The UEFA Champions League is the world's biggest, richest, most star-studded soccer competition. The European Cup, the "cup with the big ears" that's given to the winner, is probably the second-most coveted trophy in the world of soccer, behind the World Cup trophy. The games are broadcast around the world. The teams, even in America, are well-known.
In a way, therein lies the problem, unless you happen to be one of those Yankees-Red Sox-Dodgers type of fan that doesn't mind cheering for the clubs that are simply in a different financial stratosphere. The semifinals of this year's competition included Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two richest clubs in Spain and the world. The other two teams were Bayern Munich, whose financial and on-field dominance of the German league is entering its second half-century, and Juventus, the team that wins the Italian league every year (and yet STILL managed to get thrown out of the league, nine years ago, for fixing matches.)
Go back to the round of 16 and you can sweep in two clubs owned by oil-soaked Middle Eastern countries (Manchester City and Paris St.-Germain) and two more owned by shady Russian billionaires (Chelsea and Monaco). Most of the others fall into the category of "still hugely wealthy, just not with oil money or Russian money."
What, then, is an honest American root-for-the-underdog kind of fan to do? Several of these clubs are hard to love, nearly impossible in some cases. I find it hard to understand the type of person who would fall in love with Real Madrid; presumably he or she would revel in every more-extravagant signing, and gloat over the financial numbers, and probably wear a Floyd Mayweather T-shirt at the gym?
It's also worth remembering that the Champions League is a major factor in the increasing inequality in Europe's top leagues. All but the biggest, richest clubs are left with less and less to play for, even on the domestic level; there are perhaps a dozen-and-a-half teams in England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France that had an honest hope of winning a domestic league title, never mind the Champions League itself. That leaves more than four out of every five clubs in those leagues mournfully hoping for a cup run and the assurance of avoiding relegation for another season, with an outside possibility of a Europa League berth and the attendant away games in obscure European cities.
The one good thing that I can find in the whole pile is this: in the Champions League, among those big clubs, at least the rich meet up with the other rich. It's not like the mundane day-to-day of most of the European leagues, where Bayern Munich locks up another Bundesliga title two days after the season starts, and the main story in England (the league with the most parity, shockingly) is whether one of the three or four super-rich teams can maybe challenge the uber-rich trio at the top.
In the Champions League, at least Bayern can't buy their way past Barca. At least Paris-St. Germain has to meet up with the extravagant wealth of Chelsea. At least it's equal footing for the big teams.
The TV money on offer, of course, means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And good luck to the giants of the smaller European leagues, whose dominance on a small stage looks paltry when compared to the financial kings of Europe. The Champions League is terrible for the neutral fan in so many ways. But at least it's equal.