The annual UEFA Champions League Group Stage Draw should be a lot of fun. In theory, it’s got everything: the potential for drama and suspense; a high-tech, well-prepared venue (some fancy hotel in glamorous Monaco); and a veritable Who’s Who of European football stars. Only, what sounds good in theory is kind of disappointing in reality. UEFA has always had a knack for turning the ingredients for everything into hollow spectacles that fail to make much of an impression on anyone.
UEFA, the governing body of European football, is based in Switzerland but parties in Monaco, and the organization is as amusingly shady as that choice of location suggests. Headed by former French World Cup star Michel Platini, UEFA is routinely linked (probably erroneously) to suspiciously outlandish misconduct. Take Thursday’s draw, for instance. The ceremony, which splits a pool of 32 clubs into eight four-team groups, is, allegedly, a total fix – or so the conspiracy-mongers tell us. The whole thing is planned out ahead of time, they say; the miniature Champions League balls containing the team names written on special UEFA paper are strategically heated via remote control, so that each celebrity knows which ball to pick. Obviously, these conspiracy theories are absolute nonsense, but, like all conspiracy theories, they’re nevertheless utterly entertaining.
This year’s edition was made particularly mouth-watering by the inclusion of the inaugural “UEFA Best Player in Europe” ceremony, the unimaginatively named replacement to France Football’s legendary Ballon D’or award. Two notoriously boring UEFA people hosted the draw: the multi-lingual, Ryan Seacrest-like Pedro Pinto, and the multilingual eye candy Melanie Winiger. In the audience, representatives from all 32 participating clubs anxiously awaited the results of the draw, while journalists from every UEFA member nation prepared to vote in the live, electronic poll for the UEFA Best Player in Europe.
The Champions League Draw also happens to be a kind of annual tribute to the art of the football montage. The music, the slow-motion shots of goals, the celebrations, saves, tears and kisses, the overwrought orchestral finale: they’re all essential parts of a good UEFA montage. Pinto said this year’s video gave him “goose bumps.” Well, good for him. I didn’t mind the first montage, a review of the previous season’s Champions League. It was when Melanie cued the sixth, seventh or eighth player-specific slideshow that my interest began to wane. Call me unromantic, but I’d rather cut to the chase than watch endless replays of Ruud Gullit’s mazy dribbling.
The music stopped and the bigwigs entered. Steven McManaman was there because he’s the official Wembley 2013 ambassador. The Champions League final, which was staged at Wembley as recently as 2011, is returning to London as part of UEFA’s commemoration of the English FA’s 150th anniversary. (A century and a half of sideways movement, administrative inertia and on-field underperformance – now that’s something to celebrate.) Next to McManaman was UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, whose unerring ability to tell unfunny jokes at the wrong moments somehow hasn’t stopped him from becoming the draw’s official narrator.
Finally, after maybe half an hour of studio analysis, UEFA bombast and Pinto smiles, the draw began. This was supposed to be the good part, the crucial 25 minutes that all this fluff was leading up to. Except that once the draw started, Infantino opened his mouth. The jokes poured forth. Porto and Dynamo Kiev were placed in Group A: “They’re in the Champions League, so of course they’re happy!” Steve McManaman hadn’t drawn a ball for almost three minutes: “We have to make Steve work because he is getting bored!” Then the time-honored jokes, cracked by the host of every football draw: “If you draw so-and-so into their group, you’ll have to explain yourself to a whole country!” “Wow, [insert name of celebrity footballer], you’re doing a great job opening those balls!” or “Wow, [insert name of celebrity footballer], those balls are tough to open, aren’t they?”
The draw produced few genuinely exciting moments. Gasps when Manchester City were placed in Real Madrid’s group. Scattered sighs when PSG landed in Group A. But most of the event’s sporting intrigue was lost in the general lameness of the hosts and their famous guests.
Once pot four was finished, we advanced to the evening’s main attraction. Cameras turned to Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – UEFA’s three Best Player in Europe finalists – who sat patiently in the audience. Pinto told the crowd of journalists to pick up their handheld devices and type “1” for Messi, “2” for Ronaldo – you know, “American Idol” style. Thankfully, the footballers were classy enough not to raise wagging fingers to indicate which the number they wanted the journalists to type. Indeed, all three players seemed kind of downbeat. Ronaldo, who really, really wanted to win, had his game face on. Iniesta and Messi were relaxed enough. The montage ended and the players marched onto the stage.
It got really awkward really quickly. Iniesta and Messi stood next to each other, rocking the whole “FCB Pride” thing. Ronaldo stood to one side, rocking the whole “aloof Madridista” thing. Pedro and Melanie asked some questions. Backstage, an engraver – who, presumably, had just heard the result of the electronic vote – handled a trophy that looks more like a police exhibit than a valuable piece of silverware. Anyone familiar with Rembrandt’s “Carcass of Beef” knows what I’m talking about. Ronaldo discussed Real Madrid’s season, how hard the team worked to be beat “them” in the league, how satisfying beating “them” was. Meanwhile, “their” two representatives watched passively.
After what felt like an eternity, Michel Platini presented UEFA Best Player in Europe award to Andres Iniesta. Iniesta wasn’t so much happy that he won as relieved that the awkward interview was over. He hugged Messi. In the background, Ronaldo did his best McKayla Maroney impression. Iniesta carried the carcass offstage. The ceremony was over.
It’s all pretty funny, but slightly sad, too. UEFA is pompous and delusional. Michel Platini is no longer the elegant midfielder who dominated the 1982 World Cup; these days, he’s a stupidly outspoken corporate curmudgeon, which is depressing enough all by itself. What’s even worse is that the team planning the draw thinks this pile of sponsored-by-Heineken rubbish is attractive to “mainstream” fans. Saddest of all, they’re probably right.