Quietly on Monday, Uefa approved its own plans to beef up the Champions League from 32 teams to 36, from 125 games to a bloated 225. The shake-up will come in from 2024. So who would make up these extra four clubs? Who would benefit from the riches of Europe’s top table? A club in need, you might hope.
As it stands they would be Lyon, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, plus one of the minor league champions (the latter only after they’ve fought through the play-offs).
Lyon get in because the fifth ranked league, France, will get an extra Champions League spot. At least there is merit in that, even if it is yet another place for the big-five leagues. But why hand golden tickets to Dortmund and Liverpool, who are fifth and seventh in their respective leagues, outside their top fours and in Liverpool’s case below West Ham, for example, who would have to make do with the Europa League?
That’s because the new format includes two slots for clubs with the highest Uefa coefficient who miss out on Champions League qualification, so long as they qualify for the Europa League or the new third Uefa competition, the Conference League. Ranked by five years of performance, Uefa’s coefficient rankings could be easily confused with the Deloitte Money List: it is dominated by clubs like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City. These extra places in the Champions League are not a sporting prize but a financial safety net, a parachute to save the richest clubs in Europe should they fall off the top. Finish seventh, behind less wealthy clubs who don’t play regular European football? Not to worry. Show up at the back door, we’ll get you in.
Perhaps this is what took Super League conspirators by surprise. American owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal were so out of touch that they didn’t anticipate managers, players and fans preferring to suffer outside Europe than be gifted a place in the Super League. They underestimated the importance of pain and heartache in the joy of football.
The reforms are not as blatant a power-grab as the Super League, a disaster created by ignorant owners overplaying their hand, and because these changes are created by Uefa then the clubs will avoid blame. But the reforms still undermine the values of open and fair competition, and will exacerbate inequality in the game. Uefa has been strong in the face of the Super League, but do not let its president Aleksander Ceferin twist the story: after all the threats, he ushered them back into the fold on Wednesday without flinching.
The warped mindset of Super League clubs was revealed in the Premier League’s emergency meeting this week. Representatives of the ‘big six’ were not invited, but one executive relayed a conversation he had with the Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy about the Super League. Levy reportedly told him “it was only right that the biggest brands should have a bigger share of the monies and pointed out that his club had a large debt to service thanks to their new stadium”.
That quote captures the Super League mentality in a nutshell. They are “brands”, not clubs, with a right to pay off debts they have accrued, rather than a duty. Real Madrid are €900m in debt, Barcelona even more. No wonder they were the last ones standing when the Super League collapsed. Uefa’s reforms would just be a more subtle way of ringfencing broadcasting revenues for the wealthiest clubs, some of whom have been mismanaged to the point of utter reliance on the Champions League.
It remains an oddity that the ‘Champions League’ admits only 11 league champions automatically, meaning clubs like Ajax and Celtic have won their domestic titles in recent times and still had to qualify. Inequality will only widen under the new system with more wealthy clubs from the big-five leagues gaining entry even when domestic rivals finish above them.
Uefa has left some room open for its Champions League changes to be rowed back, saying that the “access path” to the tournament is still open for debate. Football must seize the momentum of the past few days if it is serious about slowing the chasm growing between the rich and the rest. Fans’ groups have already been ignored by Uefa over these controversial reforms, but perhaps now they will be heard after a week when their activism helped expose the avarice of football.