Why the Champions League should scrap two-leg knockout rounds forever

Neymar celebrates with Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.
PSG's late comeback against Atalanta was a sign of drama to come throughout the 2020 Champions League quarterfinals in Lisbon. (David Ramos/AP)

The European Cup, the forerunner to the UEFA Champions League, which thrilled us for four consecutive days this past week, began 65 years ago in Lisbon. If you were in New York at the time, and you’d somehow heard about the inaugural match pre-internet, and you’d somehow developed an affinity for Sporting CP or Partizan Belgrade despite never being able to watch either on TV, the 15-hour flight to Portugal for the game would have cost you an inflation-adjusted $5,725 round trip. The cabin might’ve been smoky. The journey would’ve been turbulent and dangerous. Ditto for anybody from London traveling to Barcelona, or from Milan to Munich, or from Manchester to Madrid.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the UEFA Champions League, until now, has played its knockout rounds as two-game series. The two-leg, home-and-home format was a necessity in the 20th century and especially the ’50s. The European Cup’s audience, and therefore its revenue, wasn’t TV viewers. It was the 30,000 Portuguese who walked through Estadio Nacional’s gates on Sept. 4, 1955; and the 15,000 Yugoslavs who showed up at Partizan Stadium a month later. To attract fans, organizers had to stage games in teams’ home cities. To maintain competitive fairness, therefore, and nullify home-field advantage, they had to play two games.

Which was essentially one game, but double the length, with a weeks-long halftime.

Which, in a modern-day vacuum, makes zero sense.

The two-leg tie became embedded throughout global soccer. It’s accepted everywhere from the Champions League to the Copa Libertadores, from World Cup qualifying to promotion playoffs, and until recently, even in MLS. For some of those competitions, it remains necessary.

The pandemic, however, has unintentionally shown UEFA that for the most prestigious annual sporting competition on earth, there is another way. A better way.

It brought eight Champions League quarterfinalists to Lisbon, the tournament’s birthplace, for one-off elimination games this past week, and they gripped us all.

PSG stunned Atalanta in stoppage time. Tyler Adams’ 88th-minute winner, the biggest club goal by an American man ever, sent RB Leipzig through to the semis. Bayern Munich ripped through Barcelona. Lyon toppled Manchester City.

The finality and simplicity of the new format facilitated must-watch drama and widespread appeal. There was no away goals confusion, no weeks of measured thought about how meaningful a 2-1 first-half advantage was, no previous leg to tip scales and sap tension before kickoff, no second chances. Viewers, by the way, loved it. Day after day.

The circumstances, of course, are abnormal. Fans aren’t permitted. Schedules are tight. The adjusted format was necessary. When the world resumes normalcy, there are decent arguments the Champions League should, too. More games, in the short term, mean more TV revenue. Home-and-homes save fans money. And two-leg ties are still dramatic. Look no further than last year’s semifinals for evidence.

But more often than not, those semis would have ended uneventfully. The results, while momentous, wouldn’t have been memorable, wouldn’t have felt like massive occasions. This past week, on the other hand, was massive occasion after massive occasion.

The UEFA Champions League currently owns one mega-event, the final. It has an opportunity to create two or six more. The ideal format for the knockout stage would feature:

  • A Round of 16 draw — similar to the current one, with the eight group winners seeded, the runners-up unseeded — that also includes a full, March Madness-style bracket reveal.

  • Single-elimination Round of 16 games hosted by the seeded team. (This would bring more drama to the group stage, because it would further incentivize first place over second.)

  • Single-elimination games at neutral sites in the quarterfinals and semifinals. (Organizers could pre-select multiple potential venues to ensure no team inadvertently gets a home game; and split ticket allotments half-and-half between the two clubs.)

Fewer matches overall would mean more rest for players, and more space for promotion and buildup. Each game would have a time slot to itself. UEFA could even negotiate with domestic leagues and play them on weekends.

And it’s all possible because fans who decades ago couldn’t travel abroad now can. A flight from London to Lisbon, or to Madrid, or elsewhere in Europe now can cost less than $100. The stadiums would be full, the atmospheres festive and intense. The worldwide TV viewership would be astronomical. And the sofa viewing experience, of course, is better than it’s ever been. The added excitement and interest would eventually make up for the lost revenue tied to lost games.

The most common defense of two-legged matchups is that, well, we’ve always done it this way. COVID-19 has nullified that. It’s upended norms throughout sports. It will force power brokers to consider logic over tradition. There’s no need anymore to consider flights that cost 10 percent of a family’s annual income; no need to worry about international information flow; no need to split the biggest soccer games in the world into two 90-minute halves weeks apart. So don’t.

The pandemic will accelerate the prioritization of the millions of fans who watch sports on TV over the thousands who watch in stadiums. And to us, the evidence of the past four days is clear: 90 minutes are more exciting than 180. One big bash is better than two half-as-important ones.

The big clubs might push back, because they hate upsets and crave perennial dominance. UEFA shouldn’t listen to them.

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