No ‘real’ support for single-leg ties
Speaking after his team had been beaten by Bayern Munich on Sunday night, Ander Herrera did not hold back. Asked what it was like playing in his first Champions League final in front of an empty stadium, the Paris St-Germain midfielder was to
Lacking emotion: Ander Herrera of Paris St-Germain battles for possession in an empty stadium in Lisbon during the Champions League final on Sunday the point. “Football without fans is s---,” he said, his English appropriately honed after five years in Manchester.
These, you suspect, were not the words the organisers of the competition were hoping to hear. What they wanted was public affirmation of how brilliant the tournament had been. Uefa has been preening itself on the success of its pandemic-enforced rearrangement. And, in its crisis management, it has a point. The foreshortened format – single knockout games played in one city – was so expertly delivered we can only assume no one from the British Government was involved in its organisation.
Indeed, in the aftermath of such success has come a growing consensus that the enforced arrangements should become the future. Why not create a regular, end-of-season knockout tournament? It could be moved round Uefa’s constituent members, like an annual Euros. You can almost hear the cash registers at the organisation’s headquarters ringing as they envisage a bidding war ensuing to host such a potentially lucrative opportunity.
Interviewed after the final, Aleksander Ceferin, the Uefa president, went further than simply agreeing that the newly condensed procedure had passed muster in a crisis; he insisted it had actually produced better football. By playing in a neutral venue, two legs were not needed. And faced with the jeopardy of a single opportunity to find a result, Ceferin argued that negative tactics would be rendered obsolete; do away with the two-legged methodology and open, expansive play would be bound to follow. What is not to like about the idea of such an end-ofseason fun fest? Provided space can be found in the calendar, surely it is the way forward?
Such thinking, however, fails to take into account the aspect of the game Herrera believes to be most important: the fans. If, for instance, all Champions League matches from the quarter-finals onwards would be staged in one city, how would the host manage to accommodate supporters from
When you are down from the first leg, the only option left is unfettered attack. That is what the fans love
eight clubs, all hoping their stay might be extended for up to a fortnight? At the World Cup, matches are spread around a country. No single conurbation is expected to find room for such a huge influx. Paris and London apart, there are not many cities in Europe that could absorb eight sets of supporters congregating on its streets.
Besides, ask the fans of many of the clubs likely to be involved in the latter stages of such a competition to identify their favourite European matches and they are certain to number second legs high on the list.
Liverpool supporters will wax lyrical about overcoming a three-goal deficit to beat Barcelona in that tumultuous semi-final at Anfield in May last year. The Tottenham faithful will be equally enthusiastic about the turnaround their team engineered against Ajax in Amsterdam at the same stage of the 2019 competition. Those glorious, back-from-the-dead recoveries would not have happened if the end-of-season play-off idea was in place.
Just remembering those matches is to suggest Ceferin is wrong about the manner in which a one-off game increases the jeopardy. On the contrary, going into a second leg after losing the first is guaranteed to produce a thunderously competitive response. When you are down, the only option left is unfettered attack; trailing on aggregate is invariably the antidote to caginess. And if it works, if victory is plucked from the jaws of defeat at the last, that is when proper history is made. That is when supporters get their money’s worth. That is what they love.
To paraphrase Herrera, for us fans, football without second legs is … substantially diminished.