Champions Take Pitch

Today marks the start of the longest running playoff format in the history of human history. Over the next eight months, the UEFA Champions League will whittle 32 soccer club teams down to two finalist who’ll settle things on May 24th on the pitch in Lisbon, Portugal.

Today is the opening set of matches that will take place throughout Europe. These matches take place mid-week so that they don’t interfere with weekend regular season league play.  As if this weren’t enough soccer, these players will also play for their home countries as they try to qualify for the World Cup taking place next summer in Brazil.   In this respect, the season is like the upcoming Ice Hockey season, which will be interrupted so that the players can compete for their national teams in Sochi while still trying to satisfy their NHL playoff aspirations.

Today and tomorrow the European clubs that were lucky enough to have qualified for the UEFA Champions League will play a round robin in group play. Each team will play a game against the other three teams in its group, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the round of sixteen. It’s difficult to explain the competitiveness of this competition, but these games are more important to the fans of the teams and their representative national leagues than the regular season.  (Last year’s UEFA Euro Championships saw the German and Greek national teams play against each other in games that were particularly dramatic because of the geopolitical events at the time.)  The UEFA Champions League is essentially the playoffs for the national club leagues, except it is inter-league play.  The club teams spend a lot of money during the regular season to attract world-class talent so that they make it to the top of their league and qualify for this inter-league tournament. These “extra” games are where the real money is at for the club owners.

NBC may have outbid Fox for the rights to televise the English Premier League, but in losing this battle Fox my have won the war by keeping the rights to the UEFA Champions League. As this tournament gets deeper into home-and-away eliminations it becomes the most compelling of all sports to watch.  Unlike the World Cup, where players come from all over the planet of club teams to try to play as one for their country (and rarely gelling before being eliminated), the club teams in the UEFA Champions League are well-oiled machines playing in top form.  As such, it is sport at its finest.