North American football fans love the Champions League. As long as it comes with a European accent. The one played in their own back yard, not so much.
Walk by pubs on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons during the European football season and you’ll find fans eagerly taking in the lunchtime Champions League action the length and breadth of Canada and America. Lapping up the action from Spain, Germany, France, England, and watching some of the world’s best, and best known, players.
Champions League football may be played on most continents around the world, but for the majority of fans in North America, the CONCACAF variation seems to be viewed more like an unwanted distraction than something to set the pulses racing.
“They do, and that’s the reality of it,” Vancouver Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson readily admits as he prepares his team for quarter-final Champions League action against New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night. “The only way it’s going to improve is if a Major League Soccer team tries to win it. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet because we’ve been behind the Mexican teams and rightly so.
“That’s why all the rules in Major League Soccer are changing, to try and get us up to speed so that we’re able to compete on a regular basis with the Mexican teams because we haven’t been as successful as we would like to have been. But we are improving, we are getting better, and it will be a big test for whichever team qualifies out of this tie against a Mexican rival.”
Supporter apathy with the tournament isn’t going to be changing here any time soon. And by here, I don’t just mean in Vancouver or Canada.
Of course it’s hard to get the fans interested in a competition when a lot of the MLS teams involved put out weaker line-ups in the group games. If they can’t take the tournament seriously, why should the fans? Where’s the incentive for supporters to shell out money to watch B teams bore the pants off you?
Not only does the quality of football on offer suffer, so does the reputation and the integrity of the tournament.
Factor in that you can only watch the games online via CONCACAF’s Facebook page at this point and how are hardcore fans, never mind the casual ones, meant to get excited and educated about the competition? The whole Champions League feels like an afterthought that no-one at all seems to care about.
Except that’s not true. The players care and value the importance of it. And so do I.
New Whitecap Fredy Montero is no stranger to Champions League action on both sides of the Atlantic, having played in the CONCACAF version with Seattle Sounders and the UEFA one with Sporting Lisbon.
He won’t make the trip to New York on Wednesday as he tries to get up to match fitness, but is expected to be involved in next week’s second leg in Vancouver, and there’s no doubt how he sees the tournament.
“For me, it’s the second important competition,” Montero told us. “When you’re playing international games, even when the team is from your league that you’re playing, it’s super important. Even for the younger players on the team. It gives you more experience.
“You see on other continents, international competition is super important, but here, the teams need to change their mentality because CONCACAF Champions League, it’s big.”
It’s certainly up to the clubs to lead that charge. They need to take it seriously. They need to prioritise it. And they need to play stronger teams in it from the off. Changing the timing and format of the competition in the footballing calendar will hopefully be a significant start, but only if the clubs themselves show that they feel it is an important tournament will the fans and media start to follow.
The players want to win. They want to advance. They want to move that one step closer to what may seem like something of a pipe dream, the FIFA Club World Cup. That dream is only three aggregate victories away for Vancouver right now. That may sound far-fetched, but it is the reality.
“It’s huge,” is Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted’s view on the Champions League and what lies in store at the end of it all. “At this stage of the tournament, there’s only very, very good teams left. You want to get into that final and play one of those very good teams and hopefully go to the World Club Cup. It’s huge, not only for the club but for us as players. We’re going to go out and try and win it.”
One Whitecap that’s already been there and done just that is veteran Costa Rican midfielder Christian Bolanos, who headed to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in 2005 with his CONCACAF Champions League winning Saprissa side. It’s an occasion that will long live in his memories and he’d love to experience it all over again with Vancouver.
“It would be amazing if we made it to the next round,” Bolanos told AFTN. “I’ve been there before with my team in Costa Rica. We played the World Cup in Japan and it was one of the best moments of my life. I wish for the Whitecaps we can go through. It’s not easy but we have good possibilities against Red Bull.”
Robinson agrees, and despite missing the influential Bolanos (knee), Yordy Reyna (foot), and Nicolas Mezquida (hip) through injury, the ‘Caps coach is confident his young side can go and get the job done over the two legs.
“It’s a big game,” Robinson said. “It’s the first time in history that our club has been this far in this tournament and we want to try and take advantage of it.”