For a grossly commercialized, sometimes cynical tournament, the Champions League still manages to retain a certain romance. Maybe it’s the lingering vestige of the old European Cup or the inherent attraction of a pan-continental competition, but whatever it is, football is at its sparkly-est, most glimmering, when played with the famous star-ball.
The competition is set to change, though. From next season onwards, Europe’s top four leagues - the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A - will be guaranteed four Champions League places each, with clubs in both Europe’s premier club tournament and the Europa League to receive more cash. The rich and getting richer.
Champions League reform has been on the cards for quite some time, with the European Clubs Association pressuring UEFA into weighting the competition in favor of the continent’s elite. They wanted a closed shop, with a select group of super-clubs assured of their Champions League place season after season. They wanted an American-style franchise, cutting the biggest and best off from the rest of the system.
“A super league outside of the Champions League is being born,” Bayern Munich chief executive Karl-Heinz Rumenigge mused with regards to the future of elite European football. “It will either be led by UEFA or by a separate entity, because there is a limit to how much money can be made.” Rumenigge wasn’t alone in expressing such a bullish view, with Juventus president Andrea Agnelli making the same point.
What they got was a compromise, but UEFA has still buckled to the demands of the sport’s elite. No longer will clubs from Europe’s big four leagues face the indignity of play-off qualifiers, putting them on a pedestal above less lucrative, less illustrious divisions played in smaller countries. There is now a clear distinction between the best and the rest, the rich and the not so rich.
This is the closest football has come to forming the super league Rummenige spoke about. It has speculated for quite some time, but the notion is no longer a fanciful pipeline. It seems inevitable that one day Europe’s biggest clubs will break away from the authoritative bodies that, as they see it, suppress them. The changes made to the Champions League last week could prove a watershed in the history of the continental game.
“What is important is we have to sit down the European clubs, the top clubs and think about the Champions League, because the it is the best competition and we have to do it in a way in which we get more income,” Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu explained earlier this year, echoing the sentiment of many footballing chiefs across the continent.
And that’s what it comes down to - money. This season’s Premier League champions will receive a prize pot of £150 million, while the Champions League winners will receive just £40-£50 million. The disparity between those two figures is the source of much disgruntlement and prompted talks between many of Europe’s elite in London last March, with a long-mooted breakaway pact the subject of their discussion.
Clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Real Madrid are brands in their own right regardless of whether they have the Champions League logo to stitch on to the sleeves of their shirts or not. Conversely, the Champions League is so prestigious because of the clubs it encompasses. One needs the other, but the reverse is not necessarily applicable.
The clubs have the leverage and that could see UEFA pushed further and further back until Europe’s elite get exactly what they want. The process has already begun and it’s difficult to envisage how it can be halted, preserving the delicate balance that is starting to teeter over the verge. New UEFA president Gianni Infantino positions himself as a friend of the continent’s biggest clubs, a concierge of sorts, but he will surely become an enemy at some point in the near future.
For the time being, though, their restlessness has been somewhat settled. This will appease the ECA and their discontented protagonists for at least the next few seasons, but their disquiet will again bubble to the surface soon enough.SHOW MORE