Maybe it’s because I’m a geriatric millennial that makes it pretty much impossible for me to enjoy anything anymore without worrying about the surrounding context. That’s what we do, right? Or at least that’s what I did on Tuesday night when Antoine Griezmann scored the fourth goal 34 minutes into an electrifying Champions League group-stage match at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. It was easy to see that Atlético Madrid–Liverpool was becoming an instant classic. I watched the game alone, displaying multiple “Oh shit” faces to absolutely no one.
You may be wondering when the angst comes in, and I’ll tell you: This Champions League era is entering its late stages, as the format is set to change for the 2024-25 season. This week’s thrilling match days were a reminder that the current format is actually really good, all things considered, which makes it a bit sad that it will soon change for reasons that have little to do with improving the quality of the games.
Let’s return to Tuesday at the Wanda because it had absolutely everything: chaos, control, coolness, fire, rage, narrative, and two opposing footballing ideologies. And more brilliance from Mohamed Salah, whose brace in Liverpool’s 3-2 win saw him become the first Liverpool player in history to score in nine consecutive matches. By the time he scored his second goal in the 78th minute, Griezmann had scored twice and been sent off, as if trying his best to win Diego Simeone’s approval. Amid all of that, Naby Keita scored an otherworldly volley that would’ve been the highlight of almost any other game. After the game, Simeone and Jürgen Klopp sparked a mini-controversy by not shaking hands.
Not to be overshadowed, Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig alternated between periods of dominance and impotence with PSG ultimately prevailing 3-2. Jesse Marsch’s Leipzig side responded well after conceding an early goal, going up 2-1 in the Parc des Princes, but couldn’t withstand PSG’s attack—Lionel Messi equalized in the 67th minute and gave PSG the lead after converting one of two dubious penalty decisions that went PSG’s way in the game (Kylian Mbappé missed the second in stoppage time after Messi, who was on a hat trick, deferred to him to take it).
Elsewhere, Ajax hammered Dortmund, Sporting beat Besiktas, Manchester City swept aside Club Brugge, and Real Madrid beat Shakhtar Donetsk, avenging last season’s two group-stage defeats and going level on points with group leaders Sheriff—Sheriff!—who lost to Inter at San Siro. And this was just Tuesday!
Wednesday’s drama was not so widespread, but it still saw Manchester United confound and delight in equal measure. They came back from 2-0 down to beat Atalanta 3-2 at Old Trafford, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the winner. United were bottom of Group F at halftime but ended the night in first place. Elsewhere, FC Salzburg increased Wolfsburg’s miserable run by beating them 3-1 and extending their lead at the top of Group G, Barcelona got their first Champions League win, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer was back on his bullshit in Lisbon, and Chelsea dispatched Malmo with ease.
The best thing about this week’s results is that we get rematches of these games in a fortnight’s time, part of a wonderful quirk in the Champions League group-stage schedule and one that will be eliminated when the new format goes into effect. The reformed Champions League will be expanded from 32 to 36 teams, consisting of a single league rather than eight groups of four teams. Each team will play 10 different opponents in a mixture of home and away fixtures—the top eight will automatically advance, while those that finished nine through 24 will enter a playoff.
The rationale behind these changes predictably comes down to having more games, and therefore more revenue, but it’s also part of a wider conversation about ensuring future generations of fans remain faithful consumers. Are you not entertained?! Well, apparently, the kids are not, and soccer’s elite decision-makers are increasingly concerned about young people’s evolving entertainment appetites and their diminishing attention spans leading them away from the sport.
Never an organization to let another steal the limelight, FIFA announced its plans for a biennial World Cup this week. Admittedly, FIFA president Gianni Infantino does deserve some credit here for displaying a rare ability to make an already dreadful idea even worse. Make the World Cup every two years, but with different teams participating? Good grief.
Much like the European Super League—another dreadful idea—the proposed World Cup changes are all for the sake of the children. “The enemy of football is not the World Cup or is not FIFA, but it is other activities that young boys and young girls are running after,” said Infantino, like some populist politician rallying against an imaginary enemy. Personally, I would not class “other interests” as a bad thing. As Dan Burke rightly says, Fortnite is about as much soccer’s enemy as a book shop is a restaurant’s competition.
FIFA is putting forth a strong public relations push to gain support for a biennial World Cup, but details remain vague. Infantino has hinted that it could be hosted in multiple countries at once, with different teams competing in each edition, though as of yet there is no clear suggestion as to how anyone would qualify.
Luckily—much like with the Super League fiasco—there has been considerable pushback against these proposals—Infantino admitted late Wednesday that plans could be dialed back. But, like the Super League, the core issue is why soccer’s international bodies keep proposing solutions when it’s not even clear there is a problem. If FIFA are worried about young people getting into the game, make it more accessible. Create pathways for young people to enter the sport, commit to a process to make boardrooms—at club and federation level—more diverse. Tackle all forms of discrimination and corruption. In the words of USWNT player Becky Sauerbrunn, “This sport is supposed to be for everyone. If it wants to attract more youth, you have to make it open for everyone.”
There are many problems with soccer, but the frequency of matches is not one of them. We know money is the driving force behind these proposals because it always is. It’s no secret that FIFA envies UEFA’s competitions and the money they generate, especially once the Champions League expands in 2024. But are fans really asking for more games? Do the kids want more? Most kids love ice cream, but they also know too much of it will make them sick. Even if it didn’t, scarcity is what makes it special.
This is what makes spectacles like this week’s Champions League games so wonderful: These games don’t happen all the time, but when they do come around, they really matter. The same goes with the World Cup—increasing its frequency only diminishes its magic. As we catch our breaths until the next round of Champions League fixtures, let’s appreciate that these games don’t happen too often. To be honest, I feel like I need two weeks to recover from Tuesday’s match day alone. Then again, maybe that’s just my age.
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