Think of the table where Europe’s premier and elite clubs figuratively sit as the most dysfunctional Thanksgiving gathering you can imagine (and forgive the cross-cultural analogy).
The days and weeks leading up to the holiday have been a mess. There’s been infighting, there’s been name-calling, there’s been backstabbing, there’s been stubbornness and some have been pushed to the point of no return. The head of the table has even referred to some of those around him as “spoiled children.” And yet the meal must go on, because they’re all here, the calendar demands it and they’re all in this together, for better or worse.
That’s effectively where things are at with the resumption of the Champions League and Europa League this week, with the first legs of the respective competition semifinals taking place from Tuesday to Thursday. A week after Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United joined seven others in announcing their intention to break away from the current European competition structure (only to have it go horribly wrong), they’re resigned to playing in those competitions they desired to exit. The clubs will do so with their respective power brokers’ tails tucked between their legs as they ponder their next moves and brace for additional backlash.
It’s all a bit awkward, with the badges on the front of the jerseys attracting so much resentment and generating so much furor, and yet the players and managers representing those badges have so little to do with it all.
Any other season, a Champions League final four featuring Real Madrid vs. Chelsea and Man City vs. PSG would yield plenty to chew on for the games alone, but given all that’s preceded this week, it’s tough to narrow that focus. That’s what those playing the matches—and not those maneuvering to take those matches onto a different platform—will be up against as they vie for what remains Europe’s top club prize.
“What we have to do is to compete and to only think about playing soccer. That’s it,” said Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, whose club president, Florentino Pérez was, and still is, the driving force behind a breakaway. “If we start to think that everything that’s being said could damage us, we’re screwed, we’ll get in a mess.
“We can only think about the match. The referee will do his job. We have to compete as always. We can’t control the rest, so we can’t think about it.”
His counterpart, Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel, was equally as dismissive in his prematch comments.
“I do not imagine that there is any advantage or disadvantage because of a sports political discussion,” Tuchel said. “I don’t even want to think about it, because it does not exist in my eyes.”
It’s hard to ignore the current events, though. In addition to the seismic shift that wasn’t, there is a big change coming to the European setup in the form of UEFA’s expanded Champions League format beginning in 2024. Man City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan already dubbed it the lesser of two evils when compared to the Super League, and Tuchel didn’t pretend like that element didn’t exist on the eve of his club’s first leg in Madrid.
“I’m not sure if I like it, because I can only see more games out of it, and more games in the schedule we have, it’s very hard for me to be excited at all,” Tuchel said. “All these discussions about Super League made [us] forget that we have now a new format of Champions League very soon.
“Did they ask any coach about this? I don’t think so. They did not ask me. Did they ask any player? I don’t think so. … We have so many new stuff, so much more games and we have more teams in the European Championship in summer. It’s just more, more and more games. It’s not more quality, it’s just more games. … I’m not happy about this format, not at all.”
That takes us back to the Thanksgiving table. Instead of part of the family breaking off and building its own private compound elsewhere, the factions are all stuck in the same one—albeit one getting an addition (in the form of Champions League expansion). Those who don’t like it are being threatened with banishment. There are plenty of dissenting opinions and emotions, and it’s clear that the status quo is not O.K., either, but it’s enough to make it easy to forget that there are still titles to be won and legacies to be altered.
Man City or PSG claiming a Champions League trophy would be the validation that those clubs have been seeking after riding their owners’ riches to domestic dominance. Chelsea is hoping to repeat history with another Champions League title on the heels of a midseason managerial change. Real Madrid winning a fifth title in eight years would only further underscore the club’s European reputation, while also giving Pérez plenty to laugh about in the increasingly empty Super League board room.
A rung lower, Arsenal is desperate for the Champions League berth, the prestige and the revenue that would come with winning the Europa League. Meanwhile Manchester United winning a European trophy under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would be evidence of a project on the right track. There’s so much on the line, and yet it’s all rather trivial compared to the bigger picture.
“We’re in a moment where football faces a lot of questions and things to improve,” Real Madrid centerback Raphaël Varane said. “In any situation, the best way to face it is united, together. Everyone can have their say, we have to improve things. The calendar is an important question. It’s complicated.”
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