By Manuel Veth –
UEFA’s member states are contemplating the creation of a new European cup competition for clubs that have dropped out in the early stages of the Europa League and Champions League qualifiers. Smaller countries, from Eastern Europe especially, have been in favour for this kind of competition.
As the Guardian reported, discussions are still in the early stages, and any changes to the prevailing structure of European club football could not be introduced until 2018 when the current television deals expire.
Niersbach – Implementation could be difficult
When speaking to Germany’s television station ZDF, Wolfgang Niersbach, the president of the German Football Federation (DFB), reacted with scepticism regarding the creation of a new club competition in Europe. “We have two well working competitions with the UEFA Champions League, and the UEFA Europa League, and both competitions have been able to increase their revenue. On the other hand, UEFA presented a study that showed clubs from only 26 to 28 European countries regularly participate in the group stage of those competitions (UEFA has 54 member states). Some of the smaller UEFA member states, therefore, have asked that a new competition be introduced. We have discussed this, nothing more, and I am personally very sceptical as to whether such a competition would even make sense as I can’t see the necessary television, and sponsorship partners. At the same time it is legitimate to discuss changes to existing competitions.”
In truth, clubs from larger federations, such as the DFB or the English Football Association, have already voiced their criticism toward the Europa League (clubs from Germany and England often use second-string squads in the Europa League in order avoid jeopardizing their chances in their domestic competitions).
At the same time, however, smaller countries, from Eastern Europe especially, are interested in giving their clubs more opportunities to develop their skills through competition with teams from other European countries.
Volodymyr Geninson, the executive director of the Football Federation of Ukraine, for example, supports such a competition because “it will give more opportunity to the clubs who never get in the final stages to participate in Europe.” He added “We are really supportive of this, as for them [smaller clubs] it will give opportunities not to finish the [European competitions] in August. It will give them the opportunity to play in September and October.”
Platini has in the past supported smaller Member States
Smaller associations from Eastern Europe are assured the support of UEFA president Michel Platini, who, in the past, increased the European Championship to 24 teams, and spread the hosting of Euro 2020 across the continent in a bid to give smaller European countries access to top level football.
Indeed, such a competition could provide a much-needed financial lifeline for clubs from associations in the post-Soviet states. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of the bigger clubs from the smaller post-Soviet Republics have struggled in terms of stadium attendance. Dinamo Tbilisi, during the Soviet era, for example, played regularly in front of a sold out crowd at the Boris Paichadze Stadium. Built in 1976, the stadium was the third largest in the Soviet Union with a capacity of 74,354 spectators and, as videos on Youtube highlight, Dinamo games were so popular that most games were sold out. Today, however, most games are played in front of just a few thousand people because the Georgian Umaglesi Liga provides neither the narrative nor the competitive edge to make the games a hot ticket for Georgians.
Georgian football is not alone in its plight of small capacity crowds; even clubs in Russia and Ukraine struggle to fill their stadiums for domestic competitions. This dilemma of poor attendance coupled with low television revenues has meant that clubs are extremely dependent on sugar daddy owners. On top of that, UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulation has made it difficult for owners to make the necessary investments that would increase the level of football to that of the top leagues in Western Europe.
It was for the above reasons that clubs from Russia, in the early spring of 2013, proposed a new post-Soviet super league. For a time, the creation of such a league appeared to be a real possibility, but the recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine has all but buried the likelihood of the creation of a Russian-Ukrainian joint-league.
Could a New European Cup Level the Playing Field?
But, as Stefan Szymanski argues in his new book “Money and Soccer,” the creation of new international championships might be the best way to close the financial gap between clubs from the big powerhouse leagues and clubs from smaller European competitions.
One way to do this would be for UEFA to introduce regional cup competitions, called the UEFA Regional Cup. There are precedents for such competitions: Between 1927 and 1991 clubs from Central Eastern Europe organized a regional competition called the Mitropa Cup (the cup survives to the present day as an amateur competition). Between 2007 and 2011 the top clubs from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia competed in the Baltic League. Another example is the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Cup, which was an international tournament played every winter between the champions of the former Soviet Republics, and was last held in 2011 when Azerbaijan’s Inter Baku lifted the trophy.
Most regional competitions ceased to exist when major clubs in the areas changed their focus to the Europa League and Champions League—but now, under the auspice of UEFA such competitions could be revitalized in some form. Clubs from the Baltic States, which failed to qualify for the group stages of the Europa League or Champions League, together with clubs from the Scandinavian countries, for example, could be placed in a regional competition. The same could be done for clubs from Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Clubs from the Caucasus, Russia, and Turkey could play in another separate regional competition. This is very much a world of hypotheticals, as political conflicts in the regions between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey, as well as Georgia and Russia, could make planning difficult for organizers.
The winner of each regional competition could be awarded with a spot in the UEFA Europa League group stage and, on top of that, a final group stage played between the winners of the different regional tournaments could determine the overall cup winner of the UEFA Regional Cup. Finally, the overall winner of the UEFA Regional Cup, like the winner of the UEFA Europa League, would be awarded a spot in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
As Niersbach stated above, the major obstacle for such a tournament would be sponsorship and television money. At the same time, however, such an international club competition could help the growth of smaller football federations in the post-Soviet space, and could spark an increase in attendance in countries such as Georgia. By granting the winners of individual Regional Cup’s access to the Europa League, and even the Champions League, UEFA would see the participation of more football federations in Europe’s major cup competition.
Manuel Veth is a PhD candidate at the University of London King’s College, London. Originally from Munich, his thesis is entitled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.