Champions League group stage draw. It may not roll off the tongue, or command the same majesty or prestige as “FA Cup third round draw”, but you can bet your bottom zloty, krone and ruble that it’s a lot more enticing. I suppose there’s an exclusivity about it that takes away from the magic, certainly on a domestic stage. I can’t imagine Rotherham fans are that bothered to see who Galatasaray are pitted against, or that interested in finding out just how crap the other three teams in Man United’s group will inevitably be.
If you are involved though, it’s a joy to behold. It must be weird following the likes of Gillingham and Port Vale. Imagine knowing there’s a serious chance you won’t ever get to see your team play a competitive match outside of Britain in your lifetime. As a Liverpool supporter, it hurts when we’re not a part of it all, even if we’re so blessed to have had the success we’ve head on the European stage. It acts as an early-season reminder of how badly you should want to get back to Europe’s most elite level. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky enough to see our name drawn out of those iconic blue and white screw-on draw balls more often than not, down through the years.
If I could go back and speak to the five-year-old me moments after I fucked off any chance of the League of Ireland being my primary love and became an out-of-town LFC gloryhunter, then I’d love to let him know of the wonderful and beautiful repercussions of the selfish decision he had made. I’m sure he’d be disappointed to hear that we don’t win the league for ages, but he’d still be buzzing knowing that we eventually do it in 2019, without conceding a single goal all season.
It teases you the Champions League draw. It’s made 10 weeks after the domestic fixtures are released in June, and the annual qualification process that precedes it often appears endless, as San Marino and Malta’s best all scrap it out to see who’ll eventually be convincingly knocked out over two legs by Legia Warsaw. It stands as the marker of when things begin to get that bit more serious, as the novelty of the returning domestic season begins to wane, becoming part of the usual weekly routine again. The month-long delay in between matchday one of the Premier League and the kick-off to the continental competition whets the appetite for primetime European football, and the many mannerisms that go with it, such as the now-iconic anthem, or the pre-match fluttering of the giant centre circle flag.
But as a supporter of one of the thirty-two teams involved in it all, it’s the sense of your destiny being in someone else’s hands that makes it such a highly-anticipated event. As UEFA gradually wheel out every single player who won the competition in between 1996 and 2008 to spin and pick out the names of Europe’s best, you’re essentially watching a lottery to see where you and your team will be travelling to on a starry evening in October. As your name is drawn out of the hat, you can wish and pray for a trip to Porto or Athens, but ultimately you’re powerless as Luis Figo or Oliver Kahn may well just hand you Anzhi Makhachkala away in December.
It allows more licence to dream than any other draw or announcement of fixtures, bar the Europa League obviously. With the World Cup, you know where you’re going. It’s ultimately about whom you’ll be playing and that’s about it. The mid-June release of league fixtures allow for some excitement in regards to Boxing Day clashes, or when derbies are scheduled, but to use the old cliché, everyone has to play everyone twice. Cup draws may be special, but there’s no guarantee of an away day. The Europa League though, now that is something. There are three teams in Friday’s group stage draw that I’ve never even heard of. Expect that number to have tripled by the time all the dross get through Thursday’s playoff qualifiers.
European draws. It’s the football equivalent of spinning the globe with your eyes closed and jetting off to wherever your finger lands, and it’s probably the closest any of us will ever get to that. Well, most of us.
— AFC Bournemouth ? (@afcbournemouth) August 25, 2018
As the years have gone by, it feels like there have been less and less Eastern European sides in the pot. At the time of writing, there are only four sides east of Austria heading for the group stage proper, although the likes of Dinamo Zagreb and AEK Athens may well join them following this week’s playoff round. But we could do without UEFA and FIFA constantly giving them these major tournaments to host. All these new and redeveloped multi-use stadiums are really taking away from the ‘going behind the iron curtain’ stereotype which makes ‘Shaktar Donetsk (A)’ seem so much harder than it actually is. All part of modern football I guess.
Thursday is also a reminder about why it’s not always as easy as simply supporting the team closest to you geographically. While clubs’ values and morals, following in the footsteps of a parent or grandparent, or the sense of community with other supporters should always be the main reasons for supporting a side other than the team down the road from you, self-denial of European football and it’s away days to the continent’s most far-flung locations can also justifiably prove unwanted, when life itself is so short.
I follow the League of Ireland, albeit loosely, and I make it down to Eamonn Deacy Park to see Galway United play from time to time. But committing everything I have to them would be tough, mainly due to no prospect of a trip to Galatasaray in the near future. Call it glory hunting if you want, I’m not that arsed. Not least because I don’t even like football that much.
Dream draw for the Reds: Real Madrid, Monaco and Red Star Belgrade.
All the best.