‘The Big Cup’ is the best moniker for what we now know as the Champions League trophy and what was, once upon a time, simply the European Cup. It’s simple and pointedly at odds with the eye-roll inducing, grandiose over-dramaticism that accompanies everything about the modern incarnation of the competition. As much as the pomp and pageantry may grate on some of us it is hard to argue that this is the place where the modern greats are judged.
The Champions League is the last European competition left with a direct lineage to it’s origins after the UEFA and Cup-Winner’s Cups were combined into the Europa League, somehow succeeding in drawing even less enthusiasm than its often maligned predecessors. The competition’s biggest award is now a place in another tournament. While the carrot of a Champions League spot for the winner succeeding in chiding some of bigger clubs into showing some genuine interest it also cements the competitions status as playing a (very tiny) second fiddle to the main event.
Format changes for the Big Cup, while not quite as frequent or slapdash, have also occurred over the years. The first Champions League season featured a ‘semi-final group stage’. Yes, that one time Rangers fans said they got to the ‘semi-final’? That group stage is what they’re actually talking about.
In fact since the inception of the Champions League and the subsequent rebranding there have been more format changes and tweaks to the competition than there were from 1955 – 1993. While some changes were subtle and/ or broadly positive, few could argue that the introduction of a post-group semi-final round in the 1993/94 season added excitement and more potential reward for what was still a competing pool limited to just the champions of each respective league.
Limiting the number of teams in this manner meant that both the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup were highly regarded and keenly contested in their own right. With only the league winners going into the ‘Big Cup’, huge ties were regularly seen in the other two competitions that were, for a period in time, regarded in the same sphere of esteem as the European Cup. In 1998 the expansion of the Champions League continued as it went from four groups to six whilst also simultaneously, and perhaps most crucially, opening up two qualifying places to certain leagues. Once the Champions League began to open numerous places to specific leagues the other two tournaments were pretty much cannibalised.
Between 1955 and 1992 there had been instances where nations had been represented by clubs that were not league champions. Domestic title winners such as Chelsea (the irony) turned down invitation to join the tournament, so did several other clubs, and hence were duly replace.
However, the intent was always to make the competition exclusive to the champions of each country. If it seemed fanciful and outlandish in 1955, it seems positively quaint in 2017. Simply an idea to find out, definitely, who the best club side in Europe was that year. In the interests of fairness games being played both home and away. A competition so simple in its style without a single mention of of corporate facilities or Budweiser sponsored fan zones.
Fast forward to 2000 and the extension now includes eight groups in the opening stages, with up to four clubs from certain leagues and a veritable labyrinth of qualifying rounds to nervily navigate through for historic clubs from smaller nations like Celtic, Red Star Belgrade, Ajax and Fenerbahce.
With so many leagues guaranteed four and three spots the remainder of the eligible clubs (mostly made up of actual league champions) either get one spot or have to qualify via the summer route we have all become so accustomed to.
In terms of making money and being a mass media ‘event’ not much comes close to the Champions League. The eye-watering sponsorship and TV deals mean any club qualifying can expect to make the type of money that gets somewhat taken for granted by Premier League clubs in England. For a club like Celtic it basically means that for one season they almost make as much money as Burnley. Therein lies another one of the great pities of the modern Champions League; at the business end it is a closed shop and only the 1% are allowed to experience every facet of its true opulence. It seems to serve the maudlin purpose of making the rich that bit richer.
For Celtic and many other clubs, the Champions League is a concrete yet compartmentalised aim every season.
First off: get there (and get the guaranteed money).
Once you’re there: try to sneak a few results (and get a bit more money).
If you get a result or two: Chance of qualifying from the group (and get much more money).
Realistically the best case scenario tends to end here. Once out of the group stages there are the European super clubs with their cavalcade of superstar players, carefully stockpiled for the specific purposes of annihilating lesser moneyed clubs. So yes, the Champions League is the premier competition but that glass-ceiling effect hurts the competition.
It wouldn’t be too bad if the Europa League had retained some value but it has taken such a hammering since its half-arsed inception that it holds a position somewhere above the Tennents’ Sixes but below the Anglo-Italian cup.
Forgive the embellishing for effect but the point remains; the Europa League is presented like a third rate jabroni-fest compared to the sleek celebration of greatness, TRUE greatness, that is the Champions League.
Is it just that Celtic can never win it and we (I) can’t handle that? The risks involved in giving it a real go would likely bankrupt the club, television money is king and Celtic don’t really have any per se.
Only a sea-change will see the current imbalance redressed in European football. Such a fundamental disruption will only occur if people stop watching and sponsors stop funnelling money into it. At the moment the only credible threat would seem to be UEFA themselves, doing everything in their power to ensure the same few clubs are there, year in, year out. Such lack of variation could well lead to a lack of interest or at least a Bayern vs Barcelona fatigue.
It is a grand old competition at its core with a rich history. I’m especially pleased that Celtic won it in its original format; when there was still a place for romanticism at Europe’s top table and upstarts like Celtic could come from nowhere and beat an institution like Herrera’s Inter. We’re unlikely to ever see anything similar Not only have UEFA turned its Big Cup into something bigger but less grand, it’s done it by something denigrating its other competitions.