This might be a little late for a Valentines day love-in, but in many ways, for me the start of the Champions League marks the real start of the season. It is the date where everything seems to implode and – though we are without the Manchester massives – the balancing effect that Arsenal and (especially) Chelsea will have to perform will be white-knuckle, blood-curdling affairs. Let’s be honest, the CL is shamelessly self-propagandising and shamelessly arrogant in the way its fine-tuned sights target every football fan. But I’m afraid I cannot help but be drawn in.
It defines the season of many a team, it brings a sense of glory that I find hard to replicate. Sure, I love this season of the Premier League…but the perfect way to break and mix up a long-haul term is with the influx of the Champions League. Consider Manchester United: they were eliminated in the group stage what seems like an eternity ago and now, obviously, their sights are set on the league title and the league title only. It’s an obvious point but doesn’t their season just seem…bare…without the enigmatic, fire and brimstone fuelled excitement of the Champions League? Doesn’t it seem less of a rollercoaster ride without the potential glory of the Champions League?
Of course it bloody well does.
You can try to not like it because of how the Champions League symbolises the ever-rising pots of money in the game, but Europe’s top competition, because of the money or not, is where every team wants to be at. It’s like the batshit insane, popular, blisteringly manic cool kids party that only a select few are invited to and that a hundred others are left kicking their heels on the doorsteps. It is the Marilyn Monroe, the George Clooney, the dextrously-crafted Morrissey quiff of football warfare. You just can’t not want to be there.
Inevitably, when the competition carries that weight and element of such desire and importance, it’s hard not to be enthralled and attracted to it. Of course, it isn’t perfect – nothing is. It isn’t really the ‘Champions’ league for a mere fourth spot can gain you entry in Spain, England and Italy, and the party only really starts surfacing after the tedious group stages – where draws are easily settled for and the bigger teams tread carefully – are dead and buried. The knockout stages also contain teams who will be vaporised and certain games can be tepid. But I still find them to be endlessly delicious; even if a tedious game rears its head, the outcome still has massive reverberations for each club, more so than the Premier League where you can play catch up or the FA Cup which clubs like to flush down the toilet as a result of its failing allure. Anyway, we watch the Champions League for what might occur – not what definitely will. As shown by Barcelona and Levurkesen last night, what is presumed to happen doesn’t always pan out that way. And that’s the brilliance of a knockout competition like the Champions League – who knows? Not us, not anyone. And with the importance the Champions League holds for each club, ‘who knows’ is certainly enticement enough.
I measure football entertainment and glory in different ways; in different shapes and in different forms. Premier League glory is like a long, cathartic release of 38 games of blood, sweat and tears. It is the long-suffering grafters’ win, the steely, workman’s reward for a year of pain and mental strength. The FA Cup is much different, it’s a short-lasting glorified win of magic that doesn’t exactly make or break a campaign. But the Champions League is even more different – it grants you the kingship, the throne of Europe.
It’s like a pulsating, fast adventure of insanity that immortalises you and steeps you deep in the competitions history of grandeur. Simply put, and though ostensibly I sound like a Sky Sports presenter plumping up the evenings viewing, it is the most important and lucrative club competition in the world. Hey, for better or worse, I’m hooked. People like to criticise the Champions League because it’s monetising and, as noted above, it carries symbolism of the new, cash-filled game, but I can only be honest. The wounding finality of the away goals and the immediacy of the teams involved, knowing over two legs a slip up isn’t allowed. It is blistering. Short, snappy, fast, the sheer panic that ensures when goal alert flicks on and I struggle to find the remote; the electric presence of boastful sides who each have their own egotistical grains of history which mean they sure as hell won’t let any other team take the big trophy that they feel should be rightfully theirs, but struggle to juggle domestic glory simulatenously. It’s an irresistible attraction for any football fan. Simply put, where else do we get to see Milan take on Arsenal?
And when Arsenal are on such a knife edge – their best chance of gaining Champions League football next year might be by winning it this year – that importance is so, so alluring. This marks their only genuine shot at silverware, and it even marks success or not this season if they fail to get fourth. The Champions League is lusted after like no other competition – hence, it is natural for it to carry such weighty blows when on our screens. Football just feels more…alive in Europe. Of course not every team is a behemoth but, demeaning or not, it’s fun rooting for an underdog full of exciting young talents or rooting for a club we don’t know that much about. And some are better than expected. Take, for example, a vastly patronised FC Basel who knocked out United. They are a much better side than our media would have you believe.
Yes, the Champions League is vastly propagated and plumped up to an annoying effect, but it still feels like an overwhelming potent shot to the arm amidst an already thrilling season. It’s just pure football entertainment that isn’t without it’s controversies, that comes thick and fast, and that is injected with a host of passion – mainly because it is the main prize each team wants to snatch away from the table. With the meeting of teams from different counties, the players on show and it’s crazed importance in the seasons of every team gunning for a fourth spot or gunning for a place in the final, the Champions League is a competition threaded with entertainment; and a competition that might just console with an adrenaline-fuelled warmth after those post-Valentine’s day blues.