At a meeting between UEFA representatives and representatives of European leagues and clubs last week, UEFA President Michel Platini submitted proposals to change once again the format for the European Champions League.
Platini’s proposals are unlikely to appeal to either football’s traditionalists, or to those who see greater commercialization or development across national borders as the future of European professional football.
Under the new proposals, no domestic league will have more than 3 clubs qualifying for the Champions League. England, Italy and Spain currently have 4 clubs qualifying for the Champions League. This is based on the UEFA coefficient, a ranking computed by reference to the results of clubs from each country in European competitions over the preceding five seasons.
More controversially, it is proposed that domestic cup winners qualify for the Champions League. At present, domestic cup winners qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Platini’s plans also include reserving 6 places in the Champions League group stage for lower ranked leagues. At present, only the 9 highest ranked countries are guaranteed at least one place in the group stage. The top 3 ranked countries are guaranteed 2 clubs in the group stage, while the other two clubs from those countries are required to play in the qualifying rounds.
At present, 16 clubs qualify directly for the group stage, while the remaining 16 remaining places in the group stage comprise clubs that come through the qualifying rounds. The draw for this season’s group stage was made earlier this month.
There has for some time been much goodwill towards Platini within European and world football. Twice World Player of the Year (1984 and 1985) and three times European Footballer of the Year (1983, 1984 and 1985), he was the captain and playmaker of a talented French side that reached two successive World Cup semi-finals in 1982 and 1986, losing both to West Germany, the first on a penalty shoot-out after a 3-3 draw, a match infamous for German goalkeeper, Harald “Toni” Schumacher, not being sent off after he took out French forward Patrick Battiston. Platini also led France to European Championship glory in 1984, and was national manager of France from 1988 to 1992.
Platini was elected as UEFA President in January 2007, defeating Lennart Johannson, who had been President for 16 years, by 27 votes to 23. There is no doubt that Platini genuinely has the good of European football at heart. However, his candidacy for the UEFA Presidency was long on aspiration and short on detail. His speech at the elections in Dusseldorf, Germany, on 26 January 2007, was sought the promotion of the values of “solidarity” and “universality”. However, to give him is due, he had in the course of his candidacy made known his desire to see the number of clubs from any one league qualifying for the Champions League capped at 3.
The precursor of the Champions League, the European Cup, began in 1955 as a competition for the champions of all European leagues, the idea of a French sports journalist and the editor of L’Équipe, Gabriel Hanot. However, with only the champions from each country qualifying for the European Cup, many of the leading clubs from the major leagues, such at those of Italy, Spain, England and Germany, did not qualify each season, or for several seasons. For the 1997-98 season, the runners up of the top leagues qualified for the competition, renamed as the Champions League (which had, since 1991, adopted various group stage formats in place of the former knock-out format). This was with the express intention of improving the quality of the competition by having more leading teams from the best leagues taking part each season.
The number of clubs from the top leagues was subsequently increased to three, and then the current number of 4. The format of the competition, combining both group and knock out stages has also been changed from time to time since 1998.
From 1960 to 1999, the winners of the principal domestic cup competition from each European country played in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. After the competition was discontinued in 1999 (as part of the revamp of European club competitions agreed upon in 1998), the winners of domestic cup competitions qualified only for the UEFA Cup.
The UEFA Cup has for a long time been the competition for the other top clubs from each domestic league that do not qualify for the Champions League, and where the domestic football association so decides, the winners of any secondary domestic cup competition. For many years, the winners of the League Cup in England qualified for the UEFA Cup. As a bigger pool of quality sides from the major European leagues have participated in this competition, the UEFA Cup has traditionally been regarded as the second European club competition, ahead of the European Cup Winners Cup even while that competition was in existence.
The UEFA Cup had replaced the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1971, which had been inaugurated in 1955 as a competition between European cities to promote international trade fairs to be played every few years. In the first competition, a representative XI from London clubs were beaten by Barcelona in the final. The competition became an annual affair in 1960. Later in the 1960s, qualification was restricted to clubs finishing runners up in their domestic league. As late as 1975, the one club per city rule was abandoned.
Until 1991, each of the three European club competitions had a clear identity of its own. The changes in the qualification rules since then have seen the European Cup Winners Cup being abandoned, and the blurring of the identities of the Champions League and the UEFA Cup.
The Champions League can hardly be said to be a competition between champions, with many clubs finishing second, third or even fourth in their domestic league qualifying for the competition, rendering the name a misnomer. This is turn undermines the UEFA Cup’s raison d’être – a competition for the clubs finishing immediately below the champions in their domestic league.
Yet, insofar as the Champions League remains a competition for the top clubs in Europe, it retains a strong identity, albeit one that differs from that suggested by its name.
Platini’s proposals will only serve to undermine this identity. Allowing domestic cup winners to qualify risks having much weaker teams in the competition. As domestic cup competitions are organized on a knock-out basis, with possibility of upsets and surprises in each round, and in the final, the winners are often not one of the top clubs in the country. Finishing second, third or even fourth in a domestic league requires far greater quality and consistency.
Reserving 6 places in the group stage for clubs from the lower ranked countries is effectively a quota-based form of reverse discrimination. Such quotas generally result in a lowering of standards, without actually benefiting the target group. In any event, the lower ranked domestic European leagues provide nowhere near the quality of the top European leagues. Again, any lowering of standards would undermine the remaining identity of the Champions League.
It is therefore no wonder that a number of the top leagues and the leading clubs in Europe have come out to oppose Platini’s proposals. On the other hand, domestic football associations, such as the English Football Association, have backed the proposals, as it enhances the prestige of the domestic cup competitions that they control, and which have suffered a decline in interest from the fans over the past decade.
Ultimately, Platini’s proposals lack direction and rationality. With many of the top European clubs having for several years contemplated a breakaway league, forcing through such ill-conceived proposals may well be the catalyst that forces the issue.