May 19, 2012; Munich, GERMANY; A general view of the championship trophy before the UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea at Allianz Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mitchell Gunn-US PRESSWIRE
Another season, another Champions League draw. Another chance to see UEFA fluttering their eyelashes at the world.
It's easy, when watching any of UEFA's regular ceremonies, to wonder exactly what the point is. Determining the Champions League group stages, as they did yesterday, requires nothing more than two or three people to pick a succession of names from a number of containers, read them out, then write them down and email them to everyone. It doesn't need to be in a hotel in Monte Carlo, it doesn't need a succession of faintly bemused former players, and it doesn't need delegations of sharp-suited club officials. It certainly doesn't need to last the seventeen hours it seems to.
(It probably does need to be on television, mind, since if it were held behind closed doors, the fix that ensures Manchester United's smooth progression to the later stages wouldn't have to be so elaborate, and muttering "warm balls" to oneself is a fine way to pass an afternoon.)
But then talking about necessity when it comes to football is always a delicate business, as you start to bump up against questions like "well, when you think about it, is any of it necessary?" and you end up trying to ignore or rationalise away the fact that the whole business is, deep down, a bit silly. So don't think about necessity, that way lies madness. Think about functionality. What is the nonsense for?
Ceremony is a powerful thing. By surrounding an event with pomp and circumstances, bells and whistles, it tells those watching that this thing happening, that you're sitting through, matters. It has to matter, because Ruud Gullit. It has to matter, because Denis Law. Because Fabio Cannavaro. Because shiny glinty oooooh. It's the same reason the Diamond Jubilee consisted of a flotilla of buffoons and a concert of berks, rather than a carriage clock, a book token, and a handshake. You are watching an important thing, and we're going to make damn sure you know it.
In their pre-draw discussion -- a real thing that actually happened -- Sky Sports News' designated tat-fluffer described the event, apparently without a smidge of self-awareness, as "One of the most eagerly awaited events in the football calendar". That might be true for Gianni Infantino's proud family, and for those journalists who seem to prefer the glamorous business of being a journalist to the mucky drudge of actually liking football, but suggesting that a fan of any of the clubs involved is looking forward more to the draw than the ensuing competition is deeply strange. This is not to say that the games will necessarily be more fun, of course, as football matches are often a terrible grind. But the reason we're watching the draw is because we like that grind, or at least we need that grind to fill the empty spaces in our inadequate lives. Not because we're fans of logistics in lipstick.
At this point, a cynic might suggest that making the product look good is an easier alternative to making the product actually good. That, more or less, is what the Premier League has managed to do by breathlessly proclaiming itself the greatest and most competitive league in the world, and being blithely accepted as such, despite the latter being demonstrably not the case and the former inherently debatable but intuitively incorrect. And the cynic would be right, because cynics are always right when it comes to things like this.
It's self-fulfilling. Pretend loudly that the Champions League is the natural pinnacle of all that football has beens striving toward, add enough razzle-dazzle, and -- pop! -- it becomes so. It doesn't matter that the thing's a bloated, anti-competitive cartel working towards the fossilisation of elite European football. It's got an anthem. You're worried that the group stage is a cynical exercise in bleeding money from fools? But the anthem! You're concerned that even the supposed integrity of a random draw process has been fatally compromised by the need to serve the interests of broadcasting? Did you not hear the anthem?
Then, at the end, just to make everything seem even weirder than before, they presented Andres Iniesta with a mutilated torso and everybody clapped. If you're reading, UEFA, a thought. Having journalists voting LIVE!!! is no good without instant accountability. Insist on a show of hands. And then let the judgemental gaze of Cristiano Ronaldo and the puppydog eyes of Lionel Messi roll across the faces of those who overlooked their self-evident magnificence. That, at least, would be decent television.