Last Thursday, after speculation concerning a reform of the UEFA Champions League, UEFA announced their plans to give four guaranteed group stage places to the four highest ranked leagues. No longer will clubs from England, Spain, Italy and Germany have to contest a play-off before entering the Champions League. In addition, the UEFA coefficient will now be calculated every ten years as opposed to every five, and a club’s history will now play a part.
The winners from this deal? Undoubtedly Italy. Whilst Spain, England, and Germany are used to having four clubs competing in the Champions League, only the top two clubs qualify in Italy, with a further one entering the play-off round. They are now surely over-represented in a competition they rarely make an impact on. Last week, Roma lost 4-1 on aggregate to Porto and in doing so failed to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League. That makes it the fifth time in the past six years that an Italian club has failed at that stage. Questions must be asked as to why Italy have been given four automatic spots, when they have proved that their third best is not good enough to even qualify?
Eyebrows have been raised at a deal that effectively doubles Italy’s presence in the Champions League. Italian clubs, which have managed to make just two appearances in the semi finals of Europe’s elite competition in the past nine years, (Spain 13, England 10 and Germany 8) are now classed in the same tier as clubs from clearly stronger and higher quality leagues. Villarreal and Roma, who both would have qualified automatically for the groups under the new rules, were knocked out in the playoffs by French and Portuguese clubs respectively (Monaco and Porto). This surely is evidence for their need to still contest these playoffs, and earn their right to battle it out with Europe’s elite.
After the group stage draw had taken place for this year’s competition, it cannot be denied that there was more excitement over Arsenal versus Paris Saint-Germain than Basel versus Ludogorets. Everyone wants to see the top teams fighting it out. It generates more television revenue, and it sparks more excitement amongst football fans and the media. However, football above all is meritocratic. Clubs have to earn their right to compete with Europe’s elite, and these new reforms are a worrying step in the direction of AC Milan’s proposition to have wildcard entries for the tournament, based on ‘historical merit’.
Wildcard entries would see the Milan and Manchester clubs invited to participate in the Champions League, despite their constant domestic failures. Rewarding clubs like AC Milan and Manchester United for failing to put their astonishing financial advantage to use and qualify for the Champions League goes against football’s core principles. Presumably it would be those less wealthy clubs who, having finished above them, would have to make way, being punished for their shrewdness, efficiency and tactical nous.
Despite the blatant and laughable corruption on-going in the sport’s governing bodies, many football fans take pride in the fairness and equality present in football. Shocks and surprises are more prevalent in football than any other sport. It is not only the super-elite who can hope for glory, as shown by the domestic success of Atlético Madrid, Leicester City and Borussia Dortmund in recent years. However these new reforms only benefit the bigger clubs, now making it even harder for smaller and less wealthy clubs to reach the group stages of the Champions League.
As big clubs no longer face the danger of being knocked out in the play-offs, and mega-rich broadcasting companies are licking their lips at another increase in revenue, this can only be described as a reform championed by the elite for the elite.