Liverpool fans had been waiting for it for 30 years. Many in the Liverpool squad had not even been born when it was last won. Despite coronavirus restrictions, the outsides of Anfield were buzzing with Liverpool die-hards when the trophy was lifted, letting out flares and setting out fireworks at the top of the Liver Building.
Trent Alexander-Arnold made the defiant statement that he would swap “every medal” for this one. The league. Liverpool finally won the league.
“Every medal” would include a Champions League medal. Perhaps Trent does not speak for all Liverpudlians, nor for all footballers, but Liverpool had been waiting for this one a long time. However, “every medal”, even by a Liverpool’s standards, seems questionable at first. Conquering Europe and all the giants that come with this challenge, from Real Madrid to Bayern Munich (both faced on their road to the final), surely sounds a far more challenging task than beating clubs ranging from Manchester United to Bournemouth at a domestic level. It is true that winning the league for the first time in 30 years is an incredible achievement, but winning the European Cup, let alone 6 times as a club, is a feat that should make winning the league look like a meagre achievement.
So, let me play at devil’s advocate. Let me defend this ambitious comment delivered in to the media by Trent Alexander-Arnold and distort realities. They may not represent my own opinions.
One would assume that if the Champions League were so significant, the final between Liverpool and Tottenham, an all-English final for the first time in 11 years, would attract millions more views than an FA Cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal. Well, BT Sport streamed the final for free and recorded 11 million views for the final (1), whereas the FA Cup final, televised by both BT Sport and BBC, recorded 8 million views via BBC (2, does not include figures for views on BT Sport). Although it is mere speculation to suggest that BT Sport attracted 3-million-plus views, which would match the number of views for the Champions League final, it is not certain that the Champions League attracted many more viewers (relatively) than the FA Cup final. Whilst it is difficult to find more accurate viewing figure statistics online, what is available might suggest that the Champions League is not a competition that is as supreme as one might think it to be.
It may not be concrete enough to solely look at viewing figures. Shifting gazes away from numbers, it may be useful to consider competition formats. It is probably correct to say that a league win requires consistent toil, sweat and skill, whereas a tournament format may allow room for luck. In the Amazon documentary ‘This Is Football’, likely a TV series targeted at interested Americans who have come to realise that baseball/basketball/American football are not the only sports to exist across the world, Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League win over Bayern Munich and Frankfurt’s 2018 DFB-Pokal Final win over that same tiny, tiny team are included in an episode headlined ‘Chance’. Indeed, ‘chance’ can exist in a tournament where one match can decide your existence in a competition. ‘Chance’ can barely exist in a league where you most often have 38 chances to put it right. The relevance to this point lies in the very fact that Champions League winners may sometimes rely on fortune, whereas league winners require quality. Leicester’s mystical 5000/1 victors did not win by being lucky. Ranieri’s Leicester won by ambushing all other opponents in the Premier League in each fixture: appearing as an underdog, then revealing its indisputable quality.
The integrity of a competition should be built upon the foundations that the best competitor wins. Though many may respond to this point by stating that the winner in a tournament proves that the best team has won, or that a team frequently earns their luck, fortune is needed in around 30 games over the course of a league, whereas fortune is only needed in one game for the best team to be knocked out. The other scenario would be where fortune allows for the worse team to win. Albeit rarely, fortune can outweigh the forces of toil, sweat and skill. Chelsea’s draw against Barcelona in the second leg of the semi final in 2012 (where Mr. GOAT Messi missed a penalty) seems a suitable example. That’s not to lessen Chelsea’s long-cherished Champion League dream win. It is simply a recognition of the fact that fortune made the 2012 win all the more celestial.
The great football author and journalist, Michael Cox, recently wrote a fascinating article for ‘The Athletic’ on the reasons why league formats should be replaced by tournament formats (3). Although the agenda he proposes would be deeply exciting for the neutral, it may not be reflective of a winner’s merit. The Champions League, in its current tournament format, may then not exactly set apart an outright better-than-the-rest winner. A league, on the other hand, does. If the Champions League requires disproportionate levels of fortune compared to the Premier League, for example, and its integrity is somewhat diminished, winning the Champions League may not be as well-earned. Trent Alexander-Arnold may be noticing the difficulty of maintaining a high quality over the length of a league, rather than giving 110% in sporadic Champions League games where he has only one ‘chance’ to shine.
From a personal perspective, with friends living in Brazil, it must be said that the Champions League is sometimes only relevant by way of “who will the Copa Libertadores winner face in the Club World Cup this year?”, or “I hope whichever player of my country is playing wins this competition”. The obsession with the Club World Cup at the end of each year in other continents, which is simultaneously shrugged off and utterly ignored by all Europeans, is incomparable to their obsession with the European football. Without denying the fact that thousands and thousands fans of European clubs live in continents which are not Europe, Europeans must understand that the Champions League is not universally accepted as the world’s most important club competition, as not all clubs are permitted to compete in it. The World Cup, on the other hand, is accepted as such. It would be a huge shock for your friend to argue a case for the Euros, or Copa America, or any other national competition, to be a more remarkable competition than the FIFA World Cup. Visibly, the Champions League may be big for some, but entirely irrelevant for others. This imbalance at a club competition level threatens the true universal importance of the Champions League.
Arguments in favour of a reformed Club World Cup are for another day, but a reformed and prestigious version of the Club World Cup should be welcomed with open arms. Establishing an international competition that all would regard as the biggest competition in football for clubs would be an easy solution when solving the problem of ‘how big is the Champions League?’. The continental would justly be subordinate to the international.
Another helpful point could include comparing the revenues generated by Liverpool and Manchester United with the number of European Cup/Champions League and Division 1/Premier League titles they have won. Manchester United have 1 more domestic league title than Liverpool, and 3 less European Cup/Champions League trophies than them, yet earned £796.4m in total revenue in 2019 (4) compared to Liverpool’s £533m in 2019 (5). Sure, there are a numerous factors at play, but it is still significant that the team with fewer European trophies earns more and is more marketable.
The Champions League is a truly exciting spectacle. The great comebacks produced, the great moments and the great goals have always let the competition sail beyond expectations for any viewer. It is a competition which regularly defies the impossible. Viewing figures cited may not demonstrate a great deal, and it would realistically be dangerous (and boring) to subtract the tournament formats away from football. The Club World Cup, as it has been played in the last 20 years or so, is not yet reputable competition. New proposals for 2021 may alter that, but that is still to be seen. However, this article may bring to light points and perspectives not previously considered. The UEFA Champions League is a competition which produces excitement, but not a competition that is the biggest competition at club-level. It is intriguing that a debate can be instigated when deciding whether a domestic competition, such as the Premier League, or a continental competition, the UEFA Champions League, is ‘bigger’. The Premier League continues to grow in stature. Alexander-Arnold clearly finds that winning the Premier League in a Liverpool shirt is more memorable than winning the UEFA Champions League. If Trent says it, who is undoubtedly going to bring it home in 2022, then it must be true.
Image credit: Steffen Prößdorf