Whether or not Real Madrid achieve their cherished goal of Decima tomorrow, which would mark the tenth time they have won Europe’s premier club competition, the Champions League Final in Lisbon once again emphasises that in all of world football’s many club competitions, spread across the various continents, nothing comes close to matching the glory of winning this coveted European trophy. It may be a competition that only European clubs participate in but not only do players from all over the world take part but, as with the Olympics or the World Cup Finals, the eyes of the world are on the final, as they will be on Lisbon on Saturday evening.
And what is more when it is comes to football, European football administrators have a better record of bringing the continent together than the continent’s politicians have so far managed. Indeed it is fascinating to reflect how the development of this football club competition has run almost parallel to that of the political union but with very different results. Both emerged from the rubble of 1945 and were inspired by broadly similar ambitions, one to bring European football together through friendly competition, the other to make sure European nations did not fight each other in wars that lead to devastating death and destruction.
There was one slight difference in that the idea for the football competition came about as a result of English claims that they had the best club side in Europe – hard to believe but then it was Wolves that prompted such English hubris. And it was the much derided journalistic community, in the person of Gabriel Hanot, the legendary editor of L’Equipe, who was responsible for its creation, his launch of what he called the project of a ‘European Cup’ being the inspiration. And on the eve of this year’s Lisbon final it is worth recalling that the first ever European Cup competition was in Lisbon between Sporting Clube and FX Partisan.
In contrast the political body had no British input, being a wholly continental idea, and was inspired by politicians keen to prevent Germany and France once again going to war. Britain then was still confident of holding on to its empire and had not reached the stage which was later to be so cruelly mocked by Dean Acheson, the American Secretary of State of, ‘Britain having lost an empire and not found a role.’
It is just as fascinating to note that both the football competition and the political body have undergone similar changes over the years and at roughly the same time. The European Cup that Hainot launched became the Champions League in 1992 and the Common Market became the European Union a year later. But while the European Union is racked by dissension, with many political parties resenting what they see as loss of national sovereignty, and some like Britain’s UKIP party are keen to leave the Union altogether, no football club would dream of not wanting to qualify for the Champions League. So much so that in England finishing in the top four of the Premier League, which means qualification for next season’s Champions League, now means more than winning the FA Cup. Even two decades ago such an idea would have been considered an absurdity, now it is taken for granted.
There are some romantics who still look back longingly to the European Cup, Michel Platini is one of them, but they know those days are long gone and that the straight knock out competition all the way from round one has been consigned to history and cannot be revived.
Yet the very success of the Champions League has caused problems, not helped by the way UEFA has used the success of the competition to project its own power. In essence the success of the Champions League has generated the idea that UEFA is more powerful than it really is. In politics Brussels may not be as powerful as the detractors of the European Union make out, but voters in Europe do directly elect European MPs as they have been doing this week. In contrast UEFA is only a competition controller not the regulator of European football. This gap between what UEFA can do and what many think UEFA should do explains why the sanctions UEFA has imposed on Manchester City, as part of its Financial Fair Play regulations, have encouraged entirely unrealistic ideas about the powers of UEFA.
So for instance no sooner did it emerge that City was going to be punished for not meeting the FFP regulations the cry went up why did UEFA not do something about how clubs are taken over in Europe, particularly England? The argument was UEFA should focus, as one writer put it, on those taking money out of clubs not those, like the City owners, putting money in. What about Carson Yeung taking over Birmingham City? Why does UEFA not use FFP to strike him down?
The answer to that is simple. UEFA does not have the power to do so. Birmingham City is in the domain of the Football Association. That is the regulatory body for football in England not UEFA. UEFA has no right to intervene in this matter. The FA, like all other national associations which make up UEFA, would be aghast if there was any hint of such a step. As Maurice Watkins, the legendary former director of Manchester United, has always put it, “UEFA regulates its own competitions, it does not regulate European football. No European association or club would want to concede such powers to UEFA”.
To be fair, Platini knows this well. Here it is worth recalling what he said last year when at the annual gathering he has with the media, during the draw for the Champions League and Europa League, he was asked about why UEFA was not doing anything about Monaco, just down the road from where the draw is held.
“Monaco,” responded Platini, “are not participating in the European competitions. Monaco will have a problem next year if they qualify for the European competitions.” And when I suggested to Platini that UEFA, despite having limited powers as competition controller, gives the impression of being a regulator he said: “Sassa, Sassa. Oh these are the structures of UEFA . We do not have the right of subsidiarity when it comes to the national associations. That is a problem. We can take care of the clubs taking part in our competitions but I have nothing to do with the English championships or the French championships or the Italian championships. We have no influence whatsoever on the national competitions. Such are the structures of UEFA. They do not allow for that. It has been a good debate in the executive and, of course, you have the Presidents of the national associations there. But they want to run their own competitions. And not have UEFA run it. That is perfectly natural. The national associations are the bosses of UEFA.”
The problem for UEFA is that, despite this disclaimer from Platini, that is not how the world sees UEFA. It sees it this mighty body that can regulate all of European football. The Champions League Final and the glitz that will surround it will further reinforce this misleading impression. While UEFA has every right to congratulate itself on creating this fantastic competition, and going where politicians have failed to go, it needs to do a lot more to educate the world how limited UEFA’s powers are. And how limited they remain however much European clubs may want to win the Champions League. But I suspect UEFA, basking in the glory of the competition it has created, does not want to do that. And that means for all the success of its competitions UEFA will still be getting a lot of brickbats from people who think it should do more.