The banner stretched across the foot of the vast Yellow Wall. “You don’t care about the sport – all you care about is money,” it read and if, as a general statement, it rang sadly true, the pictures of Gianni Infantino, Andrea Agnelli and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, as well as a second message, demonstrated the essence of the Sudtribune’s immediate grievance. “Nein zur CL reform” may require little translating: no to Champions League reform.
It may be too late, as German opposition to the so-called Swiss model came after a decision was rammed through without consulting Borussia Dortmund’s huge support. But if there was a weary feel that the Champions League group stages had lost their lustre, no one told Dortmund. It seems too late to save the present structure, to preserve the four-team pool with the wonderful simplicity that everyone plays each other home and away and the top two go through.
Group F is an advertisement for the current format. Bottom after two games, Dortmund are top after four. Top after two, Newcastle are bottom after four. There has been an eloquence to the revival Edin Terzic orchestrated, which Niclas Fullkrug and Julian Brandt fast-tracked with goals in the Signal Iduna Park. Beat AC Milan next and a place in the last 16 is theirs. The equation is eminently easy to understand.
Too easy, perhaps. Next season will see 36 teams in one giant league table, but where they only face eight of the others – two sides from each of the four seeded pots of nine clubs. The top eight finishers will qualify automatically for the last 16; those ranked between ninth and 24th will end up in play-offs to join them. Apart from everything else, it involves more games – 189 instead of 125 – and thus more money. Part of the prize for the avaricious, for the Super League founders who wanted the guarantees of European revenue without the pesky need to qualify, is that two domestic leagues will get an extra spot in the Champions League: Newcastle could be the immediate beneficiaries. It is very possible they finish fifth in the Premier League.
The fake gold bars thrown on to the Signal Iduna Park pitch were less a commentary on Newcastle, transformed into the world’s richest club in a way which would not have been possible in Germany, than Uefa, forever chasing the next Euro, distorting some of the essence of competition in the process. A flag showed a drawing of Infantino wearing a cap that declared: “Cash rules everything about me.”
The financial argument goes up against the moral. The sense, however, was that too few saw footballing merit in the four-team groups; that, as the rich got richer, they had been stripped of their drama and turned into a procession. The case for the prosecution could begin with another pool featuring English and German clubs: Manchester City always seemed destined to top Group G with RB Leipzig almost certain to come second, Young Boys of Bern and Crvena Zvezda making up the numbers. City and Leipzig have duly qualified for the knockouts with two games to spare.
Perhaps Dortmund, Newcastle, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain offer a throwback to a more competitive past – and it would have been a great group in the 1990s – or maybe they offer the kind of meetings the Swiss model is designed to engineer more often. In part, the draw was a product of rare circumstances: because of Newcastle’s lack of recent European pedigree, they were fourth seeds, normally the slot reserved for the minnow.
For a four-team pool to retain its interest value, the central double-header has to appear compelling. Newcastle against Dortmund passes the test, as does AC Milan against PSG. City against Young Boys does not. Maybe Group F is just the anomaly; it was evident from the start that it looked the most competitive. It is rare to find a group with English, German, Italian and French clubs. But put three major forces together and there is an element of jeopardy: Barcelona were eliminated by Bayern Munich and Internazionale at this stage last year.
They got the Europa League place granted to the third-placed time; yet from next year, the team with the 24th-best record in the various pools will have a play-off to carry on in the Champions League.
It could be argued the current system suits Dortmund; in the era of the European Cup, only the Bundesliga champions got entry and, for the last 11 years, that has been Bayern, but top-four finishes invariably propel them into the European elite. Yet there was altruism, too: go back three weeks and it seemed Dortmund were likelier to finish third or fourth in Group F than first or second. Their fans may have been fighting for a system that could cost them; but when sport is a meritocracy, that can happen.
Dortmund can stand for a certain purity, with their huge attendances, their low ticket prices and their broader sense that football should still be the people’s game. The treasonous cabal who planned a European Super League, after all, did not include a German club. If Dortmund did not want change then, they had principle on their side.
And if this week provided a clash of philosophies, two blows were struck against new money in an old-style group. Milan overcame PSG. Dortmund beat Newcastle. But if they won a battle, their fans may be losing a wider war.
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