Champions League: Does single-leg format have a future? - Sports Illustrated

Does the Champions League's Single-Leg Format Have Staying Power?

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the UCL into single-leg knockouts this summer. Might that format have a future on the club level?
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The last two weeks, in Lisbon and a slice of western Germany, were fun. There was that sense of immersion you usually only get at a World Cup or continental finals, the bubble effect of the summer tournament becoming a bubble in a very different sense: protection against COVID-19.

There was that tournament sense of momentum and narratives colliding, of football history distilled and speeded up. The superclubs care far more about the Champions League than about domestic leagues and this was pure Champions League, with no other competitions to dilute developing themes. So in the space of two weeks, we saw Bayern beat Paris Saint-Germain in the final, the shambles of Barcelona exposed (again), Pep Guardiola’s reputation for overthinking big games highlighted (again), Diego Simeone’s future called into question (again), Julian Nagelsmann enhance and then slightly scuff his reputation and Rudi Garcia rehabilitated.

And that was just in the Champions League. In the Europa League, there was a similar range of stories: Sevilla’s ongoing romance with the competition, Romelu Lukaku’s ongoing capacity to be hero and villain almost simultaneously, further doubts over Antonio Conte’s future, questions about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and mystification at the ongoing presence in Shakhtar’s goal of Andriy Pyatov.

As an emergency measure during the pandemic, the format was a triumph. The UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has spoken of consultation to retain some elements of the new format—although the suspicion must be that his motives are political, UEFA seeking to take yet greater control of the final stages of the competition. After all, it’s not as though the two-legged format has not delivered exceptional football and excitement in recent years.

The major clubs are understood to be skeptical. The major reason, of course, is money—both directly and indirectly. Clubs want as many big games as possible, and they want them in their own stadiums, where they have far greater control of revenues through gate receipts, sponsorship and commercial activity.

For once, the interests of fans align with that: far easier and cheaper for a Manchester City fan from Manchester to take the tram out to the Etihad once a month in spring than to have to arrange a two-week break in some foreign city for an unspecified number of games. Better too that visiting fans go to a range of cities across the continent, spending their money in Copenhagen, Bergamo, Leipzig and Wolverhampton than simply converging on one of the handful of cities with the infrastructure to cope with a mini-tournament.

There was a drama to the one-legged format: would Paris Saint-Germain have scored the two late goals against Atalanta had it had another leg in which to recover? Would City have been caught on the break for the third Lyon goal had it had a second game to overturn the deficit? And of course that’s another reason the superclubs oppose one-off games: one of the main drivers behind the development of the Champions League was to offer them a safety net, to ensure that never again would the champion of Spain eliminate the champion of Italy in the first round, as happened in 1987–88. A second leg helps insulate against shocks.

That may instinctively feel as though it goes against the integrity of the game (which should always be the primary concern) but two-legged ties have their own rhythms and mystique. One of the biggest lies ever told is that football is part of the entertainment business and that drama therefore legitimizes everything. Football is sport, and sport is at heart about determining who the better team is over a prescribed period of time.

Clearly there are limits: nobody would want to play the same opposition over and over, week after week, and nobody would want to watch it either. One of football’s joys as a sport is, being low-scoring, it permits weaker teams to compete (although even that is being distorted by the grotesque disparities of wealth built unto the modern structures of the game). They can nick a goal and then defend heroically for 90 minutes, or perhaps 180. That’s why leagues and cups both developed—they test different aspects (although again, the greater financial rewards on offer in the league have unsettled the balance that one existed). The Champions League has a huge number of faults in terms of revenue distribution, but the format itself is an ideal blend of league and cup.

So the return to the familiar two-legged format is both understandable and probably desirable. After all, would this format have felt quite so attractive had it come in the same summer as the Euros and the Copa America?

But where it may have a future is in the expanded FIFA Club World Cup, which was supposed to begin in its 24-team format in summer 2021. That has been postponed to accommodate the rearranged Euros and Copa America and it’s not at all clear when it can be fitted in to an increasingly crammed calendar. But FIFA will have seen the success of these Europa League and Champions League mini-tournaments and been highly encouraged that what works for the national game seems also to work for clubs.