This season’s Champions League began in familiar fashion. The powerhouses of European club football slaughtered their competition.
Celtic, FC Rostov and Legia Warsaw lost 7-0, 5-0 and 6-0 respectively. For teams like these, participating in the Champions League has become little more than well paid masochism.
Once the floodlights dimmed across Europe, many questioned the competitiveness of Europe’s premier competition. Former Scotland international and TV pundit Craig Burley said on ESPNFC.com,
The early group stages are not particularly interesting…UEFA have to find a better format to make this a more competitive competition from start to finish.
The Second Captains podcast anchor, Eoin McDevitt, questioned why anyone would want to watch “all these ridiculously one sided games”.
And it is hard to disagree. Such is the polarisation of European football, even the later stages of the Champions League have become predictably mundane. Its safe to assume this season’s semi-finals will follow the same formula of the last seven seasons: at least two out of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich will be there.
In the last 20 years of the competition only Porto, in 2004, have been surprise champions. In that same period, Monaco represent the only other club from a country out with England, Germany, Italy and Spain to reach the final.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the idea of a European Super League was revisited once again this summer. Some of Europe’s top clubs met to discuss the idea with representatives of a Chinese media company, the Dalian Wanda group. No clear details of the proposed league became publicly known; the meeting did, of course.
Rumours of a Super League are nothing new. In 1998, for example, Europe’s biggest clubs met with Rodolfo Hecht, president of Media Partners.
The Italian company’s proposal for a Super League was discussed at length. It came to nothing in the end. UEFA responded by enlarging the Champions’ League from 24 to 32 teams, and including further teams from the top leagues.
A decade later, in 2009, Florentine Perez begun his second spell as Real Madrid president by reviving the idea. “We have to agree a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always play the best,” he told Spanish media at the time.
Once again, UEFA parried the threat. The Champions League format was rejigged by holding the last-16 round of fixtures over four weeks rather than two. Less games clashing meant greater revenue. The Super League idea subsided once more.
Until this summer, that is. Again UEFA parried the threat by adapting the Champions League.
This time, though, they responded in a way they haven’t in the past. UEFA appeased Europe’s elite at the expense of smaller clubs.
From the 2018-19 season on, four teams from Europe’s top four ranked leagues – currently, Spain, Germany, England, and Italy – will automatically slip into the Champions League group stage.
Further, the financial gain for competing in the Champions League will take into account a club’s coefficient.
This coefficient, based on performance in European competition over the previous five season, is to be boosted by historic success in European competitions.
When these changes come into effect, it will not only be tougher for teams like Celtic and FC Rostov to compete regularly in the Champions League group stages, but they will also find themselves further financially outstripped by Europe’s elite.
UEFA’s appeasement of the big clubs is understandable. Fears of a breakaway league are legitimate.
Writing in ESPN.com, Gabriel Marcotti said the threat posed this summer was “realistic enough that UEFA’s lead negotiators […] believed them.”
Its also worth remembering that the Premier League was formed by a breakaway of the top division teams. They done so with the aim of securing a more lucrative television deal; well and truly, their plans worked.
Rather ironically, it is the Premier League’s financial success storey which has, in a large part, revived the threat of a European breakaway.
The Premier League’s current television deal—worth £5 billion over three years—is seen by teams in the rest of Europe as a real problem.
A Super League is one solution to this problem; it is, as Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge described it, “money’s siren call.”
UEFA, though, must tread carefully. Though there is a real threat of Europe’s elite breaking away, of answering that siren call, UEFA’s continued appeasement may unwitting create the very thing they are trying to ward against.
Their latest compromise is the first time they have sacrificed the prospects of smaller teams from smaller leagues in order to assuage the demands of Europe’s powerhouses. Step by step, slowly retreating, UEFA are already on the way to creating a Super League.