Why the Champions League group stage is in dire need of a revamp

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·4 min read

Oh God, there is still another whole week of Champions League group stage play to slog through.

The current format of the competition, wherein eight groups of four play a double round-robin in the fall, with a knockout stage following in the spring, has existed since the 1994-95 season. But after a quarter century in the same format, it is entirely clear that the usefulness of this setup has run its course.

As soccer’s unchecked capitalism has made the mega-clubs ever more dominant, the group stage has mostly become a foregone conclusion. When the draw is made, you can safely predict a dozen teams out of the 16 that will advance from the main tournament’s 32 entrants. From there, it all has the feeling of a procession. The drama is in what happens to those last four or so spots.

So too this season. Even with the complications of a pandemic that has emptied stadiums, forced the widespread absence of infected players and compressed the schedule, there has been little by way of surprises. Just two-thirds of the way through the group stage, much of the outcome was already set.

With four rounds played, going into the fifth matchday this week, many of the groups were mostly decided, virtually decided or entirely decided. And now, going into Matchday 6, only seven berths remain up for grabs.

This predictability and occasional boredom conflicts directly with the efforts by Europe’s biggest clubs to make European competition more compelling. Their attempts to create a European super league are well established, an effort that UEFA has managed to hold at bay by making more and more guarantees about spots and revenue to the teams from the biggest leagues.

The Champions League group stage doesn't really deliver us what it's supposed to be delivering. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images)
The Champions League group stage doesn't really deliver us what it's supposed to be delivering. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images)

This group stage fatigue is caused largely by the mismatches within games. And the point of a super league is to create more matchups between teams of roughly the same caliber.

But even if such a complete overhaul and Premier League-style defection is extreme and self-interested, cutting off money from smaller UEFA member nations, the point stands that we are served up too many games with foretold outcomes. And some alternative plans are in the works as UEFA and its clubs barter about a revamped format starting in 2024.

In January, the New York Times reported that the tournament could adopt a “Swiss model” in which the teams were arranged into a single league and each play 10 games. The top eight would then advance to the Round of 16 with the next 16 teams entering a playoff to join them there.

But there’s really no indication that such a format would reduce the number of tedious matches – more likely, it would increase their number. Instead, it seems like it would simply pour the existing competitive inequities into a new mold. And a plan once reportedly mooted to take the Champions League on a global tour doesn’t solve that issue, either.

A better solution might be something akin to the way World Cup qualifying was traditionally conducted in the CONCACAF region, with the lower-seeded teams playing each other for the right to face increasingly higher-rated teams. Where, after all, is the entertainment value in your Bayerns and Barcas smashing their way through the group stage undefeated?

That would probably mean fewer games for the big clubs than they play now — six in the group stage and two apiece for three knockout rounds until the one-game final, so as many as 13. And it is the games featuring the biggest teams that ultimately pay the bills, that create the value in the broadcast contracts and drive the most matchday revenue.

This is where the tournament is a captive of its own economic success. The group stage exists because it’s the most efficient way to make money. UEFA briefly played a second group stage from 1999-2000 to 2002-03, but that got too ponderous even for UEFA.

Originally, the European Cups were just straight knockout tournaments. In the 1991-92 season, a group stage was adopted. But it initially followed two knockout rounds within the main tournament. That meant only eight teams reached the group stage, which sent the winner in each group directly to the final. As of 1993-94, a second team advanced from the group stage and a semifinal was added. In 1994-95, the group stage as we know now was created by abolishing the knockout stages that preceded it, albeit with only 16 teams. That number swelled to 24 in 1997-98 and 32 in 1999-2000, saddling us with the current bloat.

No format is sacrosanct. The changes to the tournament have been endless. And while the return of knockout stages before the group stage, to whittle down the teams before the slog of pool play begins, might reduce the overall number of games UEFA can sell, it would surely increase the tension.

And however it is achieved, we need a lot more tension.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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