By J Hutcherson (May 24, 2018) US Soccer Players – On Saturday, Real Madrid plays Liverpool (2:45pm ET – FOX) in the biggest game on the European soccer schedule. The Champions League final is the de facto club world championship, something made clear by how many people watch it versus the actual Club World Cup. For Real Madrid, it’s an attempt at a three-peat, the most dominant performance we’ve seen in the modern era of the European Cup.
How long the modern era lasts is now an open question. In an interview with The Guardians’ David Conn, Juventus chairman and more importantly European Club Association chairman Andrea Agnelli wants more from the Champions League. At least more for the big clubs that dominate it on the field and off.
The recent history of the Champions League is easy to understand just by focusing on tournament organizer UEFA’s attempts to appease the big clubs. The most recent example is more guaranteed group stage places for the biggest domestic leagues in Europe. Agnelli wants to take that another step, reorganizing European club soccer with the focus firmly on the Champions League. He’s well aware what a plan like his means. Less domestic league obligations and more big games in Europe.
“We all want more international [European] games and less domestic, combined with an overall reduction of games because we don’t want to go over a certain number. And we said: ‘Let’s come up with a proposal.’”
It’s not hard to guess that the “we” in question are the big clubs, specifically the big clubs outside of the Premier League. Domestic and international broadcast rights have turned the Premier League into a money machine. The numbers thrown around not just for salaries and transfer fees, but for solidarity payments to relegated clubs and the windfall for promoted clubs isn’t lost on the rest of Europe. The quickest way to produce something similar for themselves is to bypass their domestic leagues and put the focus squarely on the Champions League.
Whether or not there’s an audience for this latest potential revamp needs it to happen. There’s no “in theory” when it comes to what the market will reward in pro soccer, at least not right now. There’s an argument that what plenty of people assume is a rights bubble may not be. Instead, we’re into a new normal that is heavily rewarding one domestic league more than others.
This also isn’t lost on other stakeholders. From the annual International Champions Cup in the United States every summer to FIFA’s plans to expand the Club World Cup, people see opportunity. That includes the clubs themselves.
FIFA is now postponing the vote on expanding the Club World Cup and creating a Global Nations League in part due to the pushback from UEFA. They already have the biggest club competition in world soccer and invented the Nations League concept for themselves. With that in mind, it’s hardly a surprise that they don’t necessarily want to play nice with FIFA.
Looking at it from FIFA’s perspective is similar to any other potential stakeholder watching other stakeholders rake in money. The initial push for the Club World Cup was to establish FIFA as about more than national team soccer. The results haven’t fully gone their way, producing a tournament that stays on the schedule in large part because FIFA controls the schedule. Their power to obligate clubs flows through the confederations. Now, it’s at least one confederation telling FIFA no more.
The club vs country and appropriate number of games during the course of the season are almost more cliches than battles at this point. Yet neither look to go away. FIFA wanted smaller domestic leagues over twenty years ago, the better to leave open space in the schedule for other obligations. It’s lost on precisely nobody that players representing successful clubs and countries play a lot of soccer every season. Offering to correct that by expanding tournaments and starting new ones may seem ridiculous, but there’s a method in play.
All of the expansion plans take from the domestic league schedule. FIFA might once again advocate smaller domestic leagues. Agnelli points to deeper squads with limitations on what the big Champions League clubs do domestically. In other words, major changes to the sport as we know it.
That’s always the push, especially when large amounts of revenue might be at stake. Change things to make it better for some, with the hope that it doesn’t mess with what’s already in place. If the European Club Association is serious about a not-quite super league, it will keep UEFA involved. Seeing off a breakaway has been their long-term project for years now, one that has seen threats rise and fall. From their perspective, tinkering with the Champions League format isn’t a monumental ask. Instead, it’s the latest reminder that when it comes to the Champions League and Europe’s biggest clubs, nothing has changed.
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 email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- MLS, MLB, the NHL, and the expansion game
- Who has the most to lose in Europe?
- West Ham’s problem
- Where should MLS be playing?
Logo courtesy of the European Club Association