The tide may be shifting. Since 2004, at least one English club has reached the semi-final of the Champions League in every season since. In fact, in 2009, 3 of the 4 semi finalists were English. Only 2004 and 2010 saw them not having a finalist. In 2005, 2008 and 2012 they won it.
This has meant that England’s UEFA co-efficient has been relatively high. The UEFA co-efficient system is what determines how many clubs qualify for the Champions League from each country. England’s high co-efficient means that UEFA grants them 4 spots, the maximum that any association can have. They, along with Spain and Germany, are the only countries to have this.
That has also meant that for fans of English Premier League, the Champions League has become a matter of right. Familiarity has bred expectation.
The money it provides also means that mere qualification for it is now almost considered a trophy. In Arsenal’s AGM, Arsene Wenger went as far as rating qualification for it higher than winning the FA Cup. Simply put, the money that qualification to the Champions League provides now outweighs the tradition that the FA Cup has.
And why not. In 2011, Manchester United got to the final, and got completely eviscerated by FC Barcelona. However, when the money figures came out, United had earned more money from that season’s Champions League than winners Barcelona had. The explanation for this may be that English clubs milk more from TV rights than anyone else does by virtue of their popularity and their demand. So merely qualifying for it is in itself a reward – winning is not mandatory.
But now, there seems to be a change. English clubs have struggled in this season’s edition. Manchester United qualified rather early, but no one seems to think they will get far. Arsenal nervously won their penultimate game to qualify. That is as good as it gets. Chelsea don’t have their fate in their own hands anymore (though that didn’t stop them last season) while Manchester City are out.
Contrast that with the other leagues. Spain had four representatives and all four are through with a game to go. In fact, it is the Spanish Champions, Real Madrid who had to struggle to qualify (the Group of Death had a hand in that). Italy on the other hand also had its two direct qualifiers through with a game to go. And the fast rising Bundesliga had its three direct qualifiers already through.
At the least, England may have two teams in the round of 16. Three is still a possibility, and would not be disastrous either. But if other season’s are to go by, there has clearly been safety in numbers in as far as England is concerned. The more the teams, the higher the probability of reaching the latter stages. That though may not be the case this season.
Qualifying for the latter stages of the Champions League is important as it affects the country’s co-efficient system. At the moment, seeing Chelsea and Manchester City going out will not affect England’s co-efficient for next season. But repeat performances of this in coming seasons may lead to fewer teams from England being granted qualification to the Champions League.
So the change may occur in this way. It may become more important for England that a club not merely just reach the final, but actually win it. That is actually what has kept Spain’s co-efficient high. With Barcelona winning it in 3 of the last 6 years, it hasn’t mattered that only they and Real Madrid actually regularly qualify from the group stages. In fact, before 2011, Real Madrid had gone 6 consecutive years without getting past the Round of 16. Barcelona’s wins have however papered the cracks of that.
It may also mean a change in fan’s mentality. For the sake of Champions League football, rivalry may turn into unity. Schadenfreude may have to be set aside, and actually hoping for the best of a rival English club may become the new practice. It would not matter which club it was that got to the final of the Champions League; if winning it means that fourth place still guarantees Champions League football, then why not.
The Italians have a saying, – Se Atena piange, Sparta non ride – if Athens is weeping, then Sparta isn’t laughing neither. It is all good mocking your neighbour’s misfortunes if that exalts the praise of your household. But when your neighbour’s house is burning, laughing at him doesn’t do any good for the neighbourhood as a whole. For the sake of Champions League football for English clubs, that might just be the mentality that Premier League fans may have to adopt.