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A Champions League of their own

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Back in 2000, the arrival of a European Super League appeared to be the natural progression for soccer's evolution.

With the game finally waking up to the vast sums of money that could be offered by cable television companies, it was inevitable that before long Europe's biggest clubs would abandon their domestic commitments and join a continent-wide breakaway organization.

Well, nearly a decade later, the ESL hasn't happened, despite the ever-increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots in club soccer's major leagues.

But don't think for a moment that the idea has been abandoned. For years, the concept of a star-studded league involving teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Liverpool has been in play.

Yet instead of taking shape as a valid proposition, it has been used as a thinly-veiled threat by big teams to governing body UEFA. The message: Give us what we want, or we will head off into the billion-dollar sunset.

That is why UEFA president Michel Platini's plan to restrict leading nations to three participants in the Champions League is doomed to failure. It also is why the rich get richer despite difficult economic times.

Platini wants European lawmakers to make exceptions for soccer that could allow for the introduction of a salary cap and limit the "obscene" transfer spending on players by clubs financed by foreign investors. However, his actions – combined with uncertainty about the world financial outlook – has merely served to increase the likelihood that a breakaway league could take place over the next few years.

Domestically, league action is lacking in equality across most of Europe's big competitions.

Manchester United looks to be running away with the English Premier League, Inter Milan is doing the same in Serie A in Italy, and Barcelona, despite a dramatic revival by Real Madrid, leads comfortably in Spain's La Liga. Only the German Bundesliga, with six points separating six teams at the top, is poised to go down to the wire and provide thrills and spills over the closing weeks of the campaign.

Worries about fan interest are not the primary concern of the money men.

The Champions League is where the really big bucks lie.

The Champions League, which recommences with the round of 16 stage this week, offers really big money, but the tournament's current format only allows for 13 games for the finalists and eight for the teams that will be knocked out in a fortnight's time. With the draw pairing mega-clubs like United and Inter and Real Madrid and Liverpool together, some big fish will be going home unhappy and ruing lost revenues.

So while it is generally agreed that the Champions League has been a monumental success, it leaves fans hungry for more. The two-month winter gap between the group and knockout phase is too long for many.

In some ways, the Champions League is saving the season. The matches in the round of 16 are of tantalizing quality, with four teams from the EPL, four from La Liga and three from Italy having made it through. The best players and the best teams on the planet doing battle over two legs? It doesn't get much better than that.

It may just be a matter of time before the giants of European soccer decide they want to see a whole lot more of each other.

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