Posted on Wednesday, 6th March 2013 by Jon Shay
Some of the pessimists among us look ahead to our second leg of the Champions League and anticipate a deeper drubbing at the hands of Bayern, and they also make the mistake of conflating our struggles in the Champions League with a reason for why we should not even bother with qualifying for next year. After all, their reasoning seems to go, why qualify for a competition that we will only get dumped from in its second round and have no hope of winning?
This line of thinking, as I’ve already implied, is sorely lacking on a number of fronts. At its lowest, qualifying for the Champions League is entirely different from competing in it. For some teams, in fact, qualifying is the only issue that matters. Some teams, like Bayern, Barcelona, and Juventus, arrive with realistic expectations of making it all the way to the final, if not winning the whole thing. Others, like Dynamo Zagreb, Olympiakos, or Man City, are lucky to be there, even if they know they’ll go winless and leave with a -4 goal differential. For this latter group, the thrill and the prestige of qualifying is rewarding enough. To have a chance to go the Camp Nou or Old Trafford might just be a player’s lifelong dream – so what if his team gets absolutely blitzed? He got to shake hands with and maybe even nutmeg (or get nutmegged by, more likely) players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Andrea Pirlo? Thirty years from now, that’s a memory he can cherish and share with his children and grandchildren. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, it gives a team a rare chance of glory – actually beating one of the giants of the world, as Celtic did to Barcelona this past November. I cried after that game.
The financial rewards are so obvious that they barely need explaining. Chelsea, not that they need it, earned £51.7 million through their victory. A team doesn’t even have to win to bring home some coin. Just appearing in the group stage is enough to earn one £6.2 million. God forbid you draw or actually win a group-stage game – one group-stage win earns ‘only’ £690,000 for some of those smaller teams, £6.2 million is enough money to sign some higher-profile talent. We at Arsenal might turn up our noses at such meagre sums, but this can be enough to vault a team to its league championship.
For us, however, the matter is somewhat different. The financial benefits are nice, to be sure, but there are other issues at stake. There’s the relatively trivial matter of our streak – 15 years in a row qualifying for the Champions League is nothing to sniff at. All streaks must end, of course, and continuing a streak is not in and of itself reason enough to trying to maintain it. A related issue, and one that we must attend to, is how appearing in the competition confirms our standing in European football and related issues of player signings. If we fail to qualify for next year, we run the risk of becoming known as an also-ran of seeing our reputation tarnished, and it’s a long slog to come back from that. Look at Liverpool, who won the Champions League in 2005 and finished second in 2007. They’ve missed qualification ever since and almost went bankrupt. Once one of the ‘Big Four’ of British football, they now sit in 7th place, with even the Europa League just beyond them. Let’s see who stays and who signs for them over the summer. And it’s with that issue that we return to our own prospects.
If we have any expectation of signing players like David Villa or Victor Valdes, who have become accustomed to Champions League football, or signing players like Edinson Cavani or Stevan Jovetic, who aspire to play on that stage, we can make a much more compelling case to them if we qualify for the competition next year. Heck, we might even be able to get away with more of a low-ball offer. If we fall out of the Champions League however, the chance of signing players of this calibre don’t necessarily disappear, but it does become more remote. A second dilemma is that we might see players of our own who look to sign elsewhere – certainly a problem we’ve had quite enough of in recent years, thank you.
Is Champions League qualification a path to a trophy? Perhaps, if only indirectly.
Qualify = money = prestige = transfer signings = stronger squad = possible trophies.
Again, the difficulty of competing in the Champions League is not to be confused with the importance of qualifying. Despite all of our recent struggles, there are few teams that can claim to have done as well for as long as we have at this level and that’s saying something.
Did AC Milan destroy us last year? Yes, but then we very nearly returned the favour.
Did Bayern give us a bit of a thrashing in the first-leg this season? Hell yes. But we’re still standing, and that’s something that only 15 other teams in all of Europe can claim. Not too shabby.
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