The European Champions League’s 32-team group stage kicked off this week with all of its usual fanfare. Longtime Champions League fans know the drill: We’re treated to Super Bowl-style hype, with the league’s Handel-esque theme song as the soundtrack.
On the field, though, things remained uncompetitive, and the way things are going, it won’t be long before the Champions League ceases to exist in its current format.
The European Cup, as it used to be known, was originally a strict knockout tournament, contested only by the league champions from each European country. This put every league winner within five games of a continental championship, and while the clubs from the Big Five leagues — England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France — still won most of the of titles, there were chances for smaller teams, too.
In the last decade before the Champions League format was introduced in 1992, Romania, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Yugoslavia all hosted a European Cup winner.
As the Champions League has grown, though, the revenue from the competition has mostly gone to Europe’s top clubs. Combined with the outside investment by those who only want to be associated with the continent’s big names, and the gap between top and bottom has widened to the point that it’s become farcical.
In the past four seasons, just three of the 32 quarterfinalists have come from outside the Big Five, and no small-country team has reached the semifinals since 2005.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid has reached the semifinals in six consecutive years, Bayern Munich in five; Barcelona has been at least a quarterfinalist for nine straight years.
Of the 16 games this week, eight matched up a team from the Big Five leagues against a team from one of Europe’s smaller countries. The teams from the Big Five took eight wins out of eight, by a combined score line of 29-2.
It was an excellent demonstration of the current state of the Champions League — smaller teams being smashed by big ones, and the whole competition not getting serious until the group stage is over and only 16 teams, mostly from the Big Five, remain.
UEFA, the European soccer governing body, rightly fears that the top clubs soon will decide to break away from the Champions League to create a European Super League.
It has made changes to try to keep the big clubs happy, including making qualification easier and giving them more revenue.
Even so, it’s only a matter of time before the Barcelonas and Bayern Munichs of the world decide that they need more games against each other, and fewer against the likes of Celtic and FC Rostov.
The European Cup died when the Champions League was introduced, and the Champions League will soon follow it to the grave. UEFA will do its best to prevent it, and try to keep the big clubs happy, but its chance to close the gap between top and bottom ended long ago. At this point, all UEFA can do is delay the inevitable.
Christian Pulisic, right, with Mario Goetze
• Don’t expect Minnesota United to get much more than some squad depth out of the upcoming MLS expansion draft. The league announced that each team will be allowed to protect 11 players, plus homegrown and other young players, and the quality of the non-first-team players on MLS squads isn’t great. The Loons might want to focus on building some defensive depth, as expansion teams usually struggle on defense.
• The National Women’s Soccer League finishes its regular season next weekend, and the playoff picture is almost set. The Washington Spirit still has work to do to clinch the regular-season championship; a win, or a Portland loss, or draws for both teams this weekend will give the Spirit its first Supporters’ Shield title. Portland is the likely second seed, and would play third-seeded Chicago. Seattle needs a win, plus a Western New York loss, to grab the fourth seed; otherwise, Western New York will earn the final playoff spot.
• Christian Pulisic, who turns 18 on Sunday, set another record in midweek. He became Borussia Dortmund’s youngest-ever Champions League participant. The young American star was in the starting lineup and played the full game in Dortmund’s 6-0 thrashing of Legia Warsaw.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Ingolstadt at Bayern Munich, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. This is a good weekend to check out some of Europe’s best — starting with Bayern Munich, the perennial German champions. Bayern has started perfectly, including winning 5-0 in the Champions League midweek, and can set the record for the best Bundesliga start in history if they beat Ingolstadt at least 3-0.
Serie A: Juventus at Inter Milan, 11 a.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. The weekend continues with Juventus, the heavy favorite to win a sixth consecutive Serie A title. Once, a trip to Inter Milan might have filled the visitors with dread, but Inter has struggled recently. Juventus will expect to take all three points and maintain its 100 percent start in Italy.
La Liga: Real Madrid at Espanyol, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. Round out the weekend with Real Madrid, which has gone four years without a La Liga title, but has two European Cup wins to console it. Barcelona lost shockingly to newly promoted Alaves last week, and Atletico Madrid has dropped four points already, but Real has rolled through three games.
MLS: New York Red Bulls at Toronto, 4 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 29. After years of struggles, Toronto is flying high, atop the Eastern Conference and cruising even without injured MVP Sebastian Giovinco. If Jozy Altidore can continue his suddenly prolific goal scoring, Toronto can open a bigger lead on second-place New York — which is still fighting to earn a playoff bye.