By Martin Rogers
The whole idea of a sporting competition is right there in the name. It is supposed to be just what it says: a competition. As in … competitive.
When soccer’s UEFA Champions League final takes place between Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain on Sunday, it will be both a celebration of excellence and a timely reminder of the devastating inequalities that are damaging several major leagues as a spectacle.
For many of the things that are great about the Champions League, without question the preeminent club tournament in the world, are often missing on a domestic level.
You can start with the most simple attribute of all. Sunday’s final, held in Lisbon’s Estadio da Luz and the culmination of a bubble format that has worked wonderfully, is worthy of our time and attention because we don’t know what is going to happen.
FOX Bet has Bayern listed at +105, but this is a fair fight between a pair of heavyweights and neither possible outcome would be a surprise. Bayern has the incessant goalscoring threat of Robert Lewandowski and a unit that destroyed Barcelona 8-2, while PSG has the unique magnificence of Neymar and a well-drilled unit that believes its time is now.
“I think Bayern is simply stronger than PSG, physically and mentally,” FOX Sports soccer analyst Alexi Lalas said. “They are a well-oiled machine that smells blood … and they should. It’s theirs to lose.
“If PSG wins, it will be because one of the individual stars (Neymar, Mbappe, Di Maria) conger up some moment of magic that you don’t teach and are impossible to defend.”
Yet on the home front, there is no such level of doubt or anticipation. In France’s Ligue 1, PSG has won seven of the last eight championships. In the German Bundesliga, Bayern has prevailed in each of the eight most recent renditions.
It goes further. Italy’s Serie A has had the same champion, Juventus, etched onto the trophy for nine years in a row. In Spain’s La Liga, Barcelona and Real Madrid have combined for 15 of the past 16 titles.
American sports and their formats are not perfect, but at least a sense of competitive balance ensures that the majority of the field is not essentially eliminated before things even start. And though soccer snobs tend to sneer at the ingrained playoff systems in the U.S. as being not always indicative of a true champion, a postseason provides hope to a far greater number of fan bases, far more often.
However, one thing that does come out of a soccer system where the biggest and best simply get bigger and better, able to cherry pick the finest talent at will, is that the Champions League becomes a sorting hat for a collection of All-Star lineups built to be global powers.
“While the lack of balance in many European leagues often produces a predictable outcome on the home front, with the same winner time and again, it does mean that the Champions League turns into a clash of the titans,” Aidan Magee, broadcaster for Britain’s Sky Sports, told me via text message. “This year’s final is a good example of that.”
The way this year’s event has turned out has gone from chaotic disruption to ultimate triumph. It initially seemed utterly unworkable that the tournament could hope to finish, with the restriction on travel across so many European countries.
However, like with the successes enjoyed by the NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer in North America, the bubble approach has thrived. Changing the process from two-legged home and home matchups (sometimes separated by two weeks) to one-off elimination games has injected both intrigue and urgency. Taking away home advantage has created a level playing field.
Cinderella stories like semifinalist RB Leipzig and quarterfinalist Atalanta – from Italy’s worst hit pandemic city of Bergamo – came and went, and we are finally left with a pair of muscle-flexing big timers.
The idea of the quarters onward being at a centralized site has been enjoyable enough that it perhaps should persist, though factors of fiscal reality will likely stand in the way of that.
“While the new structure has worked, it has reduced the number of games that can generate revenue,” wrote Reuters chief football correspondent Simon Evans. “(Also) the logistics of having eight groups of supporters in one city, in a single week, would probably make a repeat impossible. So enjoy it while you can, there might never be a sequel to this thriller.”
The Champions League conclusion has been great but it hasn’t been flawless. Some teams adapted brilliantly to the resumption, others struggled and looked wilted and rusty. Soccer thrives on fan atmosphere and passion, and playing without anyone in the stands is not something anyone wants to linger.
Yet as a mouthwatering matchup awaits for one of the game’s primary annual showpieces, the best thing is that we are getting a battle that is both competitive and equal – something European soccer seriously needs more of.
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