Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Thanks UEFA - I'm glad you read PWC

    Just over two weeks ago, I wrote an article on this site which contained a slightly provocative statement: "the Champions League is monumentally boring".

    I was probably being a little harsh and should have said, "the Champions League can be monumentally boring". A couple of words here and there can make quite a difference. But the article was written during the World Cup finals and, as a full-time employee and part-time volunteer journalist trying to meet some self-imposed deadlines, I often had to forego those one or two extra edits I would usually give a piece before sending it off to Jan.

    The Champions League isn't all bad. But the most unfortunate part of the Champions League set up - the two group stages - usually is. Other than that small substitution ("can be" instead of "is"), however, I wouldn't take back anything I wrote in The return of a long lost friend, a column inspired by the joy of knockout football at the World Cup.

    Well, it seems that Lennart Johansson and his heavyweight pals at UEFA are devotees of the Planet World Cup. Because, if you hadn't heard already, the second group stage of the Champions League is going to be scrapped. This season's competition will retain the painful format when it reaches the final 32 - eight groups of four then four groups of four then knockout quarter-finals. But the following season (2003-4) will see the 16 teams which survive those initial eight groups of four going straight into knockout ties. Fantastic!

    Of course (you know what I'm going to say) it would be better again if there was no group stage at all but the 2003-4 arrangements will be a definite improvement.

    The reasons Johansson gave for the change mainly focus on fixture congestion and the amount of injuries that causes. While it's not something I focussed on in my article, I have no problem with that rationale. Here are a few quotes from Uncle Lennart:

    "We (UEFA) believe this reduction in the size of the competition is in the longer term interests of everyone involved - clubs, players, fans, broadcasters, sponsors and European football in general."

    "We want to see a better balance in European football, a less congested fixture list for players and clubs and a flagship competition which has the right sporting mix and brand strength."

    "At the World Cup there were many injuries because players were worn out. Also, we've been shown that people aren't able to digest every match shown on television. Many people are confused with the match dates. Football has its attraction but we should not overdo it."

    "We did not sit in our ivory tower and make decision. We got our ideas from different sources. The clubs themselves have found that the number of matches needs to be reduced. We consulted about 100 clubs from each and every sector, and they all changed their minds. Now we have to wait for the reaction as a whole. But in the end we needed to do something for the good of the majority."

You won't get a negative reaction from me, Lennart.

    The third paragraph of that selection of quotes (which talks about World Cup injuries and match date confusion) is probably the key. But they all make very beautiful reading.

    Irrespective of this decision, I admit that I've always believed that, when it comes to organisational/format matters for football competitions, UEFA usually outpaces FIFA.

    For example, UEFA has extra options for breaking ties between teams which can't be separated on points, goal difference, goals scored and match result. Where FIFA would immediately reach for the nearest coin (and we have come close to seeing teams eliminated this way many times in the World Cup finals), UEFA has extra tie breaking methods - Fair Play and results from qualifying matches.

    UEFA has also been quick to see the limited value of the golden goal and has brought an end to its use in European competition. I doubt FIFA will follow suit. I can see that the golden goal might have appeared successful at Korea/Japan: five knockout matches went to extra time and three were settled by a golden goal so we only had two penalty shoot-outs - the lowest since before the World Cup finals moved to a 16 team knockout phase in 1986. However, there was only one golden goal at France '98 (out of four matches that went to extra time) and, although it's designed to reduce the number of shoot-outs, I would much rather see teams have the opportunity to come back. (If you don't agree with me, see if you can find yourself a tape of the 1970 semi-final between Italy and West Germany. Or West Germany-France 1982; or Belgium-Soviet Union 1986; or Cameroon-Colombia 1990; or even Sweden-Romania 1994. You may change your mind.)

    Besides, while we're looking at this subject from a quality of play perspective, I still feel that "golden goal" extra time encourages teams to avoid conceding the golden goal more than it inspires them to score it.

    Many of you might feel that debates about systems and formats are of secondary importance to discussing the game itself. But, as I've often said, the way teams approach competitions is influenced/determined by the ways in which those competitions are designed.

    We should remain vigilant on matters such as these. How much more proof does anyone need - better formats and structures usually mean better play and fairer outcomes. And now we know that UEFA reads PWC. Thanks guys, I'm glad you do. This website's faithful contributors will happily publish more useful observations for you.

    OK, please forgive me if I'm a little smug. But I'm off to e-mail Uncle Lennart now to tell him that if he likes my ideas so much he can employ me to oversee his tournament structures, seeding calculations, etc.

I could get used to Geneva.



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