By J Hutcherson (Apr 3, 2017) US Soccer Players – Last week, the European Club Association (ECA) telling everybody willing to listen that they’re thrilled with the job UEFA is doing. Namely, the latest tweaks to the Champions League that will guarantee more places for the elite leagues and their biggest clubs.
The ECA is calling this “sporting value”, and it doesn’t take much to parse that. The Champions League has always been a space filler for the super league, providing the games while stifling the threat of a breakaway. That pretty much everyone with an opinion on European soccer has predicted that breakaway at one point or another is part of the fabric at this point.
“The club competition reform is without a single doubt very good news for all clubs in Europe,” ECA chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. “Everyone in European club football, and I am saying this with total conviction, will benefit from this reform. It is a fair, qualitative and serious decision that speaks to our solidarity in European club football. The reform will make the Champions League more emotional and stronger than ever before. I am convinced that we will find a good solution as well for 2021-24, which will further highlight our unity.”
In other words, the clubs are currently slightly happier than they would’ve been with a strictly competitive future. The Champions League has a basic role. It determines the best club team in Europe during the regular domestic calendar through a tournament based on where clubs finished the prior season. The rest is complication, something UEFA has been very good at since moving to league format.
The ECA represents more than the elite clubs. Still, they’re the inheritor of the old G-14 lobbying group ethos. What’s good for the elite is good for everyone else because it increases the value at the top. If this is soccer’s version of trickle down economics, it has its proponents. The European club game is making money for a lot of leagues and clubs, some of whom wouldn’t flatter themselves that they’re among the top 16 to 20 that would be part of a super league.
Protecting that is part of the point for the European Club Association. They may be front loaded with the same super clubs that formed the G-14 and expanded it to 18 members, but their brief is larger. It’s the whole of the European clubs positioned in contrast to UEFA and the European leagues. They’re in this position to act in their own mutual interests, whatever that might be.
So does playing nice with the latest UEFA plans for a Champions League means things have changed? Maybe. The big clubs are once again getting what they think they want. It’s worth remembering that at one point they thought they wanted a double group stage. Guaranteed games turned into guaranteed malaise. UEFA knows what happens when their tweaks to the Champions League don’t work out. It’s their fault, and up to them to change things quickly.
UEFA being UEFA, there’s the basic idea that a governing body is necessary. That somehow it takes a UEFA to organize a tournament for Europe’s professional soccer clubs. To some extent, they’re right. A true breakaway super league is a destabilizing move that changes things across the board. Though some of the rumored attempts at a super league either ignore or downplay the impact, it’s ridiculous to think everyone else continues on as usual.
It might be that keeping the super clubs in place. In the same press release, FIFA deputy secretary general Zvonimir Boban said, “Clubs are a key player in the professional game and need to be listened to”. Well obviously, but there’s more to it than that. Right now, the European super clubs might be the only player when it comes to what the game looks like in the immediate future. It’s their ambition dictating to everyone else.
That’s not how FIFA, UEFA, or anybody else in the current soccer bureaucracy sees the world. Instead, it’s a collective of equals. The European Club Association invites the bulk of Europe’s clubs in, but there’s an obvious and necessary hierarchy when talking about things like the Champions League.
Eventually, that hierarch may again decide that its wants and needs are divergent from the rest. That was the point of the G-14. It made sense then and it makes sense now. Very little UEFA can do will change that basic underlying premise. It’s professional soccer’s impending disruption and we’re all waiting to see how it plays out.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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