The so-called regulations still remain a blight on the competition
It was Manchester United’s last-gasp European Champions League victory over Bayern Munich in 1999 that moved Sir Alex Ferguson to say: “Football, bloody hell!”
A decade later, as cricket hosted its first Champions League final, not even the most deluded cheerleaders — and there were plenty in the commentary box — could resort to such hyperbole.
New South Wales, Australia’s most successful state side with 45 Sheffield Shield wins, beat Trinidad and Tobago, usually among the also-rans in the Caribbean first-class competition, in a mundane final played out in front of a half-empty stadium in Hyderabad.
This week, the Twenty20 competition shared TV time with the start of the European Champions League. But whereas thousands of alarms were likely to set in order to watch Barcelona play Ajax on Wednesday night, it was hard to imagine anyone rushing home early to catch a glimpse of Kandurata Maroons against Otago Volts. In a country allegedly in thrall to the willow-and-leather game, that’s a sobering thought for the organisers.
It probably doesn’t help that few of the world’s greatest cricketers regard Twenty20 as the game’s pinnacle. It provides them their biggest paycheques but when the autobiographies are written, a Champions League campaign is unlikely to merit the same sort of treatment as a World Cup final or an Ashes series.
It’s not that way for footballers. Some of the greatest never have and never will come close to winning a World Cup. For them, winning the European Cup, as the Champions League was originally called, is as good as it gets.
Alfredo Di Stefano’s international career, with Argentina, Colombia and Spain, was largely devoid of highlights, but any time there’s a discussion on the greatest players in the game’s history, he features.
He was after all, the heartbeat of a magnificent Real Madrid side that won the first five European Cups. The last of those, a 7-3 evisceration of Eintracht Frankfurt in front of 127,621 at Hampden Park in Glasgow, is considered by many as the finest exhibition of football in the competition’s annals.
“Scots in the ground could not conceal an awestruck appreciation of the glories that had been paraded before them,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney for The Scotsman. “It is one thing to see the wonders of Puskas, Di Stefano, Gento, Vidal and the rest on a television screen. It is another to see them in the flesh, to hear their urgent shouts as they wreak precise devastation on an opposing defence. Last night they flaunted all that has made them incomparable.”
Cricket’s Champions League badly needs a masterpiece like that and it would help if it came from an Indian Premier League side. Back in 2009, as no IPL teams made the last four, there was a fair deal of gloating and talk of money not being able to buy success. That, as anyone who follows professional sport could tell you, is nonsense. The most successful teams and franchises, whether it be Real, Manchester United or the New York Yankees, also tend to be the ones with the deepest pockets.
In the early days of the European Cup, the Spanish teams were not different from IPL sides, accumulating talent from across the world. Di Stefano, one of the original “mercenaries”, had originally left Argentina for Millonarios in Bogota and was then the subject of a lengthy tug of war between Real and Barcelona.
By the time Real overcame its bitter rival in the 1959-60 semifinal, he had been joined by Puskas, a refugee who was once the crown jewel in a brilliant Honved [Budapest] side. The Barcelona team featured his one-time Hungarian teammate, Sandor Kocsis.
It’s not the money that’s cricket’s problem, it’s the lack of context and the sheer ridiculousness of the rules. How farcical is it that a player be eligible to play for as many as three teams in the competition?
These so-called regulations were made on the fly when the competition was created half a decade ago. They still remain a blight on the competition, and until that changes, cricket’s Champions League will be a pale imitation of the now venerable football competition.
(Dileep Premachandran is the Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India)