The method used to determine matchups in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League is bullshit and it’s time to change it.
Last Friday, eight teams watched a ridiculously long ceremony to learn their fate in the most prestigious club tournament on the planet. After much buildup, a former player reached their hand into a glass bowl and picks out a plastic ball containing the name of one of the eight teams. Think about that for a second. Clubs spend millions to building a squad capable of competing at this level. Their fans travel around Europe to lend their support and much of whether or not they will advance is determined by a guy in a suit shuffling balls around in a bowl. Seriously?
There has to be a better way. Not only is it a stupid way to determine such an important element of the Champions League, but it can also be rigged if one really wanted to. I’m not saying that it is, but, as we’ve learned in recent years, those who govern the beautiful game often find ways to dirty it up. Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, is not someone I would trust personally, but, if there was something shady going on I would imagine he would know about it. In 2016, he made a statement to an Argentine newspaper that essentially said he witnessed UEFA tampering with the plastic balls to predetermine the outcome.
Of course, you can mark them (by) heating them or cooling them. – Sepp Blatter
As I mentioned already, tens of millions, and in the case of Paris Saint-Germain, hundreds of millions are spent in hopes of building a squad capable of reaching the final of the Champions League and it can all come down to which plastic ball is picked out. Maybe it’s because I’m an American, as some on Twitter have rudely pointed out, but I find this method to be an ass-backward way of accomplishing what should be a very simple task. We have Video Assistant Referees but this archaic selection process is the best we can come up with?
So, how do we fix the problem? Well, I think the Champions League can learn a lot from one of the most popular (and exciting) sporting events in the United States. The NCAA Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness, is a month-long competition that pits 68 college basketball teams against each other in a bracket-style tournament (college football does something similar but with only four teams). What I like most about the setup is 32 teams are automatically in by winning their respective conference and the rest are selected by a committee of basketball experts. Once the committee has settled on the remaining 36 teams (referred to as at-large bids), do you think they put the team names in plastic balls and randomly select the matchups? No, because that’s fucking stupid. Instead, they rank the teams 1-16 in four regions based off of regular season performance, strength of schedule, and other key metrics. This ensures that teams that play well are rewarded with easier opponents to start and those who just made the cut have to play teams that are close or equal in terms of talent.
For those unfamiliar with this basketball tournament, you may be thinking this method would result in fewer entertaining games and lack of upsets. The exact opposite is true though. The single elimination format plays a huge role but the tournament is full of thrilling games and plenty of upsets. I should also add that once you get to the final eight teams, final four, and championship game, the cream rises to the top and the best teams are typically represented.
The question now is, how would you blend the NCAA Basketball Tournament with the Champions League? Here’s my plan:
1. Keep the group stage selection as it is now. UEFA loves their plastic balls so let’s keep them for this round once the pool of eligible teams has been determined.
2. After the group stage, a committee of experts, let’s go with 13 like college football, will rank the remaining teams 1-16 and there has to be a consensus among the group. The key here is the committee needs to be a varied group of people. It must consist of former players, managers, board members, high-profile fans of the game, and they all must have different backgrounds with very little overlapping interests when it comes to football (i.e. can’t have 6 members with ties to the Premier League). The committee will look at whether the team won their group, strength of their domestic league, key wins, injuries, form, and other analytics to best rank the teams. It’s not controversy proof but it’s a much better method. The reveal of the ranking would be must-watch television, too, unlike the shit show they broadcast now. More importantly, though, you’ll likely avoid matchups between Europe’s elite until much later in the competition when it’s more appropriate.
3. The ranking will also determine the eight ties. The number 1 team will play the team ranked 16. The number 2 team will play 15 and so on and so forth. I should also add that I give very few shits about playing a team from your own domestic league. That clever wrinkle UEFA uses ensures that Real Madrid and Barcelona avoid each other until the latter stages of the Champions League. I also care very little if teams are matched up once again after playing in the group stage. As far as I’m concerned, the slate is wiped clean after the group stage.
That’s essentially my plan. Once the Round of 16 is over, the committee would gather once again to rank the remaining teams 1-8 and you repeat until you get to the championship game. Why is this method better? Well, the biggest reason is you reward clubs for winning their group and performing well in their domestic league. Currently, if you win your group, you are matched with a team that finished second in another, but what if a team that finished second is Real Madrid? That’s what happened to PSG this season. PSG was in great form, defeated FC Bayern Munich in the group stage, and their reward was a tie with the defending champions of Europe. Meanwhile, Bayern, who finished second in PSG’s group, drew a much weaker opponent in Beşiktaş and defeated them 8-1 on aggregate. Yeah…that’s fair.
Sevilla FC and AS Roma are currently among the final eight teams left in the Champions League. Is anyone prepared to say they really are among the top eight teams in Europe? Nothing against those squads, especially Sevilla who extinguished Manchester United, but Roma advanced to the semi-finals thanks in large part to drawing Shakhtar Donetsk. If we’re going to have teams like Roma and Sevilla advance, let’s at least make sure they earn it.
How would things look this season if UEFA implemented my idea this season? Let’s look at the teams who won their group first of all: Manchester United, PSG, Roma, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester City, Beşiktaş, and Tottenham. Those clubs would be my top eight seeds and I would rank them based on points total in the group stage, standing in their domestic league, and overall form.
1. Manchester City
3. Paris Saint-Germain
5. Manchester United
The teams that finished second in their group would be my 9-16 teams. Here’s how I would rank them based off points total in the group stage, standing in their domestic league, and overall form.
9. Bayern Munich
11. Real Madrid
14. Shakhtar Donetsk
16. FC Basel
As you can see, my Round of 16 matchups would look like this. Remember, this is simply my opinion and a committee of 13 may rank the teams slightly different:
Manchester City vs. Basel
Barcelona vs. Sevilla
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
Tottenham vs. Porto
Manchester United vs. Chelsea
Liverpool vs. Real Madrid
Roma vs. Juventus
Beşiktaş vs. Bayern Munich
I know what you’re saying. “Ed, you only want this method so that PSG can have an easier route to the quarter-finals and beyond.” You’re partially right. Paris has been knocked out of the Round of 16 the last two seasons by Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid. These are ties that should be played in the quarter-finals at the earliest. The primary reason I’m pushing for a change from the current draw format is because teams that win their group are not adequately rewarded for doing so. Your league form plays no role in your seeding in the Champions League, despite the fact that teams play league games sometimes a few days before a big Champions League match. A football season is a lot more complicated and requires more nuance than a bunch of balls in a glass bowl.
Do I expect UEFA to actually change anything? No. The competition is widely successful and let’s be honest, they despise PSG. If they can stick Les Parisiens with Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Round of 16 every season they will. It’s up to PSG to change their own fortunes but let’s all just be honest about what we’re watching. The Champions League claims to crown the best club team in Europe but I would argue it also rewards the “luckiest” ones.
Think my idea is ridiculous and will never work? That’s fine. Comment here or message us on Twitter and let us know how you would improve the current system.