It is one of the eternal fights in the world of soccer, pitting UEFA and the biggest clubs in Europe against each other every few years. The former attempts to thread the needle of appeasing the latter while also preventing them from running roughshod over the entire continent (or moreso than they already have), while the biggest clubs attempt to vacuum up every last euro, pound, and dollar there is to be stocked away in their Scrooge McDuck vaults without caring who they step on along the way.
The latest battle has been over how the Champions League will be reformatted come 2024. As always, there have been threats of a breakaway European Super League that the biggest clubs themselves would control and take their cash injections intravenously, essentially. That’s always been their main tactic and weapon, and every time UEFA has to acquiesce to some format change of the Champions League to keep it from happening. It’s why it hasn’t been just a “Champions” League in 20-plus years.
What the big clubs really want is more games against each other. And along with that, they’d like to lessen or completely eliminate what we’ve seen the past few years, and that’s the later group stage games being totally meaningless.
For example, today before the fifth round of group games started, nine of the last 16 places are already decided. More will be cemented before we even get to Matchday 6, and then most of the drama will just be who drops down into the Europa League and who gets a rock for Christmas. The teams from Pots 1 and 2 when the draw is made generally feast on the smaller teams, and there’s little to no drama in the first half of the competition. It’s no more than a procession.
So this week, UEFA will unveil the “Swiss System,” as reported in London’s The Times, hoping it will be enough to satisfy the urge of the Madrids and Manchesters of the world to play more games against their own kind and inject some kind of drama back into the competition before the change of the year.
The Swiss System does away with a group stage, in a sense. More accurately, it gets rid of group standings. Teams will be in one set of standings, 1-32 or 36, depending on if UEFA wants to expand the tournament. But teams will not play everyone. They will be drawn against 10 other teams to play 10 matches, five home and five away. The teams will be split into four pots for the draw, as they are now, and then three teams from Pot 1 (the biggest teams), 2, 3, and two teams from Pot 4 (the smallest teams) will be drawn together.
Here’s how that would look with this year’s pool of teams.
The benefit of this is that teams like Real Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and the rest of the glitterati will get two games against each other and three games against teams like Barcelona, Dortmund, Chelsea, instead of just having two games against the team from the pot just below them as it is now. Fans really do want to see more Juventus-PSG games than they do Leipzig v. a collection of wayward souls from Istanbul.
Secondly, the one-table format, in theory, would make every game count as getting as high up the standings for the knockout stage would matter. You’d rather play the No. 15 seed than the No. 9 or No. 10. As of now, teams are either fighting for the first or second spot in their group, and it doesn’t make a huge difference where you finish between the two.
Of course, it doesn’t usually work out that way in practice. You could see a team like Man City or PSG have a patch of injuries or bad form, suffer a couple bad results but muddle their way through the 10 games, and then finish as the 12th- or 13th-seed and end up clobbering whoever was in 3rd or 4th when they return to health and vintage.
One alternative to this that’s being kicked around is that only the top-eight seeds would automatically go into the Round of 16, and teams that finish 9th-24th would have a bonus knockout phase to determine the eight teams that join them. Teams would definitely want to avoid having to play extra games in that scenario.
The con to this is that though the seeding pots are meant to ensure that everyone is playing the same quality of opponent over 10 games, it’s still not teams playing the same schedule as everyone else. A team atop the standings may have had an easier slate of games than the teams in second or third. And whether or not you had to travel to Russia in December or not at all makes a difference.
The other headache is where to fit in four extra games. It’s more of a bitch for teams in England that have the League Cup to deal with in autumn midweek nights when they’re not playing European games, and there’s already talk that this format would see teams in European competition not even participate in the League Cup.
Across the continent, 10 group games could make the schedule permanently look like this year’s jammed one, with players keeling over left and right from overuse. Or the first stage could extend into January, doing away with the break that is currently used from the first week in December to the middle of February. As a lot of leagues have a break in late December or January, so this wouldn’t go over too well either.
Still, this seems like the best way to keep a Super League from happening, at least until the next time someone waves a planetful of cash at the big clubs, and this dance begins anew.