The Champions League’s late-stage drama is a feature, not a bug. Let’s hope no one messes that up.
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The nights happen so often now that the possibility they are a coincidence can be safely discounted. They occur with such startling regularity that they do not really count as rare, not anymore. They still possess the texture and the echo of an exception, but by this stage they are better thought of as part of the rule. They are a feature, not a quirk in the code.
There have been 26 games so far in the latter stages of this season’s Champions League. A conservative estimate would suggest that seven of those games — just a little over a quarter, if you prefer your information in fractions — qualify for inclusion in the competition’s ever-growing list of classics.
They have not all been identical. Villarreal’s dissection of Juventus was thrilling in a wholly different way than Real Madrid’s stirring comeback against Paris St.-Germain. Benfica’s chaotic, innocent draw with Ajax had little in common with the grit and sinew of Manchester City’s elimination of Atlético Madrid. That they have not followed a pattern, though, does not mean they are not part of one.
This is, now, what the knockout stages of the Champions League do. It has been that way for at least five years, if not longer: Barcelona’s 6-1 defeat of P.S.G. in 2017 is as viable a candidate as any for the era’s starting point. After that, the caution and the fear that had characterized this competition for most of the first decade of this century was jettisoned, replaced by an apparently unbreakable commitment to abandon and audacity and ambition. Games that had once been cautious, cagey, cynical were now, instead, reliably conducted in a sort of dopamine-soaked reverie.
It has reached the stage where it is possible to wonder at what point the Champions League will run out of ways to top itself, when we all become numb to its wonder. And yet, somehow, it keeps mining new seams, discovering new heights. It was hard to envisage how the tournament might improve on that victory by Real Madrid over Lionel Messi and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé — but sure enough, a month or so later, there were the very same Real players, spread-eagled on the turf of the Bernabéu, trying to process how a game could contain two comebacks, one following in the wake of another.
It may be the recency bias talking, but it felt like even that paled in comparison with what the first of the semifinals produced. Real Madrid was involved again — that does not, it is fair to say, appear to be a coincidence — in a frenetic, inchoate, wholly baffling meeting with Manchester City. Real lost the game four times, and might have lost it many more times over, and yet escaped with both its reputation and its hopes of returning to the final for the first time since 2018 somehow, despite it all, enhanced.
It is worth at least attempting to consider what lies at the root of this shift. This is, after all, probably the first era in the seven decades or so of the European Cup where the latter stages have been regularly defined not by an inherent tautness, an anxiety over what might be lost, but by a euphoric, wild excitement about what there is to win.
In part, that must be attributable to the sheer quality of stars on display, the fact that so many of the very best players in the world are now clustered together at just half a dozen or so clubs, the ones that have become accustomed to reaching this stage of the competition. Likewise, it seems obvious that the margins between these teams are now so fine that their encounters are inevitably volatile. The slightest shift in momentum or belief, the smallest error, the most imperceptible tactical switch can have seismic consequences, one way or the other.
The format helps, too. UEFA, led as ever by the booming voices of its leading clubs, has been considering the idea of abolishing home-and-home semifinals in favor of a single, weeklong “festival of soccer,” held in one city, leaving the semifinals dispensed with in only 90 minutes.
By UEFA’s standards, this is not a particularly bad idea. Single-leg semifinals increase jeopardy. That is, broadly, to be encouraged. Collecting all the later drama in one city offers a chance to create a carnival-style event, a miniature tournament within a tournament, a defining climax to the European campaign. On the most basic level, it is hard to deny that it would be exciting.
There are logistical complications, of course. Only a handful of cities in Europe could play host to four teams at the same time. (So much for spreading the big occasions around.) It seems an idea designed to be transported outside of the continent: That is less than ideal, too. It would most likely lead to the gouging of fans, based on the incontrovertible logic that everything leads to the gouging of fans. And it would, most damaging of all, remove at a stroke the biggest game that any club can host on its own territory.
But the most compelling argument against change is that, of all the things in soccer that could do with a tweak or an upgrade or a wholesale overhaul, the Champions League semifinals are pretty much at the bottom of the list. The knockout stages of the Champions League have consistently caused jaws to drop and breath to be taken for half a decade. The current structure strikes just the right balance between risk and reward, suffering and salvation, and it is all carried out against a succession of fiercely partisan, deliriously raucous backdrops. That is part of its magic, too.
Increasingly, though, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that these spectacles represent the natural culmination and sole benefit of the yawning chasm that separates the game’s elite and everyone else. It seems quite likely that they are a product of soccer’s superclub era.
In domestic competition, those teams that are staples of the later rounds of the Champions League are so overwhelmingly superior to most of their opponents that whatever threat they face tends to be fleeting and cursory. Teams overmatched for talent and resources pack their defenses and hang on for dear life; that, after all, is all they can do.
That is what happens if the power balance is off in the Champions League, too. Consider this week’s other semifinal, Liverpool’s relatively serene defeat of Villarreal. That, certainly, was not a classic. It felt, instead, far more akin to the matches that account for the vast majority of games between the elite and everyone else in Europe’s five major leagues: one team trying to contain and confound, another trying to pick a way through, the only real question being whether the favorite will take its opportunities when they inevitably emerge.
But then how could it be anything else, when one of the teams had been constructed on a comparative shoestring? What other choice did Unai Emery, Villarreal’s coach, have? Command his players to try to match Liverpool and watch them lose badly, all in the name of entertainment? To scold Villarreal for failing to deliver a spectacle is to misunderstand what, precisely, the team was there to do, to forget the unbridgeable gap that lies between what we want a game to be and what the players on the field desire. Villarreal had not traveled to Liverpool to make friends.
It is, of course, relatively rare to have a team like Villarreal in the semifinals, or even the quarters. The latest stages are populated more or less exclusively by teams generally used to taking what might be thought of as the active role in games, rather than the reactive. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and Liverpool and Manchester City and all the rest — right down to Benfica and Ajax, outside the five major leagues — are used to asking questions, not answering them. The only time their mettle is tested is when they encounter a true peer, a fellow oligarch, and the time they do that most often — when it matters, at least — is later on in the Champions League.
The fireworks that follow, with gleeful predictability, are a result of those teams being taken — of them taking each other — out of their comfort zones, finding themselves enduring the sort of heat and light they are used to inflicting. That is what fires the spectacle, what has turned these springtime school nights into compulsive viewing, what has made the knockout rounds of the Champions League soccer’s most reliable forge of wonder.
Considering it has not yet so much as taken to the field for a competitive game, there is a remarkable sense of anticipation surrounding Angel City F.C., one of two expansion teams in the National Women’s Soccer League this year.
In part, of course, that is probably connected to the stardust of the club’s ownership consortium, its slick branding, its considerable presence on social media. Few teams have managed to attract so much attention in so little time, the meaning of which is explored in detail in this excellent piece by my colleague Allison McCann.
Mostly, though, the success of Angel City’s launch is testament to the appetite for elite women’s soccer in Southern California. Nearly half a million people watched the broadcast of the team’s preseason encounter with the San Diego Wave a few weeks ago. The team already claims six official supporters’ groups. Some 15,000 season tickets have been sold — not bad going for a team that does not yet have a permanent home.
It is not to diminish that achievement to say that, from a European perspective, that raises a fascinating question: How do you come to support a team before it exists?
It is an article of faith, here, that fandom cannot be instantaneously generated. Fandom is something that is passed down, handed on, somewhere between a religion and a virus: To support a team is to understand its history and its lore, to identify yourself as a member of a longstanding tribe. It is an expression of solidarity with a geographical place, a social demographic, a pre-existing community.
That is why, as the women’s game has grown in Europe, the instinct has been to attach women’s clubs to men’s equivalents, partly in the hope that loyalty might be immediately transferred, partly for financial security and brand recognition, and partly because a team called Manchester Spirit, or equivalent, one that played in red and sky-blue stripes, would alienate an entire city before it had even started.
And so it is anathema to think that 15,000 people can have such deep-rooted feelings for something that, until March, was entirely theoretical.
That is not to doubt the sincerity of that attachment, to assume it is artificial. Rather, the phenomenon calls into question whether fandom works as those of us who live in Europe assume it does. Perhaps it is a more conscious process than we like to tell ourselves. Perhaps it is a choice, rather than a compulsion. After all, more than a century ago, that is precisely what happened here. Teams were conjured into existence, and people went to watch, and to cheer, and to support.
You may remember, a few weeks ago — back before I skipped a correspondence section in order to have a few days’ unwarranted vacation — we had an email from a reader named Seamus Malin.
“I’m curious if he is the former television commentator,” wrote Douglas Goodwin. “The Seamus Malin to whom I refer was the one and only American — albeit with an Irish accent — voice on television my father, my grandfather and I could tolerate. Often we watched games not featuring him with the volume off. Seamus Malin was a gift, and if he is in contact with you, please pass along my heartfelt thanks.”
He was not alone in making that inquiry. Not having watched ESPN in my younger days because, well, we did not have ESPN in Britain then, the name did not immediately leap out at me. But it clearly stirred something in many of you, all of whom wanted to pass their thanks along to Seamus. I’m delighted, as ever, to serve as a conduit.
“Your last column was needlessly equivocal about why the Bundesliga is so boring,” S.K. Gupta feels. “There is only one reason and that is the 50+1 rule. By precluding outside investment, no one can challenge the status quo. If the Bundesliga wants to become a genuine sporting competition with some uncertainty about the end result, they must make their clubs attractive to investors who would invest funds to build a competitive team.”
There have been times, I will admit, when I have been tempted to come to the same conclusion. The Bundesliga acting as Bayern Munich’s fief is, I think, a problem for German soccer.
But I’m not convinced that breaking the bond between team and fans is the solution. I suspect that particular road leads to the Premier League, where, instead of one rich team, you end up with a cartel of four or five or six, monopolizing not only the title but all of the other prizes, too. German fans cherish their culture. Change is necessary, but not at any cost.
David Hunter is closer to my way of thinking. “You didn’t mention the obvious solution: a salary cap,” he wrote. “American football has one, and there are rarely routine winners season after season.” This is true, of course, but there is one giant hitch: a salary cap could only work if it was agreed to by clubs in every league in Europe, rather than just one. And that prospect is, unfortunately, an extremely distant one.
Finally, let’s go back a couple of weeks. “If we, the fans, decide what matters in football, it’s worth noting that the viewing public and teams’ owners have very different ideas of the concept of risk,” wrote Alex McMillan. “Fans cherish risk: It’s what makes winning anything worth something. The owners of the wealthiest clubs detest it: It threatens their billion-dollar investment.”
This is, to me, the crux of the issue over soccer’s future. The game thrives on risk. It is the running of it and the taking of it that makes it appealing. But, yes, that is diametrically opposed to what owners want and — if we are being kind — what sustainable businesses need. Almost every debate about where the game goes, or what it must do, boils down to that tension. How it plays out will define what shape soccer takes.
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