It was the game of the year. Seven goals. Four aggregate leads snatched or lost. Two critical VAR reviews. Millions of heart palpitations as two of England’s best teams, Manchester City and Tottenham, waged soccer war for 90 minutes on an unforgettable European night. It was everything the Champions League is and should be, everything this sport should be, everything sport should be, no modifiers necessary.
Tottenham lost it 4-3 on the night, but won it 4-4 on aggregate, 3-0 on away goals, after the most dramatic of finishes. It reached the Champions League semifinals for the first time in its history, proving once again that finances don’t win football matches, and that this beautiful game, especially in this unrivaled continental competition, will never stop upending giants.
In fact, the two most exciting quarterfinal ties featured Spurs and Ajax, two decidedly non-elite clubs. They’ll now meet in a wondrous semifinal, their combined annual revenue less than half that of the other semi. They were, and are, both underdogs, one whose rise is unmaintainable, one whose remarkable maintenance isn’t supposed to be possible in modern soccer.
And they are two stories that won’t be possible if some of the sport’s most powerful men have their way.
This past November, Der Spiegel’s Football Leaks investigation unearthed documents that detailed discussions among soccer’s most powerful clubs about the formation of a so-called European Super League. One of the plans being discussed: a 16-team competition, part-round robin, part-knockout tournament, that would supersede UEFA and its Champions League. Eleven of the 16 spots would go, on a permanent basis, to self-selected “founders” – Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and the like. Five other clubs would be invited to participate in a less permanent capacity. Among the “initial guests” named in the documents were Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid.
And among those on the outside looking in, effectively barred from soccer’s grandest stage on qualifications other than merit?
Spurs and Ajax.
The Super League isn’t without its merits. In many ways, it’s one possible solution to a broad problem that grows more pervasive every year. The wealth gap – between most of those “founders” and their domestic competitors, not to mention the rest of Europe – is widening. It’s making leagues like Serie A and Ligue 1 wholly uninteresting. Even the Champions League group stage has gotten somewhat stale.
And the 2018-19 ascents of Spurs and Ajax don’t nullify the trend. Rather, stories like theirs are becoming more and more improbable. The past 13 years, even including this one, have yielded 11 semifinalists from outside that group of “founders” – less than one per season. The previous 13 years yielded 21. Upsets are less common. European soccer is as top-heavy as ever. Its self-sustaining nature means it won’t be reversing course anytime soon.
So something must be done. A more robust continental competition, with elites meeting fellow elites more often, might be that something. Domestic leagues might become quasi-second tiers. And, heck, the new world order might provide more entertainment.
But not if it completely does away with the type of entertainment the Champions League brought us this week. Not if Florentino Perez and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge tell Ajax it doesn’t belong because it doesn’t generate enough revenue. Not if Andrea Agnelli and whoever the hell is in charge at Manchester United tell Spurs they aren’t a traditional power, so they have no place on the circuit that will eventually monopolize the soccer world’s attention.
This is a plea, to those in power. We know economic forces are at your back. We know they’ve bent modern soccer into an untenable shape. We know they’ve made disruption necessary. And we know your preferred method of disruption would be a closed league that guarantees you eye-popping profits for decades to come.
But any solution that shuts the door on Ajax’s kids; any solution that puts up a firm barrier between Spurs’ homegrown success and Manchester City’s crooked, emirate-funded machine; any solution that makes Tottenham-like sustainable growth implausible is wrong. And it’s dangerous.
Soccer must retain some openness; some semblance of meritocracy; some mechanism that allows clubs like Tottenham and Ajax, and in theory hundreds below them in the hierarchy, to dream. Hopes and dreams nourish the sport. Hope that days like Tuesday and Wednesday are possible. Dreams of hopping aboard public transportation in London or Amsterdam on a weekday night in May, of taking a son, daughter, mother or father to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or the Johan Cruyff Arena, of belting out an anthem and roaring as if the second-biggest game in global club soccer depended on your noise.
Thousands of those dreams will be realized in a few weeks. So please, Florentino: Let future generations have them as well.
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