This decaf leaves a bitter taste

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 October, 1999, 12:00am

When the most captivating club competition in the world, the European Champions' League, is compared to coffee without the caffeine punch you realise it is time to overhaul the vending machine.

Johan Cruyff, whose boots talked so eloquently, summed up the feelings of many about this season's revamped competition when he described it as 'decaffeinated'.

What a damning depiction of a tournament which is proving weekly that quantity does not always mean quality.

The decaf is being served up by UEFA officials who, in the face of Super League overtures from powerful promoters, decided to expand the European Champions' League from 24 teams to 32, ditch the European Cup-Winners' Cup and impose a formula on the UEFA Cup that puts a new spin on the term 'lucky loser'.

UEFA then had a fire sale of the TV rights, resulting in a glut of televised games which even the most ardent football lover-cum-couch potato cannot consume.

In the space of three days last week there was an astonishing 64 European matches broadcast live - overkill or what? The very title Champions' League is so misleading that it breaches advertising standards. Okay, your Manchester Uniteds and Barcelonas deserve their places but it is stretching the imagination a bit to describe all four German teams - Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen - as 'champions'.

Cruyff has not been the only one to call for a radical rethink. David O'Leary, the Leeds boss, has belittled the structure of the UEFA Cup which features his side. European Champions' League no-hopers were pitched into the UEFA Cup and they will be joined by the teams who fail to progress to the final stages of the main event.

O'Leary criticised this pampering by UEFA of the continent's leading clubs and asked how many chances they were going to be given to win silverware.

FIFA, the world governing body which does not exactly have a reputation for insightful policy making, has even woken up to the scarring being inflicted on the beautiful game.

Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who has impressed since taking over from Joseph Blatter as FIFA secretary general, has indicated he will stick the boot into UEFA.

'There is a risk of saturation in top level football . . . and FIFA will have to take some drastic action,' he said. 'There must be football-free periods to renew viewers' appetites for the game.' For the serious sports fan, there is a chance over the next month to think oval instead of round ball. The Rugby World Cup provides a sort of hibernation period from the excesses of football and when everyone wakes up again the business end of the Champions' League will nearly be upon us. Before the first ball was kicked in the rugby, it was obvious that New Zealanders just could not lose.

If the All Blacks don't win then there are plenty other teams with Kiwi connections for the citizens of Auckland and Wellington to support.

Wales, Argentina, Ireland, Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga are all coached by dyed-in-the-wool rugby characters from New Zealand; former All Blacks Graeme Bachop and Jamie Joseph are in a Japan squad captained by their countryman Andrew McCormick; the Leslie brothers are ready to star for Scotland and the talented Shane Howarth is the last line of defence for hosts Wales.

Who said Kiwis could not fly?