Champions Gambit: deciphering the chess format that lands in European football

Between the European Super League that Florentino Pérez was betting on and the current Champions League, UEFA has pulled a new competition format out of the sleeve of former goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar, its main ideologue.

Champions Gambit: deciphering the chess format that lands in European football

Between the European Super League that Florentino Pérez was betting on and the current Champions League, UEFA has pulled a new competition format out of the sleeve of former goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar, its main ideologue. It will start to be applied in the 2024/25 season and it will be a revolution, if confirmed, inspired by the Swiss system, which has been used for decades in chess. From the outset, the new model will allow 36 teams to participate compared to the current 32. It would even be ideal, at least from a mathematical point of view, for the number to be even higher. UEFA is in time to back down or double the bet.

The good news is that, properly applied, the Swiss system is fair and can put an end to some suspicions, such as those generated by the possible existence of so-called 'hot balls', as there are no draws.

The bad news is that, as the experts warn, if all the details are not well established beforehand, the door to shenanigans will be even greater. Two international chess arbiters and three grandmasters explain the pros and cons of the new model.

It is not the first time, by the way, that football has imitated chess. Since June 2018, FIFA has used a variation of the Elo system to compile its world ranking by country, so far without major setbacks. Spain, by the way, currently occupies the seventh position, both in the male and female lists.

To begin with, it is worth clarifying what the Swiss system consists of, approved last April by the UEFA Executive Committee with the idea of ​​having more games, the main source of income. It is so called because it was first used in the 1895 Zurich chess tournament. It has lasted so long because it allows you to organize competitions with dozens of players or teams (even hundreds) and achieve a fair winner in just a few rounds. Usually 8 or 9 is celebrated, but often even 6 is enough.

In the future Champions League, 36 qualifiers will participate, all framed in a single group. Obviously, it is impossible to celebrate a league between them, because it would take 35 days (or 70 if it is played in a double round). The Swiss system allows for the miracle of achieving a sensible final ranking after eight games, against eight different opponents. There are two more games than the six in the current group stage, with the peculiarity that it is always played against different enemies; there are no back-and-forth duels.

The questions pile up, except for chess players, who are more used to the format. Who plays against whom, where and why? This, which seems the most complicated, is solved by the Swiss system without blinking an eye.

The first round is the easiest: the best ranked teams face those in the second half of the table. For UEFA, right now Bayern is first and Madrid fourth, despite their recent victory in the Champions League.

In the second round and in the successive ones, the teams with the same points face each other. It will be necessary to determine, yes, if the victory is worth three points, two or one, as is usual in chess, where the tables count as half a point. In any case, the idea is the same: in each round the teams that have the same points in the classification are paired. After three rounds, for example, there will be a maximum of 5 teams with three wins. Others will have zero points. In between, all possible combinations fit: two wins and one draw, two wins and one loss, one win and two draws, and so on.

One of the advantages of the system is that there will be interesting matches from the first bars. As the competition progresses, moreover, it will be more and more common to see attractive duels between the best. In the fourth round or even before, a Real Madrid-Liverpool would be possible, for example, which could then be repeated in the final.

The weaker teams, unless they surprise, will fall behind and will also play among themselves. For this reason, the fact that many more teams participate is not a 'hindrance'. The competition puts everyone in their place, like in a marathon.

At the end of the 8 scheduled rounds, the eight teams with the most points will advance to the knockout stage. Those who remain between 9th and 24th place will play a two-leg tie. From there will come the other 8 teams that will play the round of 16, already with the same dynamic as always.

Is it played at home or away? It is the equivalent of playing white or black in chess. The secret is to alternate as much as possible. In any case, in the end each team must have played four games at their stadium and the remaining four as visitors.

Beyond the complexity of the format, which will cause some suspicions at first, the most important thing is to determine if the system is fair. The great master Paco Vallejo, number 1 in Spain, has a pragmatic vision: «Infinite absolute justice does not exist, but it is a matter of making an entertaining format, rather». “The Swiss system seems very correct to me,” adds his colleague David Antón, who emphasizes the need for the initial ranking to be well done.

Another top-tier grandmaster, Julen Arizmendi, believes that the Swiss system "fulfills its role very worthily." “In the case of the Champions League, where what is sought is to decide 16 places, it can combine sporting justice quite well with that factor of the unforeseen that viewers like,” he adds.

Arbitration professionals, who deal with subtleties and exceptions on a daily basis, sound the alert against some problems that may appear. Luis Blasco, with experience in several Chess Olympiads, is clear that the first thing UEFA should do is "explain the details well". To begin with, the pairings of the Swiss system can be done with a computer program or by hand (here the imagination runs wild). “If they use programs, they are not all the same and there are different criteria,” he adds.

«It is not the same to start matching from above or from below. There are certain risks. Perhaps they should create a specific program for football. I don't think they do it by hand, because there could be a lot of shenanigans. When we go to umpiring seminars, very rarely do two umpires agree on the entire pairing. There may be suspicious things.

Another problem is the number of rounds. To the experts, 8 games for only 36 teams seem too many. "There is a clear risk that the last two days will face rivals that are very far away in the classification," explains the international referee Ismael Nieto. "This can be a problem because there can be cases where one team plays very little and another a lot."

Blasco gives a specific example: «The other day at my club there were 24 of us and we played nine rounds. The first one, who had 7 points, ended up playing with another one with 4. For the first one it's very easy and you kill the other one, because with a rival of his level he would have more possibilities of entering the classification». This happens because, with so many rounds, the teams with the most victories have already all played each other, and in the last game you have to look for rivals from other groups. Something similar happens when there are odd teams in a scoring group. One will have to face another with a different score.

All of these are the so-called 'floaters', players or teams that Julen Arizmendi also sees as a risk: "They always cause imbalances and it is difficult to prevent them from ending up playing against inferior teams, from the middle of the table, who also do not play anything anymore" .

Another problem in which several coincide is that agreed results are produced in the last round. To reduce the temptation, Nieto suggests several solutions. “You have to study the option of doing something different with the draw: in chess, draws are a natural result that is difficult to solve, but in football they could be avoided with extra time and even penalties, or using the 3-1-0 score. In short, it is about making it difficult for the tie to be an optimal result for the two teams in contention. Paco Vallejo is not entirely in agreement with the three points for victory: «It is not entirely fair. It is done to encourage aggressive play, but there can be a wonderful game that ends 3-3 and they only take one point each.

David Antón also sees it too likely that in the last round a tie will be enough for many to enter the top 16, although if only the top 8 are classified directly, this risk is minimized. His conclusion is similar: "With more teams it would work better if they want to do 8 rounds." "There is no perfect system and I think it's fine in general," he concludes.

Another key aspect is the way tiebreakers are decided between teams that finish with the same points. The old 'golaverage' would not be so fair, since each team faces different rivals. It would be the simplest, but it would allow someone to qualify just because they had the easiest opponent in the first round, in which a win can end up being decisive.

“With so few participants, I would say that the Buchholz is much fairer than goals, which I see as more suitable as a second tiebreaker,” Arizmendi points out. Indeed, relatively complex mathematical systems are often used in chess, such as the aforementioned Buchholz, Sonneborn-Berger and other derivatives. They are based on counting the strength of the rivals that each player faces. It is not the same to get 5 points out of 8 against the best teams than against theoretically weaker teams.

The progressive system is simpler, which consists of adding the points that each team has in round 1, plus those that have in round 2, and so on. This rewards the teams that start the competition like a shot, without speculating on coming back in the last rounds. In this sense, there is even the well-known tactic of the submarine, consisting of reaching the last round a little behind the head, with the idea of ​​facing a not so strong opponent in the decisive match. It doesn't always work out, of course, but here Villarreal could have an advantage, if the joke is allowed.

The advantage of Buchholz is that, given its complexity, "possible draws agreed in the last round would be more risky," adds Arizmendi. The disadvantage of it is that it would cost more to explain the system to the fans.

The Swiss system, on the other hand, has so many years of experience that it shouldn't bring too many surprises either. The US Open has been played like this since the 1940s and the Spanish championships have been under its rules for years. In our country, in addition, they are mixed tournaments, which allow for an absolute final classification and another for women. Men and women play in the same group. This allows, for example, that María Eizaguerri is the current absolute and female champion of Spain under 18, but it also creates other types of controversy. So versatile and complex is the idea.

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