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Manchester United and Arsenal fans launch 11th-hour revolt against Champions League reform 'power grab' - Shutterstock 

Manchester United and Arsenal fans launch 11th-hour revolt against Champions League reform ‘power grab’ – Shutterstock

Arsenal and Manchester United have been accused by their own supporters’ groups of launching an “indefensible” power grab via Champions League reforms.

Fans from 14 of the 28 clubs leading negotiations with Uefa have joined a protest, which accuses the biggest teams of “profiteering” and “insatiable greed” to “bleed us dry”.

An open letter to European Club Association (ECA) chairman Andrea Agnelli comes as the clubs meet to sign off plans to increase Champions League matches from 125 to 225.

As part of 11th-hour negotiations, the ECA is seeking control over the sport’s most prestigious and lucrative annual club competition, giving the big clubs increased voting rights on future commercial decisions.

“Such a blatant power grab would be indefensible at the best of times, but at the height of a global pandemic, it is nothing more than crisis profiteering – not to mention a stark contrast to the solidarity displayed by fans,” the coalition of supporters’ groups say in their letter.

Uefa distributes about £3billion in prize money and television broadcasting deals to clubs participating in its European competitions, and president Aleksander Ceferin wants his plan to be approved urgently to kill momentum behind a Super League breakaway promoted by some leading clubs such as Spain’s Real Madrid.

Agnelli has described the new format, where each team would play at least four extra group stage matches compared to now, as “ideal”. The controversial detail in the plan – opposed even by the Premier League – is a safety net to ensure the most historically successful clubs do not miss out on qualification via domestic performance.

The open letter to Agnelli, signed by 17 fans’ groups from 14 clubs, says: “We are writing to you on behalf of them and millions of others across the continent who you have chosen to ignore in your attempt to take over European football.

“Your plans to restructure the Champions League by increasing the number of games, introducing qualification based on past achievements, and monopolising commercial rights present a serious threat to the entire game.”

As well as United and Arsenal fan groups, signatories include groups supporting Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Anderlecht, Atletico Madrid, Benfica, Borussia Dortmund, FC Copenhagen, Fenerbache, Young Boys and Lyon.

The letter continues: “Instead of realising your supposed goal of ‘building a successful, sustainable, and socially responsible football industry’, you will only make the gap between the rich and the rest bigger, wreck domestic calendars, and expect fans to sacrifice yet more time and money.

“All for the benefit of whom? A handful of already wealthy clubs, investment firms, and sovereign funds, none of which have the legitimacy to decide how football should be run. Even most ECA members stand to lose out from the proposed reforms.

“Such a blatant power grab would be indefensible at the best of times, but at the height of a global pandemic, it is nothing more than crisis profiteering – not to mention a stark contrast to the solidarity displayed by fans.”

Plans to change the Champions League from 2024 represent the biggest transformation of the European game in decades – and could be formally signed off by next week.

The ECA held a board meeting last month in which it had been expected to approve Uefa’s proposals, but no agreement was reached after executives from a number of leading clubs, including Ed Woodward, executive vice-chair at England’s Manchester United, and Ivan Gazidis, chief executive of Italy’s AC Milan, reportedly raised objections.

At the heart of lingering negotiations are ECA demands are more power for the clubs for media and sponsorship rights for European club competitions. A shareholder arrangement, like the Premier League employs, would see 51 per cent ownership for Uefa, with the rest controlled by the ECA.

The clubs are demanding these governance measures are included in a memorandum of understanding before the competition reforms are signed off. Sources close to talks say it is expected Uefa will wave through this compromise agreement.

The plans that have been drawn up by Uefa, include increasing the number of clubs in the Champions League from 32 to 36 and increasing the number of matches in the group phase of the competition from six to 10 in a so-called Swiss system, an overall increase of 100. In addition, three of the four extra places will go to clubs based on past performance in Europe, using Uefa rankings.

Champions League reforms explained

By Ben Rumsby

What is the proposed new format?

In basic terms, it is a massive expansion of European football’s elite club competition from 32 teams to 36, and 125 matches to 225, from 2024/25. More fundamentally, it would see a complete revamp of the group stage.

Instead of eight groups of four teams where sides play the three others in their group home and away, it would consist of one single group in which each team will play five home matches and five away matches against 10 different opponents. Each team would be seeded and play opponents of varying strength. This is known as the ‘Swiss system’, a format pioneered by chess and since adopted by other sports.

The sides who finish in the top eight will qualify automatically for the knockout stage, while those finishing between ninth and 24th will enter a play-off to determine the remaining eight last-16 spots. The knockout stage will remain unchanged but the new format nevertheless will represent the biggest shake-up of the competition since it became the Champions League three decades earlier.

Why would it change?

Money. The 100 extra matches alone would allow Uefa and clubs to command more in television and sponsorship income. The ‘Swiss system’, which guarantees each participating team 10 matches instead of six, has been adopted for the same reason in the hope it will be more attractive than a group stage increasingly viewed as stale and predictable.

It is also designed to stave off the perceived threat of a European Super League, something highlighted by two of the additional four spots going to teams based on historical performances.

Who would get the four extra places?

One would go to the league rated the fifth-strongest in Europe, which is currently France, which would join England, Germany, Spain and Italy with four guaranteed spots. Another will go to the highest-ranked domestic champion from one of the smaller leagues.

But, in the most controversial format change of all, the remaining two would go to the clubs with the highest Uefa coefficient (historic ranking) who qualified for one of its other club competitions. That would mean the likes of Liverpool could finish as low as seventh in the Premier League and still be parachuted into the Champions League.

How will the planned changes affect the calendar?

The expanded competition would require another four match-weeks on top of the 15 already carved out. That will be almost impossible to fit into the existing English football calendar, meaning something will have to give.

There is no chance of the size of the Premier League being cut, meaning the impact will be felt by either or both of the FA Cup and – more likely – EFL Cup. The future of the latter competition is very much under threat, with England now the only country with two domestic cups.

Who would be the winners and losers?

The winners are the big clubs, the richest of which are likely to get even richer. The losers will almost certainly be smaller teams and especially those who do not qualify for the Champions League.

The additional 100 games risks cannibalising domestic revenues from the Premier League right down to League Two and Uefa will now be under major pressure to ensure any shortfall is filled by making solidarity payments. Whether the new format entrenches the on-field dominance of the big clubs remains to be seen but history suggests it will.

How has it been received?

The ‘Swiss system’ as a concept has been met by almost no opposition. But that is where the consensus ends. Complaints range from the new format’s back-door access for big clubs to the sheer number of additional matches.

The European Leagues held a meeting of more than 300 clubs this month at which EFL chairman Rick Parry warned that if the EFL Cup was sacrificed, it would deduct a third of his organisation’s income and threaten the existence of lower-division clubs.

Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish added: “This would have a devastating effect on domestic competitions in England. The League Cup is the largest financial contributor to the Football League and this will either be the end of that cup in its entirety or reduce it to a youth competition.”