By J Hutcherson (Jul 23, 2019) US Soccer Players – There’s an old truism about the Champions League. For most teams, it only really counts if you make the group stage. For the elite, it’s making the knockout round. Whenever a team tries to stretch that to the Europa League, it falls flat. UEFA downgraded their secondary competition too many times. The only thing that counts at that level is winning if you don’t already have a Champions League spot secured for next season.
UEFA couldn’t stay out of its own way at Champions League level either. That continual threat of a super league breakaway led to the current situation. There are too many guaranteed places for Europe’s major leagues in the group stage. That means too many qualifiers of questionable value in a system where that was already a problem.
The Champions League qualifiers start in late June because otherwise there wouldn’t be enough time to fit them in. That hasn’t slowed UEFA down. Instead of seeing that as a problem, they’ve opted for stressing inclusivity. Look at how many opportunities exist for clubs representing the smaller leagues in Europe. They can play through a scenario stacked against them almost from the beginning. Sure, Ajax made the semifinals after needing to advance through the later stages of qualifying. What does that mean to teams without that tradition that don’t have the finances of one of Europe’s premier selling clubs?
Ajax made a choice last season. They held onto talent they would’ve otherwise sold to make a Champions League run. It worked for them because of their unique position. Very little about what Ajax did is replicable, even for Ajax. It’s not a feel good story for the rest of Europe existing outside of the big four leagues.
Those big four leagues want more. That’s the strain on UEFA and their biggest money maker. The elite clubs would prefer as close to a locked in Champions League as possible. They’re looking to minimize the risk of finding themselves left out, regardless of how they’re doing in their domestic league. It makes sense from their perspective. While some would welcome a league of domestic champions only, that’s not what sells European soccer as a brand around the world. Even glory hunting has its limits and it’s a safe assumption that it ends somewhere in the top 20 of the biggest revenue generating clubs in Europe.
None of this is news for the clubs or UEFA. It’s the fine line that they’ve been walking since the early 90s. The difference right now is how close to the elite clubs UEFA has already moved. The guaranteed group stage spots for the elite leagues. How seriously they’re taking the push for guaranteed places for specific clubs with the only way out relegation. This may be the new Europe, in it to appease the elite while maximizing revenue. What it’s not, at least not yet, is a bureaucratic pushback against any suggestion of a breakaway.
If you’re UEFA, that has to be in the playbook somewhere. It could be in the desperation appendix, but it’s in there. At some point, the clubs will push so far that there’s no other option. UEFA threatens what they can reasonably deliver and the clubs decide whether or not that’s enough to stay in the current structure. In other words, what plenty of people expected to happen a long time ago.
The problem for UEFA is whether or not that kills the super league as a workable idea. The existential threat to the game as we know it has plenty of power, but only if UEFA is willing to take it to its logical end. What we’re seeing now is an organization unwilling to do that. Instead, they’ll change format and scope of their biggest tournament well aware that it’s those elite clubs that make it their biggest tournament. It’s not even a game of chicken. The clubs are well aware of the power that they hold. It’s already gotten FIFA to pay them for use of their players at the World Cup. It’s forced UEFA into this ridiculous version of the Champions League with more changes on the way.
UEFA can’t make substantive alterations until 2023-24. There’s the feeling already with that season as the breaking point for the European club game as we know it. Something will give, and it will most likely be UEFA doing as expected. UEFA has already reached the point where asking about the leagues and clubs outside of the elite makes little sense. Instead, it’s a simple scenario. Will European soccer’s governing body do just enough to convince the majority of the elite clubs that there’s less of a risk staying put than leaving?
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.
More from J Hutcherson:
- The new MLS playoff problem
- Concacaf’s next move
- The Europa League problem
- Does MLS know that it’s a league in transition?
Log courtesy of UEFA