x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Champions League format is turning away the fans

The fact the IPL franchises invariably get precedence means an unequal playing field in the Champions League. The poor crowds also have a lot to do with the absence of local flavour.

A new idea can take time to catch on. When football's European Cup was first played in the mid-1950s, the champions of England and Scotland did not take part, they were not convinced about the merit of the competition.

By the time Sir Matt Busby's Manchester United side, many of whom would die in the snow at Munich Airport in February 1958, began to play catch up, Real Madrid were on their way to establishing a dynasty.

The tournament itself is now second only in prestige to the World Cup.

When cricket came up with a similar concept for domestic Twenty20 teams, the Champions League seemed a wonderful idea.

But having an idea is one thing, executing it properly quite another.

With only the cricket boards of India, Australia and South Africa having the keys to the safe, the competition itself is hopelessly skewed in favour of teams from their countries.

And even within that privileged circle, the Indian Premier League (IPL) sides stand apart.

Three IPL teams and two each from Australia and South Africa are guaranteed entry into the final stages.

The qualification stage held this year was essentially to try to ensure that a fourth IPL side, the Kolkata Knight Riders, would also be in the main event.

No Pakistani team has ever taken part, not even the Sialkot Stallions, who won an unprecedented 25 consecutive games between 2005 and 2010.

Bilateral tension may have prevented them from playing in India, but there was no such excuse last year when the Champions League was held in South Africa.

No invite has ever gone out to the champion teams from Bangladesh or Zimbabwe either, despite there being a qualifying round this year.

The European Cup, in its modern guise of football's Champions League, tends to be similarly skewed in favour of the powerful football nations, but at least the minnows such as Belarus's BATE Borisov are given the chance to qualify.

The more the number of IPL teams in the fray, the lesser the chance of quality players turning out for their domestic teams.

Those sides are compensated monetarily but the fact the IPL franchises invariably get precedence means an unequal playing field. In theory, a player could choose his home side.

In practice, he knows that it jeopardises his next lucrative IPL contract.

The poor crowds for the matches this year also have a lot to do with the absence of local flavour. Anil Kumble no longer leads the Royal Challengers Bangalore. There is no Rahul Dravid, either. Nor are there too many of the players that played in those colours for the first three years of the IPL.

The lukewarm response indicates that fans too need breathing space. After the high of India winning the World Cup, it was straight into the IPL.

Back-to-back tours of West Indies and England followed, the second such a spectacular blowout that it sent some supporters into early-winter hibernation.

Without a truly international flavour, the tournament just feels like the IPL.

The matches have not been of great quality either, with several games won by the less inept of the two sides. The television ratings have been about a third of what the average IPL game gets, and even a spate of complimentary tickets has not been enough to fill the stadiums.

You sense it will stay that way too, until the teams from other countries can play without one hand tied behind their backs.

A format geared only towards the Indian television viewer has not worked.

Even the most one-eyed fan wants to savour a real rivalry, not a manufactured one where Twenty20 mercenaries are free to choose from any of three or four teams.