First it was the European Cup, then the Champions League, and lately the fear of a breakaway Super League. UEFA has played it cool – until now..
Use all the clichés you like but it would not be an unreasonable interpretation to suspect we’re not just on the precipice of the next evolution in European club football, but a proper reincarnation.
For so long on the continental stage it was only the league-winners that would participate in the European Cup.
It then became a sticking point; you see if Barcelona wins La Liga why deprive the glorious Real Madrid from earning a place in such a prestigious competition.
So in a classic soft tacos, hard tacos approach the much-celebrated European Cup morphed into the Champions League.
It no longer rewarded the champions of Europe but also third and fourth-placed teams, from only a select number of countries loosely based on science and maths, but more so with an eye to a contrived outcome.
All that said it’s worked, seemingly, rather well for a number of years now. Until recently.
Continuing with Spain as an example, the top four in the La Liga each year ‘qualify’ directly into the Champions League, so providing neither Barca nor Real fall in a heap one season and come fifth they’re fine. But fine doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.
The ‘super rich mates’ want to guarantee their places without the bourgeoisie need to rely on domestic qualification. This would seem unfair however, and totally unreasonable – rules for some and rules for others?
Threats of a proper breakaway have long been mooted, “that would be cataclysmic,” the super-rich say, “so meet us halfway UEFA, why don’t you?”
Well it now seems UEFA have.
Overnight the English FA released a report that contains strategic European changes proposed to come into effect in four years’ time. Amongst the proposal, which also includes a new third-rung European competition named the European Conference League, the qualification for the top-level Champions League looks set for a big shakeup.
In short, the current qualification that grants a number of spots for each league based on the prior season’s performance would be scrapped from the 2024/25 season. The 32 spots in the Champions League that year would be selected from the highest ‘ranked’ clubs based on their prior four seasons’ performance.
Following that the only way to get amongst the clubs already involved is to win your domestic league, or to make the semi-finals of the Europa League. It does not however talk through the detail as to how one might fall out of the group, the bottom three get relegated to the Europa League perhaps, not so sure.
Either way, once Real Madrid and Barcelona qualify under the conditions of the first ‘new’ format in 2024/25, they’re likely in for good, place ‘literally’ guaranteed, subsequent qualification redundant.
And why? Well here’s how we might be at ‘tipping point’, and I quote from the FA’s report:
“The aim of this proposal is to drive increased revenue, protect elite European club revenue streams, and meet the demands of a growing, international audience.”
There it is. Protect the elite clubs.
And remember, that has come from the FA, not the minutes of a boozy lunch meeting between the executive of Juventus, Man Utd and PSG.
So right, they talk about a breakaway, we’ve had leaks one has been discussed in the background before; we clearly see the power struggle playing with UEFA looking to retain whatever control they have left against the bigger clubs.
But this proposal, if it goes ahead, is well and truly ‘tipping point’.
So, if it is time, then let’s do this properly.
Let’s look at some core numbers with the bigger clubs and then what we’d do with them.
There are approximately 950 professional football clubs in Europe. 16 of those, or just 1.7%, are responsible for:
- 100% of Champions League finalists since 2005
- Every Champions League winner since 1995 bar one (FC Porto)
- 84% of Champions League semi-finalists since 2000
- 90% of Champions League semi-finalists since 2010
- The last three winners of the Europa League, five of the last eight finalists
- 90% of all league winners in England, Spain, Italy and Germany since 2000
- Every league winner in those leagues since 2010 bar one (Leicester)
- Six of the last seven league winners in France
- By themselves generate over 33% of the total revenues in European football
- Consistently in the top 20 ranked European clubs for revenue generated each year
- Make up 55% of the combined value of European football clubs
- Consistently amongst the top 20 valued clubs in European football
- 16 of the 20 clubs who have over 2 million followers on Twitter
- 16 of the 18 clubs who have over 9 million likes on Facebook
- The top four, seven of the top eight and 12 of the top 18 for average attendance in Europe
The 1.7% are Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man Utd, Tottenham, Inter, Juventus, Milan, Roma, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and PSG.
They are pesky, they are far too successful and responsible for their own good, win all the silverware that matters, and earn all the revenue that comes along with it.
When UEFA talks about wanting to “protect elite European club revenue streams”, these are said ‘elite’.
Take Juventus Chairman Andrea Agnelli, who also is Chairman of the European Club Association and part of the infamous Angelli family, who are worth over $10 billion USD and responsible for such things as the FIAT motor group.
He has long believed the big clubs should be looked after, citing compatriots Roma as one example recently, who miss out on Champions League football because they finish below Atalanta.
“I have great respect for everything that Atalanta are doing, but without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition. Is that right or not?”
“Then I think of Roma, who contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s ranking. They had one bad season and are out..”
“..The point is how we balance the contribution to European football and the performance of a single year.”
So what do we do? We don’t leave it as is, no no. But the idea proposed by UEFA, captured by the FA report overnight? Even worse.
These sixteen can bugger off. They should continue to participate in their domestic leagues and cups, withdrawing from those would just cause proper anarchy. Their local dominance is an issue, but we must crawl before we can walk.
But exclude them from Champions League qualification. For the big five European leagues, re-work which spots qualify. For example, in Spain, maybe it’s the top two who aren’t from the ‘big 16’, then the next two below make the Europa League? So you might get Sevilla and Valencia in the Champs League, then Real Betis and Getafe in Europa. And so on and so forth.
So we’d see the likes of Ajax and Benfica and Marseille and Sevilla and Napoli and Galatasaray battle it out in the UCL, the big clubs meanwhile will be off in their own continental competition.
Right now the Champions League winner plays six group games before Christmas, then six knockout games and a seventh game in the final after Christmas. If you’re knocked out in the Round of 16, you’re only playing eight European games all season.
Let’s guarantee the big clubs 15 European games each per year. And all against fellow big clubs, no group stage minnows from Cyprus. They play each other once in a league-format, seven home, seven away, with one neutral round played overseas potentially.
These games would be in the weeks of the other European football, but played on the weekends, moving any domestic league or cup matches that clash midweek or rescheduled to other parts of the season.
The weekend after Champions League final, the big clubs play their 15th and final round, all at the same time, in the crescendo to the European football season.
This would remove in a normal, non-pandemic year, the same old names playing Champions League knockout football, those same clubs who have already sewn up their domestic leagues by now. But we also avoid the proposal of evolving the current comp into a closed shop and ruining it for everyone.
So let them breakaway, but just from European competitions.
Barcelona still plays in La Liga, they still play Espanyol twice a year, that doesn’t change. Their continental glory becomes about being the best of the best, not worrying about six who-cares group games before Christmas, and non-guaranteed knockout afterwards.
There’d be greater integrity and competition would return to the Champions League, and as for the elite clubs UEFA now concedes warrant protecting they can bugger off and protect themselves.