Some of the pessimists among us look ahead to our second leg of the Champions League and anticipate a deeper drubbing at the hands of Bayern, and they also make the mistake of conflating our struggles in the UCL with a reason for why we should not even bother with qualifying for next year. After all, their reasoning seems to go, why qualify for a competition that we will only get dumped from in its second round and have no hope of winning?
This line of thinking, as I’ve already implied, is sorely lacking on a number of fronts. At its lowest, qualifying for UCL is entirely different from competing in it. For some teams, in fact, qualifying is the only issue that matters. Some teams, like Bayern, Barcelona, and Juventus, arrive with realistic expectations of making it all the way to the final, if not winning the whole thing. Others, like Dynamo Zagreb, Olympiakos, or Man City, are lucky to be there, even if they know they’ll go winless and leave with a -4 goal-differential. For this latter group, the thrill and the prestige of qualifying is reward enough.To have a chance to go the Camp Nou or Old Trafford might just just be a player’s lifelong dream–so what if his team gets absolutely blitzed? He got to shake hands with and maybe even nutmeg (or get nutmegged by, more likely) players like Ronaldo or Messi or Pirlo? Thirty years from now, that’s a memory he can cherish and share with children and grandchildren. At the risk of sounding too sentimental, it gives a team a rare chance of glory–actually beating one of the giants of the world, as Celtic did to Barcelona this past November. I cried tears of joy after that game.
The financial rewards are so obvious that they barely need explaining. Chelsea, not that they need it, earned €59.935 million through their victory. A team doesn’t even have to win to bring home some coin. Just appearing in the group stage is enough to earn €7.2 million. God forbid you draw or actually win a group-stage game–one group-stage win earns “only” €800,000 For some of those smaller teams, €7.2 million is enough money to sign some higher-profile talent. We at Arsenal might turn up our noses at such meager sums, but this can be enough to vault a team to its league championship.
For us, however, the matter is somewhat different. The financial benefits are nice, to be sure, but there are other issues at stake. There’s the relatively trivial matter of our streak–15 years in a row of UCL qualification is nothing to sniff at. All streaks must end, of course, and continuing a streak is not in and of itself reason enough to trying to maintain it. A related issue, and one that we must attend to, is how appearing in the UCL confirms our standing in European football and related issues of player signings. If we fail to qualify for next year, we run the risk of becoming known as an also-ran, of seeing our reputation tarnished, and it’s a long slog to come back from that. Look at Liverpool, who won the UCL in 2005 and finished 2nd in 2007. They’ve missed UCL qualification ever since and almost went bankrupt. Once one of the Big Four of British football, they now sit in 7th place, with even the Europa League just beyond them. Let’s see who stays and who signs for them over the summer.
And it’s with that issue that we return to our own prospects. If we have any expectation of signing players like David Villa or Victor Valdes, who have become accustomed to UCL play, or of signing players like Edinson Cavani or Stevan Jovetić, who aspire to play on that stage, we can make a much more compelling case to them if we qualify this year. Heck, we might even be able to get away with more of a low-ball offer. If we fall out of the UCL, the chance of signing players of this caliber don’t necessarily disappear, but it does become more remote. A second dilemma is that we might see players of our own who look to sign elsewhere–certainly a problem we’ve had quite enough of in recent years, thank you. Is UCL qualification a path to a trophy? Perhaps, if only indirectly. Qualify=money=prestige=transfer signings=stronger squad.
Again, the difficulty of competing in the UCL is not to be confused with the importance of qualifying. Despite all of our recent struggles, there are few teams that can claim to have done as well for as long as we have at this level–and that’s saying something. Did AC Milan destroy us last year? Yes, but then we very nearly returned the favor. Did Bayern give us a bit of a thrashing in the first leg? Sure. But we’re still standing, and that’s something that only 15 other teams in all of Europe can claim. Not too shabby.