the smaller ones may play them occasionally.

This is likely to be a European league consisting of the champions of the biggest countries, a token qualifier or two, and a select group of elite teams chosen by a carefully constructed, ever-flexible, formula.

For English clubs, struggling to combine Europe with a demanding domestic league, this competition would be even harder to win. The alternative - to effectively build two squads - is at present beyond all but United, and it would not be easy for them. From Murdoch's Theatre of Dreams to Arnie's Austrian hideaway this, then, is the season to create a new European legend.

GROUP A

PORTO

OLYMPIAKOS

CROATIA ZAGREB

AJAX

Tonight

Porto v Olympiakos

Croatia Zagreb v Ajax

30 September

Ajax v Porto

Olympiakos v Croatia Zagreb

21 October

Olympiakos v Ajax

Porto v Croatia Zagreb

4 November

Ajax v Olympiakos

Croatia Zagreb v Porto

25 November

Olympiakos v Porto

Ajax v Croatia Zagreb

9 December

Porto v Ajax

Croatia Zagreb v Olympiakos

ATHLETIC BILBAO

ROSENBORG TRONDHEIM

JUVENTUS

GALATASARAY

Tonight

Athletic Bilbao v Rosenborg Trondheim

Juventus v Galatasaray

30 September

Galatasaray v Athletic Bilbao

Rosenborg Trondheim v Juventus

21 October

Rosenborg Trondheim v Galatasaray

Athletic Bilbao v Juventus

4 November

Galatasaray v Rosenborg Trondheim

Juventus v Athletic Bilbao

25 November

Rosenborg Trondheim v Athletic Bilbao

Galatasaray v Juventus

9 December

Athletic Bilbao v Galatasaray

Juventus v Rosenborg Trondheim

REAL MADRID

INTERNAZIONALE

STURM GRAZ

SPARTAK MOSCOW

Tonight

Real Madrid v Internazionale

Sturm Graz v Spartak Moscow

30 September

Spartak Moscow v Real Madrid

Internazionale v Sturm Graz

21 October

Internazionale v Spartak Moscow

Real Madrid v Sturm Graz

4 November

Spartak Moscow v Internazionale

Sturm Graz v Real Madrid

25 November

Internazionale v Real Madrid

Spartak Moscow v Sturm Graz

9 December

Real Madrid v Spartak Moscow

Sturm Graz v Internazionale

BRONDBY

BAYERN MUNICH

MANCHESTER UTD

BARCELONA

Tonight

Brondby v Bayern Munich

Manchester Utd v Barcelona

30 September

Barcelona v Brondby

Bayern Munich v Manchester Utd

21 October

Bayern Munich v Barcelona

Brondby v Manchester Utd

4 November

Barcelona v Bayern Munich

Manchester Utd v Brondby

25 November

Bayern Munich v Brondby

Barcelona v Manchester Utd

9 December

Brondby v Barcelona

Manchester Utd v Bayern Munich

LENS

ARSENAL

PANATHINAIKOS

DYNAMO KIEV

Tonight

Lens v Arsenal

Panathinaikos v Dynamo Kiev

30 September

Dynamo Kiev v Lens

Arsenal v Panathinaikos

21 October

Arsenal v Dynamo Kiev

Lens v Panathinaikos

4 November

Dynamo Kiev v Arsenal

Panathinaikos v Lens

25 November

Arsenal v Lens

Dynamo Kiev v Panathinaikos

9 December

Lens v Dynamo Kiev

Panathinaikos v Arsenal

PSV EINDHOVEN

HJK HELSINKI

KAISERSLAUTERN

BENFICA

Tonight

PSV Eindhoven v HJK Helsinki

Kaiserslautern v Benfica

30 September

Benfica v PSV Eindhoven

HJK Helsinki v Kaiserslautern

21 October

HJK Helsinki v Benfica

PSV Eindhoven v Kaiserslautern

4 November

Benfica v HJK Helsinki

Kaiserslautern v PSV Eindhoven

25 November

HJK Helsinki v PSV Eindhoven

Benfica v Kaiserslautern

9 December

PSV Eindhoven v Benfica

Kaiserslautern v HJK Helsinki Group winners plus two best second-placed teams qualify for quarter-finals. Should two clubs finish equal on points after the six group matches, the following criteria will be applied to determine placings: 1 Greater number of points obtained in matches between the clubs in question. 2 Goal difference resulting from the matches between the clubs in question. 3 Greater number of goals scored away from home in matches between the clubs in question. 4 Superior goal difference from all matches played. 5 Greater number of goals scored. 6 National association's co-efficient at start of season. The two best runners-up will be decided by the following criteria: 1 Number of points obtained in group matches. 2 Goal difference from all group matches. 3 Greater number of goals scored in all gro up matches. 4 Greater number of goals scored away from home. 5 National association's co-efficient at start of season. 6 Individual club co-efficient at the start of season.

Quarter-finals: March 3 and 17, 1999. Semi-finals: April 7 and 21. Final: May 26.

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