Every trophy that exists in sport was born out a Need. There was a gap in the market and somebody filled it. Some evolved out gradually over time (the Olympics), some came about because of the need of the politics of the sport (the Super Bowl) and some were brutally imposed to save the sport from its rivals (Super League . . . sorry, the engage Super League).
All have to adapt to circumstances and are consequently tainted by grubby politics. Even the World Cup, that seemingly most pure of contests, is routinely poisoned by pork barrel shenanigans. The need for Fifa to maximise their revenue has led to it becoming a bloated shambles. The 1986 and 1990 tournaments were hamstrung by a bizarre group system that saw 36 games played in the first round to eliminate a mere 8 teams. The current set-up of 32 finalists limits hosting the competition to a handful of countries and, worst of all, saw the destination of the 2006 finals fall into the hands of a cranky Scotch-Kiwi whose decision was, with the Rivals legal eagles hovering nervously in the background, a bit iffy. No competition is immune to this disease. Politics is the way of the world, but that doesn’t make it any less sad.
There was, however, one competition, which was above that kind of thing, and that was the European Champions Cup. I don’t know what the genesis of the tournament was, but when the eggheads at Uefa sat down in the mid-50’s it must have seemed so blindingly obvious to them that it’s amazing no one thought of it before. Place each of the previous year’s champions in a knockout competition, each round consisting of a home-and-away tie with the winner being decided over the aggregate of the two legs, then play the final in a neutral venue. It’s elegance was extraordinary, the only change of any note in the first 36 years of the cup being the away goals rule, something that made it even better, giving us the regular pleasure of having a single goal snatch defeat from the joys of victory. The winners were the undisputed champions of Europe, and boy, did it feel good.
In a nutshell, the European Cup stood alone among competitions as a trophy that, if it didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it.
It’s faintly miraculous that this jewel among crowns survived untampered with for as long as it did. But the end came in 1992 when a group phase was introduced after the second round. It may not have seemed this way at the time as the tournament amazingly got even better, with some cracking clashes illuminating those years. The problem was – and in fairness, it only became clear in hindsight – that this proved to be the thin end of the wedge. The European Cup was like a beautiful vase (not a cup then – Ed) – if you break it, you can put it back together ‘good as new’ but it won’t be new and the temptation to just check that little crack, give it a bit of a polish and perhaps add a bit on to improve it . . . the temptation would be overwhelming.
And so it proved with the venerable old championship. Only a few years after Lennart Johannson, when faced with the possibility that Aston Villa would take Liverpool’s place in the European Cup while the Reds served the remainder of their Heysel-imposed penalty, had piously declared that “the Champions Cup is only for champions”, second placed teams from biggest associations were permitted into the contest. Everyone knew it was a travesty, but self-interest meant no one was willing to point out that the Emperor had no clothes. Well, most people pointed it out but what could be done about it? To compound the sense of insidiousness, the prostituted new competition – for that’s what it was – was cloaked in the guise of the glorious old competition (thought it had no clothes. Oh, never mind – Ed). You could trace a lineage back though Milan, Liverpool, Bayern, Ajax, Inter, Benfica and Real Madrid even though the relationship between them and the Manchester United team that won the tournament in 1999, champions of neither Europe nor England when they won (and the one sliver of comfort we clung to in that appalling season) was tainted.
The reflected glory from that era of champions has sustained the competition. No Man Utd fan will have questioned the validity of their triumph, and I wouldn’t expect them to. Nor was anyone quibbling that glorious night three years and a day ago when the Liverpool tsunami swept Roma away (champions of Italy, no less). But this writer can’t help but feel that the viewing public can only watch for so long before they begin to question the quality of that reflection, to peek behind that curtain. Incredible and all as it may seem, viewing figures this season have been better for the FA Cup than for the Champions League. And another watershed may be approaching. It’s highly unlikely of course, but the spectre of Liverpool winning the Champions League should keep Lennart and Co awake at night.
On almost every level, Liverpool winning the Champions League would be wrong. We were rubbish last season, only squeaking in when Newcastle blew up like a Trabant on the last lap. Liverpool were notoriously closer to Wolves than to Arsenal, yet Arsenal are out and Liverpool are there in the quarter final. Amazingly we’ve been even more crap this campaign – game-for-game, we are currently three points worse off than for the corresponding fixtures last season – yet we could conceivably end up in May as technically the best team in Europe. To compound the sense of wrongness, Everton could finish ahead of Liverpool in the league yet be excluded from the Champions League because of the cowardice of Uefa, imposing a nonsensical rule about only four teams from any one country being allowed enter – why the sudden attack of principle? – then blithely expecting the FA to square that circle. It’s a mess, a mess that never would have happened when the European Cup was built on such simple and effective values. A Liverpool victory could be a potentially fatal blow to the seriousness with which the European Cup is held, which would surely be a bad thing for such a glorious contest.
And yet, while I can write one thousand words denouncing the possibility that Liverpool could damage the integrity (!) of the Uefa Champions League, I would still rather have that happen than not happen. Like any good revolutionary/crackpot (delete as applicable), I would pull the entire edifice of world football in if it meant one extra win, one extra goal for Liverpool FC. The good of football be damned, that’s for people who have so little soul that they would rather be penpushers in Geneva than headbangers in the Kop to worry about. Short of having people get hurt (an all too necessary addendum in the light of the quarter-final draw), there’s little I wouldn’t like to see happen if it advanced Liverpool’s cause. A fundamentalist position, sure. But if taking part is what matters, why keep the score?