By J Hutcherson (Jul 10, 2018) US Soccer Players – The champions of Scotland began their 2018-19 season on Tuesday, with Celtic on the road in Armenia in the Champions League qualifiers. Yes, the same day two UEFA national teams meet in the World Cup semifinals in a European country, Europe’s governing body needed to get on with their club competition. That the initial stage involves the winners of the Scottish Premier League is down to bigger leagues wanting more group stage places for their clubs and the UEFA coefficient. That doesn’t mean it makes sense.
It’s easier to make the argument against Celtic and the reconstituted version of Rangers as two of the biggest clubs in British soccer. They’re giants sharing a city and a lengthy history now dominated by Celtic. Whatever your feelings about the current version of Rangers, they’re playing in the same shirt and stadium as the club that joined Celtic in piling up titles. That includes Europe, with both making the final of the old UEFA Cup a decade ago.
Rangers fall after their insolvency ceded the space at the top of the table to Celtic. They took full advantage, turning a duopoly on titles into a monopoly. They’ve won every season since 2011-12 and back-to-back Scottish Cups. That’s earned them 47th-place in the UEFA club rankings, with the rest of the Scottish Premier League between 236 and 270. As a country, Scotland had dropped to 23rd and out of the automatic places for the Champions League and the Europa League. Only the winner of the Scottish Premier League gets into the Champions League, and it’s in the first qualifying round.
So mighty Celtic is playing Alashkert, the winners of the Armenian Premier League. Celtic leads the list in terms of familiar names in the first qualifying round, but they’re not the only recognizable club starting early. They’re not even the only former European champion. Red Star Belgrade is also in the first round. Norweigan champions Rosenborg and Swedish champions Malmo are also playing games that count in July.
It wasn’t that long ago where there was real talk about an Atlantic League, joining Scotland, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and Belgium into one league to try to combat what they all saw coming. Belgium still puts their champion into the group stage. The Eredivisie winner enters in the playoff round only because Real Madrid already had a spot in next season’s group stage when they won the 2017-18 title. Otherwise, the league of Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV would see their champion starting in the second qualifying round. This is the new normal for the clubs outside of Europe’s major leagues, and it’s going to be extremely difficult to change that.
For the big leagues and their clubs, that’s the point. When those very important stakeholders were pushing their case for more spots in the group stage, rumors spread that the Champions League might end up only for members of the top leagues. That didn’t happen, but there’s a clear feeling that it might end up that way. The hurdles for the teams from weaker leagues is significant.
Last season, Turkey’s Besiktas, Portugal’s Porto, Switzerland’s Basel, and Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donestk made it out of the group stage. All four failed to advance, giving us a knockout round of La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and Premier League clubs. The season before, only the Portuguese league disrupted the big leagues taking the knockout round spots. Benfica and Porto both exited in the round of 16, with Ligue 1 joining their fellow big league clubs in the quarterfinals.
This season it’s more difficult for the outsiders. UEFA’s format change comes into play, with the top four leagues putting four teams each into the group stage. That means four less teams from the qualifying rounds, and four less opportunities from the 50 other leagues putting teams into the Champions League. Four big leagues. 50 others making up the numbers.
What we’re seeing may not be a super league by default. There’s not enough guaranteed games for that, something representatives of the big clubs have already mentioned. What there also won’t be as many of is games against clubs not in the major European leagues. Instead, it’s the higher stakes version of what we’ll see later this month when the International Champions Cup starts up in the United States. The biggest teams in Europe playing each other.
UEFA seems to think this is what the people want. It’s certainly what their biggest leagues and clubs want. How this plays out will set the tone for the next stage of European club soccer. Dancing around a super league is part of the game there. With that in mind, the latest version of the Champions League is hardly a surprise.
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:
- Overreacting to World Cup upsets
- Can the Premier League handle the money?
- Is instant replay in soccer a feature or a bug?
- Does FIFA need self control?
Logo courtesy of UEFA