The first reaction, of course, is to laugh. It is inherently funny that Real Madrid, the 13-time European champion, should lose at home to Sheriff Tiraspol, the first side representing Moldova to qualify for the Champions League group stage. And of course it is even funnier that this should have happened on the day that UEFA was forced to end legal action against Real Madrid over the Super League project because of a judgment in a Madrid court. Florentino Pérez may be able to use the legal system to his advantage, but football was still able to slap down his hubris.
At which point a little reality has to intervene. Sheriff was fortunate to beat Madrid, its 2–1 win coming despite expected goals of 3.3 to 0.2 in Madrid’s favor—which in some ways makes the game even more hilarious. But what is not at all comical is what Sheriff represents. Sheriff may be the Moldovan champion (it has won 19 domestic league titles, all since 2000–01), but it’s not at all clear that it sees itself as Moldovan. It is the sporting arm of a company founded by a former KGB agent that effectively runs the breakaway Soviet throwback republic of Transnistria, which is widely alleged to be a hub for smuggling and arms trafficking. There aren’t many fairy tales in which the hero is an agent of a gangster state.
And yet beyond the specifics, the more basic point remains: A giant has been humbled by one of the sides it sought to exclude from the highest level of football. Sheriff’s win is a timely reminder that football, even in its modern state, is not only about the elite. It remains a sport in which the wealthiest can still be toppled, and that is just as vital as clashes between, say, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
It’s very early days in this Champions League campaign, but this has been a good group stage so far for shocks, in part because Juventus and PSG failed to win their domestic leagues last season and in doing so made Pot 2 for the group draw probably stronger than Pot 1, thus creating fewer less-straightforward groups. Club Brugge, building on a promising couple of seasons, drew with PSG than beat Leipzig. Its success, inevitably, brings questions about whether its domination in Belgium as Anderlecht struggles is healthy, but it is also an example of what can be achieved with sensible team-building on what is, by Champions League standards, a relatively low budget.
Manchester United’s defeat to Young Boys hinted at another broader truth, which is that teams can be undone by their own wealth. United was able to afford Cristiano Ronaldo and so brought back a former star largely for sentimental reasons, neglecting its obvious weaknesses at the back of midfield and at right back. First, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, lunging to make up for a poor first touch, was sent off. But worse was what followed as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, apparently reluctant to take off any of his celebrities, let the game drift on with Ronaldo wandering around aimlessly up front, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba chugging up and down as auxiliary fullbacks and poor Fred hopelessly outnumbered at the back of midfield.
Yet these are the games that would be eliminated by a Super League, and there’s a point that lies even beyond the basic pleasure in seeing supposed lesser teams beat wealthier opponents through diligence and/or good fortune. And that is that the elite tier should not be fixed. Neither of the two favorites for the competition this season, PSG and City, has won it before. Ten years ago, neither would have been anywhere near a putative 16-team breakaway (even if PSG did not sign up as part of the original 12 clubs, it was clearly part of the broader planning of the others). Elite status is not and should not be permanent.
In the past three years, RB Leipzig and Ajax, neither of them members of the proposed Super League, have reached the Champions League semifinals. Tottenham, whose involvement in the Super League plans looks increasingly anachronistic, made it to a final. Monaco was in the semifinals in 2017. Porto and Lyon, who eliminated Juventus and Manchester City in the past two seasons, were equally far from Super League consideration.
Like the victories for Young Boys and Sheriff, their various runs are among the most memorable things that have happened in the Champions League recently. Without upsets like that, what would be the point of the early rounds? They’re the one thing that enlivens what can often be the slog of the group stage—and it will get worse with the advent of the Swiss System model beginning in 2024.
Sheriff is not a wholesome case, but its victory is an example of why a closed Super League must never be allowed to come about.
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