Reports in The Sun this morning suggest that the European Clubs Association is preparing to force through changes to the Champions League format. Regular readers know that I am not a fan of the fourth place trophy syndrome it engendered, the group stage or the seedings system, even if it has been to Arsenal’s benefit.
I like the supposed changes even less.
They are a natural progression though. The élite is once more looking after itself and seeking to ensure that certain clubs are entered into the competition irrespective of their league performance. Little surprise that the move was promoted by United and AC Milan whose record in the competition veers from the non-existent to the distinctly unimpressive.
The key criteria is that clubs are ‘attractive’ to broadcasters. To hell with sporting merit, money talks even more louder. Quotes attributed to Christian Seiffert, the head of the Bundesliga, are as odious as any his English counterpart, Richard Scudamore, utters:
If a Super League comes in the way you’ve heard it, and I’ve heard it, that could help us with brand recognition.
As with any company in the world, Uefa or the ECA has to think about what can be done better in the future.
Better is obviously a subjective term.
To me, one of football’s greatest charms is the concept of sporting merit. If a club is good enough, they can rise through the divisions. Now they need money as well and the Premier League broadcasting deals underline the gulf between the rest of football and the top flight. If you need an example, look at Bournemouth whose rise may well be attributed to good performances but they have money behind them.
Modern supporters have only heard of Wimbledon because of the FA Cup win in 1988 and the crazy gang. Carlisle and Northampton are bastions of the lower divisions or pub quiz questions, long forgotten as far as the Premier League is concerned.
If – and it remains a big if – these plans are adopted, lesser lights needn’t worry as a ‘competitive’ system will remain in place to allow other clubs to join the gang each season. Which is nice. How it would work remains unclear but the central aim whilst ensuring that certain clubs are always compete in the Champions League, will have a knock-on effect in the domestic game.
England, international misfits, is home to football money although the dubious transfer fee being bandied around for Chelsea’s sale of Ramieres to an obscure Chinese club raises questions as to how much longer that will be the case. But if we assume that no country will have more than four places, United are certainly going to be included as will most likely Liverpool, who remain almost inexplicably popular around the globe. What of Chelsea, previous Champions League winners, who face competition from Arsenal and to a lesser extent, City for the remaining of the four places?
The changes are more far-reaching than simply ensuring the rich stay far wealthier than any other clubs. If they continue to bring in the money from the Champions League, domestic leagues eventually become less competitive and for investors, less attractive. After all, why invest in a product where the prospect of any rewards which may assuage the ego have diminished or disappeared completely. What of those clubs now, in hock to their owners beyond a sustainable level if they withdraw their support? A number face severely reduced circumstances in this dystopian future.
For Arsenal, supporting such a move makes commercial sense. A record of regularly qualifying for the group phase and then the first knockout round has elevated the club’s status globally. So has Arsène’s brand of football; a Premier League title this season would certainly reinforce that position among sponsors of Europe’s top club competition, making them almost indispensable in any cartel.
It would ease pressure on Wenger’s eventual successor. If as seems to be flavour of the month, he extends his contract beyond its current expiry date next year, these changes will come in whilst he is still in charge. Knowing that the club is guaranteed a place in the Champions League would ease the pressure of needing a top four finish to keep everyone ‘onside’ during the transition of what will be a seismic change at the club occurs.
Mind you, it would also render any sense of achievement in two decades of qualifying for the Champions League as obsolete as the calendar year trophy.
There is a downside though. Whilst a, as Seiffert put it, “super league” is a natural continuation of the path football embarked upon a quarter of a century ago, is there a danger of reducing the competition’s importance in the long-term? There will inevitably be a period of novelty whilst the qualification which we take for granted now, can really be taken for granted but once that honeymoon dies, is there an expectation that Arsenal will do more than simply make up the numbers?
I am not so sure that the changes will end here. The natural conclusion is for a European League will come into being with domestic leagues reduced to feeder divisions. Top clubs however, will not readily cede their protected positions and there is a genuine prospect of the same rules which apply in the NFL will eventually come into being with football. A breakaway league, standing on its own with the same clubs involved season in, season out as the excitement of relegation and promotion is consigned to history books in the same way vinyl was.
Unlike the lp, it’s hard to see how sporting merit could come back into favour once money rules. The golden egg has hatched and is sharpening its axe to make sure that the goose doesn’t lay any more.