Many would say the current format of the UEFA Champions League (CL) is working well, that is, not broken. However, that doesn’t seem to be the general consensus at UEFA headquarters. Though the CL is not broken, the European football chiefs appear to want to ‘fix it’.
Earlier this month, the New York Times (NYT) reported that documents had been leaked which purportedly showed UEFA’s proposal to bring huge changes to Europe’s premier football competition from 2024 onwards.
The proposed changes would, in effect, make the CL a semi-closed tournament with 24 of the 32 contestants retaining their place each season regardless of how they had performed in their domestic leagues.
As is always the case, money is the driving force behind these suggested changes with more lucrative matches guaranteed every year for the biggest clubs. Of course, this setup would also make it far more difficult for teams further down the ladder to qualify for the CL.
There would be four groups consisting of eight clubs in each. The leading four teams in each of the groups would then qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament. Therefore, even if a club doesn’t make it out of their group, they will still play at least 14 CL games in that season rather than the six they currently play in the existing group stages. This means more revenue for all competing CL clubs. The CL finalists in the new system would play a total of 21 games, compared to the 13 games maximum in the existing format.
The real difficulty is earning a place in the CL under these rules. Only four clubs would be ‘relegated’ from the tournament each season, taking their place in the Europa League (EL) instead. The four semi-finalists of that season’s EL would replace the four demoted teams in the following season’s CL. At the moment, six places are left open to national league champions to compete in the preliminary rounds of the CL. This would be reduced to four places in the proposed new format.
Understandably, the rumoured changes have been met with strong opposition from some national leagues already.
German and French clubs have been the first to make it publicly known that they would be fully opposed to such plans.
The German Football League (DFL) and French Football League (LFP) both held assembly meetings earlier this month following the leaked news of UEFA’s plans for the CL.
The DFL said that it outright rejects the planned changes to the CL while the LFP issued a short statement highlighting its opposition to the idea.
DFL chief executive Christian Seifert said: “The presently discussed concept of the European Club Association (ECA) would have unacceptable consequences for the national leagues in Europe and should therefore not be implemented in this form. We must not allow, that the traditional national leagues are damaged in their attractiveness for millions of people across the continent.
Seifert continued: “In all discussions, two points are of crucial importance: the number of games in the football calendar and, above all, access to international competitions. Changes to these must not jeopardise the relevance and future of the national leagues in Europe. This would sustainably damage the whole of European football – and that can never be in the interest of Uefa.”
The LFP’s official statement said: “French football is worried about the sporting and economic consequences of the current project for the national championships. In addition, French football has unanimously decided to present Uefa with an alternative proposal in the coming days.”
The Swiss Football League (SFL) also voiced its criticism of the plans through their chief executive Claudius Schaeffer. The SFL expressed their fear of teams losing access to the competition completely.
Speaking to Reuters, Schaeffer said: “As a club, you must have the dream that you can one day play against the big teams. It is a principle of our football pyramid that you still can have this dream to play against those teams.”
Spain’s LaLiga, England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A are all reportedly opposed to the potential CL reform.
While it would certainly be a money-spinner for the bigger clubs, a new ‘closed-off’ CL format would, in many ways, see the death of healthy, meaningful, domestic competitions. The national leagues would be hugely devalued as far as the big clubs who had their place in the CL are concerned.
With far more CL games to be played, teams would be resting their big stars at every opportunity in their domestic league. Attendances for national league fixtures would almost certainly take a hit when supporters know the best players probably won’t be playing because they are being saved for the CL games.
International football is already in a poor state, widely regarded as an inconvenience every time the international break comes around. That would only get worse when many more high-earning CL games are to be played each season. The stars just would not be made available to play for their countries. Mysterious injuries would prevent players from joining their international training camps.
Again, we are at risk of destroying our sport even further in the pursuit of endless revenue streams. The CL works right now because it’s still somewhat accessible for non-elite clubs – see Ajax this season for the perfect example.
To close off the CL would no doubt just make the rich clubs richer, only serving to magnify the divide between elite-level teams and the rest. Greed has been pushing the romance out of football for many years now. Let’s cling on to the little bit we have left.