On a global scale, the Champions League final is bigger than the Super Bowl, with an estimated worldwide audience of 350 million, compared to the 150 million who watch the most important game in the American Football season.
Yet this hasn’t stopped UEFA, the organisers of the Champions League, from looking across the pond for inspiration. Little by little, we’ve witnessed a Super Bowl-isation of the biggest match in club football.
It all started back in 2007 with the UEFA Executive Committee’s decision to move the final from a Wednesday to a Saturday, beginning with the 2010 clash between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich in Madrid.
Before then, the Champions League final was little more than a two- or three-hour event squeezed between dinner time and bedtime on a school night, but now it’s held on a day when more kids can stay up all the way to extra time and beyond, when more adults are comfortable enjoying it at the pub or at a party and when more fans can actually travel to the host city. “I think this is much better because people are coming on the Friday or even the day of the game and they can go back home on Sunday,” Michael Laudrup said at the time. “Before it was a case of maybe taking three days off work or school, whereas now people have the whole week to prepare their trip.”
With the fixture now being held at the weekend, the build-up is extended too and this has led to ‘Media Day’, another trick drafted in from the NFL’s playbook. Along with the growth of social media and YouTube, these media events and open-to-journalists training sessions can be beamed to fans around the world and the final fever snowballs into a frenzy from the Tuesday of Champions League final week onwards.
For those fans actually visiting the host city, fanzones are set up towards the end of the week, featuring football-themed games, freestylers shows, interviews with former players and high-profile DJs such as Hardwell, Steve Aoki and even Gaizka Mendieta – who is actually quite good.
The music carries onto matchday itself and fans inside the stadium are treated to – or maybe, some would say, subjected to – a Super Bowl-esque opening ceremony, with the likes of Alicia Keys and The Black Eyed Peas having performed in the past two finals and with Sean Paul and Dua Lipa due to perform ahead of this year’s match between Real Madrid and Liverpool in Kiev.
This is perhaps the biggest instance yet of borrowing from the Super Bowl, even if the shouty music, the razzmatazz and the questionable outfits come before the game and not at half-time. It’s only a matter of time, though, before UEFA follow the NFL’s lead and extend half-time of the Champions League final in order to give a greater platform to the bands and singers. A normal NFL game has a half-time break which is even shorter than the 15 minutes of a football game, but the Super Bowl interval is around half an hour long.
Of course, this affects the players and most of them aren’t fans of it. “It’s not like taking a break and coming out in the second half,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick once said of the half-time show. “It’s like starting the game all over again. It’s like playing a game, stopping, and then playing a second game.” It doesn’t sound like something superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Mohamed Salah would be in favour of, but any complaints from players will inevitably fall on deaf UEFA ears. Prepare for it, because the Champions League final half-time show is coming.
What else can we expect from the future of the Champions League final as it continues to morph into the Super Bowl? Well, another potential change could be for the match to be played in the United States, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
For fans of clubs based in the likes of Spain, Italy or Germany, a final on the east coast of the USA would actually be no less inconvenient than last year’s choice of Cardiff, this year’s selection of Kiev or Baku, which was a candidate for the 2019 final, before the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid was ultimately chosen. “To go from Portugal to Azerbaijan, for example, is almost the same as if you go to New York,” current UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin has said in the past. Distance is one thing, but a lack of flights and hotels is arguably a greater headache for travelling fans and the recent experiences in Wales and Ukraine could push the Champions League final out of Europe for the first time ever.
At the end of it all, though, the Champions League final will always be made up of two halves of 45 minutes and played with 22 players, two goals and one football. The build-up, the half-time break and the post-match celebrations might be jazzed up into something that is a far cry from the cold terraces selling pies and Bovril where most players started their careers, but the football will always be football.
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Also published on Medium.