New Champions League rules are a political truce with Europe’s rich clubs
FOOTBALL purists have long argued that the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s top international club competition, does not live up to its name. Until 1992, only the reigning champions from the continent’s domestic leagues had the right to be crowned Europe’s best. Today, barely half of entrants can make that claim: 15 of the 32 teams in this year’s group stage failed to win their domestic leagues in 2015-16. This trend will only be exacerbated by the changes announced on August 26th by UEFA, the sport’s European governing body, which will make qualification easier in the future for also-ran clubs in rich leagues. Starting in 2018-19, half of the 32 group-stage places will be reserved for the top four teams in the four best-performing leagues in European competitions (Spain, Germany, England and Italy). Four more automatic places will go to France and Portugal, and two to Russia and Ukraine. And as for the champions from the likes of the Netherlands, Switzerland and Turkey? They will just have to slog it out in the play-offs.
Modifications to the entry criteria are not the only changes afoot. UEFA will also begin to award clubs bonus points for their “historical success” in Europe when determining seeding in the group stage. That is bad news for decent teams like Arsenal and Atlético Madrid, but better for fallen giants like Ajax and AC Milan. (This rule will count for less following a previous set of changes introduced last year, which reserve “Pot 1” seeding spots for league champions.) More ominous still is the establishment of a new subsidiary company, UEFA Club Competitions SA, which will “play a strategic role in determining the future and the management of club competitions”. Half of the group’s managing directors will be appointed by the European Club Association (ECA), a group skewed towards promoting the interests of Europe’s biggest clubs.
The announcement brings to an end months of rumours about how football’s most prestigious club competition might be reformed (see our previous suggestions here). Organisers have an interest in better-known teams playing in the competition: replacing Belgium’s champions with a popular Italian team will attract more fans and advertisers. The big clubs in Italy, Spain and Germany, which fret about falling behind the English Premier League financially after its huge television-rights deal, also want the benefits of a more profitable Champions League. And the English have cause to be happy, too: after years of continental underperformance, the Premier League risks losing its status as Europe’s third-best league (as measured by its clubs’ recent performances in European competition) to Italy. The new rules remove the possibility that the number of English teams in the Champions League will be cut to three. Improved odds of making the Champions League represent a valuable financial safety net: failing to qualify can cost a big club around £40-50m ($52-65m).
In making qualification harder for smaller teams, the Champions League is bucking the trend of football’s other big tournaments. This summer’s Euro 2016 in France was criticised for featuring 24 national teams instead of the usual 16. Future World Cups from 2024 may be expanded from 32 teams to 40. Since the presidents of UEFA and FIFA, the body in charge of football globally, are elected by national football associations, candidates often promise enlarged competitions to win votes from small- and mid-sized countries. It is noteworthy that the changes to the Champions League are being made while UEFA has no permanent president, following Michel Platini’s expulsion from football on corruption charges.
But perhaps the biggest surprise about the revamp is that it is so modest. Some mega-clubs had dropped hints that they might leave UEFA’s jurisdiction altogether, forming a breakaway “European Super League”. Foreign entrepreneurs from China and America hovered ominously. UEFA had in turn threatened to bar any renegade players from competing in the World Cup. In this light, the new rules represent a truce—for now. The creation of a subsidiary company formally and permanently enshrines clubs’ influence over the competition’s format. This increases the chance of further tinkering three years from now, when the format is revisited ahead of the new cycle of TV rights. Then the ECA may push for automatic spots for ultra-famous clubs like Barcelona (pictured above), or a new group stage consisting of two “mini-leagues” of eight teams, with fewer low-profile clubs invited along. Resurgent calls for a European Super League will be especially likely if big clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool keep failing to qualify for the Champions League on merit alone.
The creeping influence of Europe’s most popular teams highlights a paradox at the heart of modern football. Although fans love the game for its unpredictability, the businessmen who run it increasingly crave the opposite. The big North American team sports—baseball, basketball, gridiron football and ice hockey—have resolved this quandary by forming closed circuits of around 30 teams, which cannot be relegated no matter how poorly they perform and have no higher league for which to qualify. By sharing a portion of their revenues amongst themselves, they seek to ensure that clubs will remain profitable regardless of wins and losses. In order to promote an equitable distribution of championships among their members, they institute salary restrictions and hold an annual draft that directs the best young players to the worst franchises.
UEFA’s new “historical success” score represents a step in this direction, boosting teams with large followings and established brands. And a closed-off Super League, were it ever to come to fruition, might constitute a whole-hearted embrace of America’s lucrative, collusive model. However, it would also dispose of football traditions that are venerated for good reason. No longer could supporters of fourth-division clubs dream of their team going all the way to the top, and every so often see such a vision come to pass. (The story of Leicester City, which has rocketed from England’s third division to the Champions League in eight years, would be impossible in America.) No longer would the late-season matches of a league’s worst teams, hoping to stave off relegation, draw as much interest as those of title contenders. And no longer would the club that hoists the Champions League trophy be able to claim its victory entirely as its own, drawn from a clean slate.
If the sport’s bosses were to redesign the organisation of European football from scratch, they might attempt to combine free-wheeling meritocracy with the financial stability of American sports. The top two divisions of football could be supranational, Europe-wide leagues, in which the continent’s best clubs could partake, but from which the laggards could be relegated down to domestic leagues. A portion of revenues could be pooled and shared between teams across Europe, and used to subsidise weaker clubs and lower divisions. The best teams remaining in national divisions across Europe, in turn, could fight to earn promotion to Europe’s second division. In this way Europe’s footballing structure would resemble that of Spain’s, where promoted teams from the four regionalised third divisions enter the (national) second tier.
However, there are daunting obstacles to bringing such a system to fruition. Big domestic leagues would staunchly resist reclassification as Europe’s third division. And the highest-grossing teams would resist passing on profits to those in smaller divisions. In the absence of a better, agreeable alternative, a version of the status quo is likely to remain in place: rich clubs scattered across the continent, extracting special treatment from UEFA by threatening to break away. So far, the threats have worked, yielding an unpleasant halfway house between America’s protectionist cartel and Europe’s ladder of opportunity.