Warm balls, cartels and the protection of the old elite – welcome to the Champions League and its showpiece cup draw.
Ok, not quite. There are no warmed balls, only balls that are devilishly difficult to unscrew, as Luis Figo found to his cost last year. What exists instead is a draw fixed in plain sight in that it contains set rules and regulations that take much of the chance out of the equation whilst naturally protecting the established elite. This is not sour grapes from a Manchester City fan but a basic fact and eventually City will benefit from it too at the expense of others. It won’t be fair then either.
This won’t be a surprise to you if you have ever watched a draw (presuming you have three days spare). You’ll have seen the raft of regulations, rules and caveats that make parts of the draw a done deal.
So what do I suggest changes then? Rather pathetically I don’t have the answers. I haven’t devised the perfect seeding system. I will be accused of bias however, like when I express my opposition to Financial Fair Play rules, in saying that the current system is not fair. I truly believe that a fair system sees the top seeds consist of the top sides right now. Not the most successful sides in the Champions League over the past five years, but the best teams right now. The champions of England, Spain, Italy and Germany should be there for starters. Always. As it stands, the only way City can break into the top tier would be for David Moyes to systematically manage each of the top seeds. This would be a quick fix, but unlikely to happen.
Poor little City, so hard done to. There won’t be much sympathy for City’s tough draw of course, and I wouldn’t expect it. The annoyance is a system that makes breaking the elite so difficult. Success in the Champions League will see you rise up the pots. Simple. Except that to rise through the pots you have to start from the bottom and thus get the toughest draws which naturally curtails your chance of success in the Champions League. It doesn’t matter how good your team is or how much money you have, life is harder with a tough cup draw. So if your only thoughts about City are related to sheikhs, oil and buying success, feel sorry for Borussia Dortmund instead. Do they not deserve better?
The counter-argument that a team such as Arsenal have regularly out-performed City in the Champions League itself and having participated for seventeen consecutive years they deserve their place at the top table is an argument that has some merit, but as mentioned the system allows this to happen by making them top seeds and thus increasing their chances of an easier draw than the likes of City, PSG, Borussia Dortmund or Monaco. It’s a vicious circle. Put Arsenal in Pot 3 for a few years and see if they keep reaching the latter stages. It’s my opinion that a team that regularly has to go through qualifiers and has just won its first trophy in nine years has not earned the right to be a top seed. You may disagree. Some would argue that how you have done in the tournament itself is important and not to be disregarded. But as I’ve said……
Whilst we’re at it, let’s please dispel the myth that you have to beat the best teams to win a competition anyway, so the draw doesn’t really matter. Hogwash. Do you think Millwall reached an FA Cup Final by knocking out a succession of big teams? Do you think City had as good a chance of getting to the 2011 FA Cup Final if they had drawn Chelsea then Manchester United then Arsenal rather than Notts County, Leicester and Reading? You may well have to beat some top sides to win this particular tournament, in fact you definitely will, but your chances of success are significantly hampered if you are playing top teams right from the start. Chelsea don’t have to worry about playing a top team until 2015. It’s ludicrous to argue anything other than the fact that this is of huge advantage to them, not only in the Champions League but also in their fight for the Premier League. What’s more, as a tough draw increases the chance of City finishing second and thus getting another top team in the last 16, as happened last season. Let’s not forget that last season the draw was kinder to City, but it still paired them with the European Champions. Manuel Pellegrini may have failed a crucial maths test, but the task to top the group was nevertheless a huge one.
And so under the present system, the cycle continues ad infinitum. Let’s not forget that Manchester City, league champions in two of the past three seasons only just scraped into Pot 2 due to the failing of others. City are quite new to success and don’t have the Champions League pedigree of others so I can see a valid argument that they have to earn the right to be a top seed – but at least make it a level playing field. Remove seeding for a year – it will be a riot.
No system can prevent the feeling of déjà vu though. The thing is that random draws will still result in repeat pairings. That’s how randomness works. When residents of a village tore down a telephone mast blaming it for a cluster of cancer sufferers in the local area, they failed to appreciate the nature of randomness. They failed to appreciate that cancer does not spread itself out evenly across the population. When Apple first made the ipod, their random shuffle feature attracted many complaints from users because its random nature meant the same songs kept popping up on playlists. Thus, modern random shuffles on mp3 players are not random but designed not to repeat songs. And thus with a cup draw in any sport, however random you make it, whatever criteria you set, randomness dictates there is a fair chance two teams will keep bumping into each other. A random draw could still see City paired up with Bayern Munich repeatedly or Arsenal paired up with Borussia Dortmund. Even under the present system City didn’t have to meet Bayern Munich in the draw, in fact the odds were against it, until other teams has been pulled out and the ridiculous imposed regulations about TV and playing on Tuesdays or Wednesdays left no other choice.
The greatest consequence of the current system is that the draw has become boring. I’m not really trying to argue that the likes of Manchester City are not being treated fairly as much as arguing that the whole system is just so, so predictable. This draw should be exciting. It should throw up more exciting match-ups than it currently does, create more new rivalries. It should be doing this from the start. It’s time to spice it up. To do this, Platini needs the permission of the same clubs that the current system protects. And there ends any hope of change.
Of course there is another way. The Champions League could be a competition for, wait for it, champions. I know, I know, now I’m really being silly.