The UEFA Champions League is tempting theater, but in a white-glove, VIP kind of way that's also offputting.
You won’t see many save sequences better than Gigi Buffon’s pair in the 60th minute of Juventus’s narrow Champions League win over Manchester City two weeks ago. On the initial stop, he does well to get a hand to a low Raheem Sterling shot that’s headed for the inside of the far post, but it’s the second one that’s downright gymnastic: at the exact moment Buffon returns to his feet, here comes David Silva onto the rebound to finish the job, and with the swiftness of a shark’s jaws snapping shut — whap! — Buffon hits the deck, redirecting the ball skyward and into the stands.
They’ll build a statue of him someday outside the generically named Juventus Stadium, and when a little Italian boy asks his mother why there’s a bronzed man outside the grounds, she’ll pull out her phone and explain: “because even at age 37, he was still doing ridiculous stuff like this.”
In a lot of ways, City versus Juve was Peak Champions League, or as close as we get to it during the tournament’s group stage. Two giants with a scant history against each other squared off in a match won by a world-class striker (in this case, Alvaro Morata) strolling over to a caromed ball like it was a piece of mail he had dropped, then hitting a pinwheeling, inch-perfect shot into the net. The tournament is engineered to produce games like this.
The UCL ostensibly is founded on the idea that Europe needs an ultimate champion each year, but that also was the impetus behind the invention of the Champions League’s predecessor, the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, a less-inclusive event that threw a bunch of domestic title-winners into a knockout bracket. The UCL is set up not just as a continental king-making mechanism, but also to pique the interest of the curious fan.
Soccer being the world’s game, there’s far too much talent and too many interesting teams out there for any sane person to completely track. Most folks focus the bulk of their attention on a single league, which means the Champions League is an opportunity for Spanish fans to see Bayern Munich and Roma, and for English fans to see Atletico Madrid and Porto. Millions of people tune in for the high stakes and on-pitch quality, and also for the same reason they go to the aquarium and press their noses against the shark enclosure: to experience the exotic.
Juventus had last played Manchester City in 2010, during the group stage of the second-tier Europa League. Before that pair of matches, the clubs hadn’t met since 1976. In this era of every-game-all-the-time cable packages, the average City supporter has probably caught a few Juve matches here and there, but he or she doesn’t know the Old Lady the way he or she knows Tottenham or Manchester United. Paul Pogba is more like a folkloric antagonist to them than a familiar foe.
The Champions League delivers what it promises. The soccer often is excellent, and there’s no other venue in which you can potentially see Dortmund play Chelsea on Tuesday, then catch Barcelona against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.
But as with anything elite and exclusive, it has the distinct, white leather-upholstered chill of a yacht party. This is Luxury Soccer; the Champions League paid out about $1.42 billion to its participating clubs last season, with UEFA pocketing a sizable chunk of revenue from media rights and commercial contracts: 25% for the first $600 million, then 18% of whatever else came in from broadcast partners like BT Sport, Fox Sports, Al-Jazeera’s BeIN network, and sponsors like Heineken and MasterCard.
To lend those percentages a bit of context: BT Sport pays $337 million per season to broadcast the tournament in the United Kingdom, which isn’t exactly the only soccer-crazy nation on the planet, nor the most populous one, and Heineken pays more than $70 million per year to peddle their middling macrobrew with UEFA’s blessing. For the 2015–16 season, UEFA projects it will bring in a little over $2.5 billion from the Champions League and the considerably less bonanza-like Europa League. In short, Michel Platini and his friends are swimming in it, and, by extension, so are the top clubs in Europe.
On its face, this isn’t a problem, if you can put to one side the image of be-blazered sportocrats dog-earring Extravagant Chalet Monthly’s throne section. The Champions League pulls in a lot of cash because it’s an entertaining spectacle that several continents’ worth of people want to watch. There’s nothing wrong with capitalizing on that interest. But as with any institution awash in revenue, the Champions League has the unpleasant air of a VIP section about it.
It’s a celebration of splendid soccer, but it's also a method through which the richest clubs in the world further entrench themselves in the sport’s power structure by refilling their coffers on an annual basis. The payouts UCL clubs get — $13.5 million just for showing up to the group stage this season, and tens of millions more for the tourney’s bona fide contenders — dwarf many smaller clubs’ entire wage budgets, expanding the chasm between Europe’s haves and its have-nots.
Let’s say you’re Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid. You have the best players, coaching, and facilities money can buy. You compete for domestic and European titles every year. You have a favorable TV deal that funnels funds toward your club and Barcelona, to the detriment of the rest of La Liga. And on top of that, your regular deep runs into the UCL net you another $30, $50, $70 million per season, which you then pour into the best players, coaches, and facilities money can buy. Your success in the Champions League begets further success in the Champions League. The system is designed to keep you on top. And meanwhile, the Celta Vigos and Torinos and Hannovers of the world can’t so much as hope to hold onto a single extraordinary player for more than a season or two. Every summer, they scramble to balance their books, often gutting their squad in the process.
This isn’t wrong, per se. The non-egalitarian nature of European soccer’s financial structure facilitates the construction of some staggering super-teams — Bayern Munich wouldn’t play so beautifully if they weren’t way wealthier than every other club in Germany — and being a Celta or a Hannover fan isn’t so bad, provided you measure a season’s success in joyous moments rather than trophies or league table position.
But there is something offputting about a tournament that reflects the rigidness of Europe’s soccer caste system, elevates it, and strengthens it all at once. It would be like if Instagram paid rich folks to disseminate their vacation pictures.
As enjoyable as the Champions League can be, it’s also Fashion Week; it’s the World Economic Forum. It’s a velvet-roped, invite-only, iPad-in-the-complimentary-goodie-bag event at which the well-off enrich themselves while conspiring to keep the commoners disenfranchised. It’s an obscene pleasure: fun as all get-out, but your soul aches a bit for loving it so. In other words, it’s sport at the highest level. It’s lamentably, cynically, grotesquely big business.