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Football is Dead!

The romance of the beautiful game is gone, super league threats coupled with new reform means we may never see it again.

Borussia Dortmund v Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final 1: Leg Two Photo by Friedemann Vogel - Pool/Getty Images

As the minutes ticked down in Borussia Dortmund’s home leg defeat to Manchester City in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, it occurred to me that not only would I not be watching Dortmund play in the next round, but that I will not be watching any of Europe’s elite competition moving forward. Manchester City were not at their sublime attacking best, nor did Pep Guardiola even call on his best lineup. In fact, I am not sure anyone knows what the Cityzens best lineup is. Manchester City simply wore down an inferior, injured, and partially broken Borussia Dortmund squad until they made mistakes, and then they pounced like a Lion attacking a Zebra in sub-Saharan Africa. That is where the problem lies, as City boasting the most expensive squad in the world can afford to rotate during this heavily condensed season giving them yet another advantage over their opponents.

Heading to the semifinals are City, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Real Madrid, and Chelsea FC, three of whom are still “new money” in the world of football. I am not saying that new money is a problem, but the vast amounts of spending that these clubs perform is simply outrageous and is killing the romance of football. According to CIES football, Manchester City have spent more than a billion dollars on transfers since Pep Guardiola joined the club as Manager in 2016, and City also top net spend (spending vs. income) with a negative €631M euros. Their opponents in the semifinal, PSG, have spent €854M euros while the deep pockets of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea have spent €968M euros, even with a transfer ban that took place two summers ago. Of course, it costs a lot of money to be able to put together nearly two topflight teams in one, which is essentially what Manchester City have done.

Having a big squad with lots of quality makes it easier to compete on multiple fronts, which is precisely the route that Manchester City have chosen in building their squad. PSG have invested differently, opting for a couple of superstars in Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappe who cost the club a combined total of more than €400M euros. No matter which direction these oil rich clubs choose to go, it takes a lot of cash to build these football teams to win at the highest level. However, even though the Abu Dhabi owners of City Football group, the Qatari owners of PSG, and Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich of Chelsea have money to spend, it does not stop them from pushing for more funds into their respective organizations.

Sunday, April 18th 2021, a date which will live in footballing infamy as Borussia Dortmund dropped the Null Ne90n throwback kits, were only to be slightly outdone by the announcement of the European Super League (ESL). The ESL would serve as a breakaway Champions League of sorts with 15 founding members and 5 rotational members. Of course, given that Bayern Munich, PSG, and Dortmund did not accept their invitations to the new European event, there were major holes for Real Madrid President and ESL chairman Florentino Perez to fill. Football dominated the headlines and social media with protests by supporters and former players against their clubs over the proposed (mostly) closed off competition, and the negativity became too much for clubs to deal with. One by one the “super” clubs opted out of the league while simultaneously apologizing to their fans all over the world just days after the initial announcement. The fans voice was heard, and the ESL was shelved, at least for a little while.

Champions League reform is still on the horizon as the richest clubs have held UEFA hostage, and while the ESL crashed and burned this time, it is still a powerful negotiating tool for Europe’s top clubs. Demanding more money for their inclusion in Europe’s top club competition, UEFA is still forced to cater to the desires of the elite as they want to continue to put out the best product possible. The greed these organizations crave doesn’t stop as the new UCL format not only allots more games and money for the already mega rich clubs, but it also sends a lifeline to ‘historic’ teams that fail to qualify. Clubs that disappoint domestically during their respective season will be given new opportunities to ‘dine’ at the big table (through the coefficient rankings) even though they had every advantage to qualify in the first place. These insurances for rich and historic clubs further separates the haves and the have nots, and more games will likely result in less intrigue and surprise during the lengthened match rounds.

Providing more games will also take away the minimal parity that already occurs in the current group stage format. Even clubs like Inter Milan currently fail to get out of the group across six matches, like they have done over these past three seasons. Now with over ten matchdays, that club will be given more opportunities to succeed against lesser teams ensuring more chances to get through. Gone by the wayside will be teams like 2018-19 Ajax, whose UCL run was one of the most exciting things European football saw in that decade. The Dutch outfit became the darlings of the football world that season after negotiating three qualifying rounds just to get to the group stage; the young upstarts surprised both Benfica and Bayern by finishing runners-up to the German giants, not losing a single group stage match.

The famous old Amsterdam club continued to shake up the competition by defeating European elites Real Madrid and Juventus in back to back knockout rounds. Ajax were seconds away from reaching a European final before a miraculous hail-mary strike by Lucas Moura of Tottenham Hotspur saw them bounced from the competition in some style. The young guns were promptly picked apart following that season with Frenkie De Jong joining FC Barcelona and Matthijs De Ligt heading to Juventus. The status quo was restored as Ajax, a historic but yet small club by European standards has failed to get past the group stage without their key starlets. A four-time winner of the competition, Ajax were again brushed aside due to being in a small country where the lack of television revenue and big money ownership keep them from having a strong chance to compete at the highest level. UEFA’s new format will make scenarios and stories like this far less likely to occur moving forward, destroying the chances of upsets and giant killers that makes watching sport so much fun. Of course, European football has also lost a lot of its luster due to the empty stadiums dominating the landscape.

The impact of COVID-19 on football has been devastating from a financial standpoint, but even more criminal regarding the sporting concept. “Ghost games” or Geister-spiele have taken some getting used to, although strangely one can become used to hearing players and coaches shouting instructions back and forth. The real issue of having matches without spectators is the loss of the extra advantage of the home stadium. Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion is one of the most iconic venues in European football, and the roar of more than 81,000 fans spurs the team on in the dire moments of the match. Sadly, Die Schwarzgelben look lost on their home pitch at times without that crowd behind them. With such a disadvantage in financial terms, teams like Dortmund need that support if they are to overthrow the likes of Manchester City in a quarterfinal knockout match.

The Champions League rolls on as it picks up again at the end of the month, predictably with oil-rich clubs doing battle to make it to the final of Europe’s most prized competition. There will still be no supporters in seats, no fairy-tale club, and no romance of any kind because football is dead, and greed has killed it.