Was this the week in which the European football landscape changed forever? While on the pitch Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland grasped the titles of world’s best players from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League, plenty of clarity was offered around the boardroom manoeuvres that are threatening to alter how the game will look at the sharp end from 2024.
A range of conversations have been held about reshaping the calendar for the past two years, changes to the Champions League’s structure chief among them as UEFA attempts to fight off the prospect of a European Super League being established.
But in the past few days we have heard from powerful stakeholders on all sides of the argument. If anything the opposing views are becoming more entrenched and an adequate solution that leaves all parties suitably satisfied already seems impossible.
The governing body’s proposal is to scrap the current group stage format from 2024 and introduce a 36-club competition with teams playing 10 games instead of the current six to reach the knockout stages. That would be in addition to the Europa League and, depending on its success, the Europa Conference League that will be launched next season.
Several Premier League clubs are against the Champions League reforms, with directors expressing concern over the impact it would have on domestic TV and commercial income at a meeting on Wednesday.
But the proposals do have the backing of the powerful European Clubs Association, which contains several members who have been drivers of a Super League, with the group’s chief executive Charlie Marshall telling the Financial Times Business of Football event earlier this week that «more European matches are important in the development of football.»
Few can argue that the glamour and quality of the Champions League’s knockout rounds are unmatched compared to domestic football but finding space in an already congested calendar for a group stage that can too often appear predictable (the overarching idea for a 10-game structure is for the big sides to play each other more) presents logistical challenges that will inevitably put someone’s nose out of joint.
«We absolutely feel there is room to play more European games. That’s bang in the centre of where we are coming from,» Marshall added. “We absolutely see it can work, we don’t see as many causes for alarm in the balance between European and domestic competition.”
Except no one wants to concede ground and, as usual, player welfare seems low down the list of priorities with huge financial sums at play. One imperfect solution would be for English clubs in Europe to sit out the domestic cup competitions but the FA and EFL’s reaction to that suggestion would not require elaboration.
Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, played the expected notes relating to his product being “amazing” regardless of what changes are made out of his clubs’ control when asked on Thursday. Although he was asked specifically about a Super League, this answer could easily apply to a revamped Champions League.
“Change brings concern, analysis and comment,” he said at the FT event. “Everyone is entitled to their own view, and we get all those views expressed around our table. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the Premier League will back itself to be optimistic in the future.
“Whatever reforms come through, it will be a strong competition. We’ve got amazing clubs, an amazing competition, we want that competitive balance and that mix of what clubs of all shapes and sizes deliver across the league. Whatever comes forth, I’m just optimistic about the future trajectory of the Premier League.”
The elephantine issue of allocating Champions League places should the competition have 36 teams is another that will leave some parties unhappy irrespective of the solution.
Will the biggest domestic competitions such as the Premier League and La Liga get an extra place or are the champions from other countries such as Scotland going to get a guaranteed spot without having to play in qualifiers?
Lars-Christer Olsson, the former UEFA executive who now heads up the European Leagues group, said that their preference is for “the champions of Scotland or Denmark, not the sixth-place team in England and Spain” to qualify should the changes be implemented.
But others argue that having the biggest and best clubs, regardless of which country they are based, improves competitiveness and therefore the overall product. The better the product, the more likely sponsors are willing to spend huge sums to associate their brand with it. Likewise broadcast rights.
The ECA’s preference would be getting the best teams regardless of geography, meaning additional representation from England, Spain, Germany and Italy. That could be decided on coefficient and past performances, one example being that Tottenham Hotspur would be involved if the proposals were in place currently because they reached the final two seasons ago.
“The system of access is overwhelmingly about how clubs perform in their domestic environment but it’s also about creating a really, really strong product,” Marshall said. “It’s not the greedy clubs taking all the money . . . but they are the ones who drive the value.”
Olsson described the plans as innovative and interesting with the decision, which will be made by UEFA’s congress, the most important facing continental club football since the early 1990s. On the flip side he argued that Champions League expansion would “cannibalise” domestic TV rights.
(BT Sport’s Simon Green, on a slightly different note, used his airtime at the conference to say a Super League would be “reinventing something that is worth less” and “it wouldn’t be worth as much as the existing leagues and Champions League are at the moment.”)
The FT event, which was moved online and attended by some of the game’s most influential behind the scenes figures, perhaps most notably saw Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga chief executive, deliver a withering takedown of unnamed super clubs, although the targets were blatantly obvious and Spanish.
«The brutal truth is that a few of these so-called super clubs are in fact poorly managed cash-burning machines that were not able, in a decade of incredible growth, to come close to a somehow sustainable business model,» he said.
Regardless of Barcelona and Real Madrid frittering away hundreds of millions without a care in the world, the pandemic has exacerbated the disparity between haves and have nots. Those outside of the billionaires’ sphere face more crippling losses and the overwhelming feeling among the smaller Premier League teams is that an increased emphasis on European football will drive a bigger wedge between them.
An extra Champions League place would be music to the ears of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham but as football fans is making the rich even richer really what we want?