Europeans must beware dangers of over - exposure

Jeff Powell

Last updated at 00:00 13 December 1997

THERE are snowdrifts piled high against the Kremlin Wall while out at the old Lenin Stadium we have Sparkout Madcow playing Buy-your Lederhosen.

There are a lot of matches like this in the Single Euro-League of the new millennium. Games watched by a few hundred die-hards in echoing concrete caverns.

Not only is it icy cold this night in mid-December but Madcow and Lederhosen are currently placed 13th and 14th respectively in the table.

It is warmer in Spain but Unreal Madrid have started the Euro-League poorly so there are only 8,756 spectators in the Bernabeu for the visit of bottom-club Glasgow Kilted.

You've got the drift and we're no longer talking about the snow here.

Neither UEFA nor the big clubs have thought this one through.

As Manchester United march on towards their European destiny this season the power-mongers of the Continental game are plotting further expansion.

Instead of six groups of four teams each - with the top two qualifying for the quarter finals along with the two best runners up - the Champions League is planning four groups comprised of six teams each.

There is more to this than the simple interchange of two small numbers. The idea is that the competing clubs will get to play 10 group games each instead of six.

More matches for television equals more money for all, or so the equation goes.

But does it?

Turin's Stadio delle Alpe was not full this Wednesday even though Juventus had to beat United for a place in the last eight.

Two weeks earlier Barcelona's even mightier Nou Camp was like a cemetery at midnight during the dead rubber against Newcastle.

There were half-empty stadia all over Europe as clubs of good name went through the motions with little or nothing realistic to play for. And with six-team groups there will be a lot more hollow matches like these. That is warning enough. And when there are seats to spare for Steaua Bucharest's live second leg visit to Villa Park, which has not exactly been awash with European football lately, it is time to take heed.

In their lemming-like stampede towards a European Super League the major clubs are forgetting that even the richest jam needs the bread and butter upon which it can be spread.

The staple diet of professional football is the domestic league and much as we all savour the thrill of Europe we would forget it to the peril of the old game.

In their hearts, the clubs know it.

Chelsea had everything to play for after skidding on the snows of northern Norway yet Stamford Bridge had more space than spectators for the visit of Stromso.

Come Derby County - not Arsenal or Manchester United, please note - the King's Road was at gridlock.

The glamour of Europe is an enriching but fragile commodity which needs careful tending, not overexposure.

The assumption that a Super League would make everyone a fortune is mere fantasy. In reality, clubs who found themselves in lower to mid-table in such a pan-European competition and thereby out of contention for the championship would be in serious danger of going bust.

Not least because not even Sky TV would continue to pay high premiums for hollow fixtures.

What the moguls of Europe cannot see through their immediate greed is that while Newcastle couldn't draw flies in Spain and Manchester failed to attract a full house in Italy, our two Uniteds could sell out Old Traf-ford or St James' Park three times over whenever they play each other in the English Premiership.

UEFA have already taken the most romantic and most marketable name in club football - the European Cup - and contorted it into this unwieldy Champions League, diluting its attraction by including non-champions.

It is up to the clubs to restrain them before they do further damage.

Football in England is a vibrant commodity now. That is because the Premiership is trading to maximum advantage on the tribal rivalries between the traditional hotbeds of our national game. That is why a match against Derby will still attract more paying customers to Highbury than all but a very few European visitors and Arsenal, who have been actively promoting the notion of a European League, would do well to pause and reflect on that.

The beauty of the European Cup we all knew and loved was that it offered the supreme reward for excellence at home.

A thriving national championship leading to elite international competition is the proper, natural balance for the people's game both at home and abroad.

The day European football becomes commonplace will be the day they kill all our dreams. Just ask Sparkout Madcow.

Opposites to attract for Vinnie the boss

THE eternal attraction of opposites has been thoroughly documented through such peculiar royal romances as Anthony and Cleopatra, Andy and Fergie, Stephanie of Monaco and her minder and, sadder to say, even Di and Dodi.

And what do we have in prospect now? Vinnie and management, none other.

The Hamlet of Wimbledon has announced himself ready to lay down the sword of pitch battle and pick up the velvet glove which is an indispensable piece of equipment for every football boss.

Good for you, Mr Jones.

As one who has had occasion to berate his excesses, I am happy to recognise that managers invariably produce teams in the totally opposite image of themselves as players.

George Graham, for example, was so much the epitome of unhurried elegance as a footballer with

Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Scotland that he was nicknamed Stroller. Yet he has organised first Arsenal and now Leeds into arch-professionals whose success is rooted in a high work ethic and an intimidating appetite for the physical challenge.

So while there is no need to re-itemise here Jones' rather restricted qualities as a player, I fully expect any team under his future direction to be full of talented ballplayers who are encouraged to put the emphasis on attack and creation rather than the tackle and intimidation.

Historically, the true destiny of every dark prince is to crusade for the beautiful game.