Manuel Veth –
With the beginning of the 2018-19 season, the UEFA Champions League will see major reforms. The Champions League reforms that were announced on August 26 will guarantee four starters in the group stage of the Champions League for the top four European leagues—Spain, Germany, England, and Italy. Previously the top three countries—Spain, Germany, and England—were guaranteed three starters in the group stage, as well as a place in the Champions League qualification playoffs.
Furthermore, UEFA guarantees the winner of the UEFA Europa League a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage as well. Only three out of the last ten winners were teams from a league that doesn’t belong to the top four of Europe—Zenit Saint Petersburg (2008), Shakhtar Donetsk (2009), and FC Porto (2011). This means that the changes to the group stage of the Champions League could potentially just leave 15 spots for the remaining 51 member states.
In an official proclamation UEFA states that: “Retention of Champions and League route of qualifying in the UEFA Champions League [will not change], ensuring that clubs from all associations can enter through their domestic leagues and qualify for both competitions.” Of course, this statement in particular is an insult for the 51 member states that are looking to fight over the remaining 15 to 16 spots in the Champions League.
Finally, UEFA has announced that a new “subsidiary company will be created that will play a strategic role in determining the future and the management of club competitions: UEFA Club Competitions SA, where half of the managing directors will be appointed by UEFA and the other half by the ECA.”
Champions League reforms put ECA in charge
In other words the ECA, European Club Association, will now play a significant role in the running of European club football. Run by FC Bayern München’s CEO, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the ECA has long been an advocate of bringing change to European club football, and has even proposed the creation of a European Super League.
Speaking at an event in Milan in February, Rummenigge stated: “I don’t rule that in the future a European league consisting of the big teams from Italy, Germany, England, Spain and France will be founded. This could be either organised under the aegis of UEFA or privately.”
In the past, UEFA and their former president, Michel Platini, has tried to find a balance between the big clubs from the top four leagues, and the other 51 member states. Platini, in particular, was always considered the champion of the Eastern European football federations and, under his leadership, the European Championships saw their first tournament in Eastern Europe—Poland and Ukraine in 2012—and then finally the expansion to 24 teams in 2016.
But an independent ethics committee banned Platini from holding an official position in football on December 21, 2015. Furthermore, Platini’s replacement at UEFA, Gianni Infantino, became the new president of FIFA in February 2016. With Platini gone, the Eastern European clubs lost their biggest spokesperson.
Furthermore, the fall of the price of oil, and the politically difficult situation between Ukraine and Russia has meant that the big clubs from Eastern Europe have lost much of their UEFA influence in the last two years—indeed it will be interesting to see how UEFA sponsor Gazprom can protect their favourite play thing Zenit Saint Petersburg.
The fall of Michel Platini meant that UEFA was weakened
This meant that UEFA, which was represented by the interim General Secretary, Theodore Theodoridis, was without real leadership during the negotiation process. Theodoridis, of course, believes that the changes to European club football will continue to see a diverse competition. He stated, “The amendments made will continue to ensure qualification based on sporting merit, and the right of all associations and their clubs to compete in Europe’s elite club competitions.
Furthermore, Theodoridis said, “We are happy that European football remains united behind the concepts of solidarity, fair competition, fair distribution and good governance.
Indeed, the word from Switzerland was that things could have been far worse, as the big European clubs were openly threatening to break away from UEFA and form their own Super League. These plans have now been shelved until 2021 when the deal will come up for renegotiation, and could see even further Champions League reforms.
Yet it is unlikely that the major clubs from the big leagues will take a step back, and allow clubs from smaller leagues a bigger share of the pie. Hence, representatives from the smaller leagues have once again brought up possible reforms to their own league structures, as well as the merging of existing leagues.
Clubs from smaller leagues may now push for cross-border competitions
The main spokesperson for such a shift is the head of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), Neil Doncaster, who has, once again, proposed a merger of the Scottish Premiership with the Dutch league, and several Scandinavian leagues.
The idea proposed by the big Scottish clubs, as well as teams from the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden would see the creation of a North Atlantic League with twenty teams. The idea of creating such a competition dates back to the early 1990s.
The fall of the Soviet Union, and the resulting creation of a common European market, as well as the freedom of movement for players, has caused an imbalance between the wealthy clubs in England, Germany, Spain, and Italy, and the rest of Europe. Hence, smaller leagues are now looking, once again, to merge their respective competitions in order to give their clubs a better chance to compete in European football.
Furthermore, following the negotiations, UEFA now seems to be willing to allow cross-border competitions, and Theodoridis has admitted that such discussions have already taken place.
Doncaster, however, wants to wait and see what UEFA’s final decision on the distribution of spots is before making any further decisions on how to proceed: “We will monitor this issue and these changes very closely and pledge to continue to fight to protect the best interests of Scottish football in the wider European and global context.”
Doncaster, in particular, is under pressure as Scotland’s two biggest clubs, Rangers and Celtic, could decide to join English Premier League. Losing those two clubs would be a massive blow for the SPFL, and would explain Doncaster strong role in advocating cross-border leagues, as an alternative.
The idea of cross-border leagues is not new
In the past he outlined what these leagues could look like (read all about it here), and indeed cross-border leagues could serve as an important way to guarantee that the clubs that are reaching the Champions League are not only the best of their respective leagues, but could also compete with the best clubs from the top four leagues.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, UEFA had 33 member states, and the Soviet Vysshaya Liga, and the Yugoslav Prva League were ranked in the top 10 of the UEFA co-efficient ranking. Indeed, UEFA would be wise to reduce the number of top leagues in Europe to around 20 to 25. In order to keep the competition open, promotion and relegation would still exist in the form of national leagues, which would be settled below the cross-border leagues.
Indeed, in addition to the North Atlantic League, other proposals for unified leagues have already been seriously discussed. The big clubs in Russia and Ukraine seriously discussed a merger before the war in the Donbass. Between 2007 and 2011 the top clubs from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia competed in the Baltic League.
In 2015, I visited Georgia and, when speaking to club officials from the country’s biggest club, Dinamo Tbilisi, one of the ideas that came up to close the club’s gap between teams in the region and the rest of Europe, was the creation of a cross border league in the Caucasus. Indeed Armenia has recently struggled to find enough competitive teams for the national Armenian Premier League.
As is the case between Ukraine and Russia, geopolitics might be the major obstacle to creating a regional league in the Caucasus. Russia and Georgia were at war with each other as recently as 2008, and the relationship between the two countries remains uneasy. Furthermore, a cross-border league between the three Caucasus nations, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, is next to impossible, as Armenia and Azerbaijan remain in open conflict with one another over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
This, however, does not shut the door on other far reaching reforms in European football. In fact, the push by the big clubs to reform the Champions League could go down in history as the first domino to fall in the quest for major European club football reform. The truth of the matter is that club competitions in Europe have always undergone evolution that followed major international geopolitical trends.
European football needs to come to terms with the reality of geopolitics
The Brexit aside, Europe has grown together in recent years, and club football reflects that. The Champions League as a competition has, in recent years, become the most watched sports television event on the planet. But at the same time, the competition is not really attractive to watch until after the group stage, as the gulf between clubs from the top four leagues and smaller leagues has become too wide (more on this in this excellent piece in the Economist). The gulf between big clubs and small clubs was what pushed teams towards Champions League reforms in the first place, as the lack of attractive matches was costing clubs money.
Cross-border leagues would mean that more clubs in Europe would face stiff competition in their home leagues, and this would guarantee that the clubs that end up reaching the group stage of the Champions League would be more competitive opposition for the clubs from Spain, England, Germany, and Italy. Hence, cross-border competitions could become the best answer to the question of how to break the hegemony of Europe’s biggest clubs. Of course, whether my way is the best way is open to discussion…
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and a writer for Bundesliga.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.