The End Of The Champions League As We Know It?
One of my favourite English football terms is reducer: the first, wilfully painful tackle against an opponent in a game. To the chagrin of traditionalists, you don’t really see that many reducers anymore. The more severe interpretation of the laws of the game by the referees means that the danger of reducing your own team to ten men has become too great. But off the pitch, there’s still scope for a bit of crafty bullying.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a former world-class striker who was on the receiving end of many reducers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, launched one such pre-emptive strike himself at the beginning of the year. “You can’t rule out that in the future we may create a European league with the major clubs from Italy, Germany, England, Spain and France, under the auspices of UEFA or a private investigation,” said the FC Bayern Munich chairman of the executive board and chairman of the European Club Association (ECA).
That was meant as a threat, or, if you will, as a softening up exercise, a way to begin negotiations with UEFA. In truth, there’s no real appetite for a breakaway league. This one’s about money (as it usually is). “The ECA does not sponsor the creation of any Super League in Europe, we seek an improvement of the current Champions League, but always in the hands of UEFA,” ECA general secretary Michele Centenaro clarified in Barcelona last week.
What the clubs want is bigger revenues from TV rights sales - and a smaller commission for UEFA. The Swiss-based association keep 30 per cent of the €1.465bn they turn over annually. That is €427m. Out of that tidy sum, €126m are forwarded to Europa League teams and used for solidarity payments. The clubs are casting an envious eye on that mountain of cash, as well as on the American sports market. As ECA board member Andrea Agnelli (Juventus) pointed out, the NFL is currently selling their 267 league games for €7bn per year, despite European football having roughly ten times more fans (1.5 billion people).
Behind the scenes, debates about a change of format have started. Would a new Champions League make more money when the existing rights expire in 2018? The Italians have mooted the idea of a wild card for big clubs, but there’s probably not much support for that. Guaranteed starting berths for top teams would dramatically devalue the national leagues, which is in nobody’s interest. American marketing executives have floated a proposal of staging games on neutral grounds and overseas but kick-off times are an issue.
A closed, US-style system with only elite teams would undoubtedly promise big bucks but it would violate the meritocratic principles of European football. It’s important to remember that the ECA is made up of 220 members from 53 associations. They won’t agree to a competition exclusive to the biggest clubs from the biggest leagues. But nevertheless, attempts are at foot to guarantee a bigger number of top matches and glamour ties. Americans in particular can’t understand why the existing format only sees commercial blockbuster games such as Real Madrid vs. Manchester United once every few years, if at all.
A second group stage was introduced in 1999/2000 but only lasted three years due to the lack of excitement it brought. There could be interest, however, in the introduction of a new format for the knock-out rounds. Instead of two-legged ties, we might see a “best of three” play-off, with the decisive third game on neutral ground (or not), a disregard for goal-difference and a new away goals rule that would only kick in if the first two games end in draws.
The big advantage of that change would be the prospect of one more big game per round and big defeats in the first leg not automatically killing off the tie. In light of the convoluted match schedule, such mini-series would probably only make sense from the semi-final onwards.
UEFA, meanwhile, have apparently proposed the introduction of a third competition. But it’s still unclear whether they envisage it for the smaller teams or the very biggest.
The only thing that looks certain right now, is that the clubs will try to take advantage of the power vacuum in Nyon after Gianni Infantino’s election to FIFA president and attempt to force through their demands. Infantino, on the other hand, needs the clubs to agree to fulfil his election promise of staging World Cups with 40 teams. The next few months will make for a fascinating poker game. Whether the Champions League can survive this tussle beyond 2018 in its existing format remains to be seen.