Champions League season begins [yay!] under threat from its flagship clubs [wait, wut?!]

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Might Bayern Munich be lifting a different “champions” trophy someday soon?

Might Bayern Munich be lifting a different “champions” trophy someday soon?
Image: (Getty Images)

On the day the new Champions League season starts, a seemingly major story breaks about yet another campaign to form a European Superleague. It almost seems too perfect to be a coincidence. Could this report be perfectly placed for maximum effect? Would such a thing ever happen? Would it be most effective when everyone is excited at the dawn of another tournament to threaten the future of the very tournament everyone is so excited about today? I know I know, I’m a cynical sort.

The nitty-gritty: Today, a Sky Sports report revealed that the usual suspects across Europe’s Big 5 leagues — your Liverpools, your Manchester Uniteds, your Real Madrids, and so on — are in talks with FIFA and JP Morgan Chase (though other banks may get involved) to form a European Premier League. In essence, it’s an effort to create an even more closed-door Champions League, where the biggest clubs are under almost no threat to drop out and will get guaranteed games against each other. It would act as a “league,” i.e. home and away fixtures against everyone else and then a knockout phase after that. And it would pretty much nullify and kill the Champions League.

This happens every few years, as the big clubs rattle their swords to UEFA about how they need more of the European pie because they are the draw. In some sense they are correct. Fans in the Far East or North America crave Munich vs. Barcelona matches exponentially more than they do Genk vs. PSV. But at what point is the money enough? Oh right, never, because capitalism killed society.

The European Premier League plan, which builds on a proposal from Juventus Chairman Andrea Agnelli, would see the Champions League expand to 36 teams with additional group-stage matches, and would also have its own promotion/relegation system instead of basing participants on domestic league performance. That would keep Agnelli’s Juventus and its contemporaries in the mix year after year. Agnelli’s plan had called for a 2024 start — a date FIFA is soon to plan its calendar around. Yet another coincidence, I’m sure.

This is almost cyclical. Every so often, the big clubs get bitchy about not making all the money and threaten this, which is how the Champions League became not “The Champions League” anymore in the late 90s, in reality. It used to be that you had to win your domestic league to participate in the following season’s Champions League. Y’know, champions. But under threat from the big clubs breaking away to form their own superleague, UEFA relented to let second-place teams from the biggest nations in. Then it was the third-placed teams a few years later. Then it was the top four, as we see now. The same thing will likely happen here.

UEFA is reportedly not a part of these talks, which means if the project ever gets to a tangible stage, there will be court cases aplenty to tie up the works.

The plan does feel a little more real than before, simply because of JP Morgan Chase’s involvement — fronting $6 billion and promising each club hundreds of millions of dollars. And that’s before TV contracts and sponsors get involved. It’ll at least be a very large cudgel to get UEFA to acquiesce to something similar when those talks and/or lawsuits begin.

As for this season’s tournament? It might look awfully familiar, except the part with no fans and such.

Eden Hazard

Eden Hazard
Image: (Getty Images)

Are the same teams favored to win it?: You can probably reduce that to the singular “team.” Though Bayern Munich has barely had enough time to clear the hangover from winning last season’s in August, they are the clear favorite. Juventus injected a little youth with Weston McKennie and Arthur, but are still probably too reliant on a now-35 and COVID-ridden Cristiano Ronaldo to save them when things get tight (even though he should be in prison).

Barcelona is a well-catalogued mess. Madrid tried to defend and bore their way to the title to the trophy last year, got clocked by City in the Round of 16, and then didn’t sign any new attackers. They were praying Eden Hazard could stay healthy to revitalize their attack. Hazard has yet to play this season due to injury. Good plan, though.

Liverpool just lost its best player. Man City will pray that Pep Guardiola’s brain doesn’t short-circuit in the quarterfinals for a fourth straight year. The only other team with few questions other than Munich is PSG, the team Munich beat in last season’s final, so we may be running this all back again.

Is there any hope for surprises?: Well, there’s always hope. Or else, what do we have? Atalanta still remains the most fun team on the continent, but they are not especially young. With barely any offseason and a condensed schedule, it’s hard to see how they hold up playing with the intensity they do. Dortmund have the youth that Atalanta doesn’t, but Dortmund can get defensively ropey in a hurry at this level. Sevilla are only here to get booted to the Europa League halfway through and win it again.

Inter could make a run, but manager Antonio Conte’s record in Europe is not inspiring. Perhaps Atletico Madrid, facing fatiguing teams as the season rolls on with less patience to break through what is always the most obstinate club around. Luis Suarez is on a Fuck-You World Tour (three goals already in the league) and the squad can joylessly march to a third final.

RB Leipzig currently lead the Bundesliga, and always seem to find guys, but going from losing top scorer Timo Werner to going farther in this tournament than last time would be quite the task. Werner’s new team, Chelsea, could go on a scoring-heater at any moment and make some real noise. They also might give up 25 goals in the group stage and not get out of it.

Any other reason to watch?: It’s rife with Yanks! Well, maybe not rife, but more populated than usual. McKennie’s move to Juve and Serginho Dest’s to Barcelona means there’s more Americans on offer in this CL than ever before. Christian Pulisic at Chelsea, Tyler Adams at Leipzig, Gio Reyna (now a starting role at Dortmund) you can get yourself a pretty nifty preview of at least half the starting lineup come Qatar 2022. Or more likely the guys who’ll be on the bench watching whatever it is Michael Bradley and Jordan Morris do for a living.

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