From 2018 UEFA’s Group Stages will be a bridge too far for Europe’s minnows

Dundalk’s European exploits were a boost for not just the SSE Airtricity League, but also for all the smaller leagues around Europe.

An Irish club playing and competing at the group stages is a unique and rare source of pride for Ireland’s domestic game.

However UEFA’s proposed changes from 2018 mean it will probably never happen again.


Stephen Kenny is targeting the group stages of the UEFA Champions league next season. There are five places available this year for the champions outside of Europe’s top leagues.

Dundalk will need a bit of luck in the second round draw and even if they come through they will still require two sensational wins against higher ranked opponents. It is probably a bridge too far.

Seventeen of the 55 UEFA countries have never had a club from their league play group stage football.

The Europa League representatives from the smaller countries need to negotiate four rounds to reach the group stages. This is a tall order and will remain a difficult proposition.

The group stages of the Europa League is now an attainable target for their champions. They need to negotiate their opening Champions League tie.

Round three will throw up a difficult draw and it would only be surmounted with a stunning performance, much like Dundalk defeating BATE.

In 2011 Shamrock Rovers defeated the Estonian champions and then surprised Partizan.

Dundalk defeated the Icelandic champions this time out and the win over BATE ensured group stage football. One big result is enough under the current format. This offers hope for the smaller clubs.

Helsinki’s HJK are the leading club in Finland. In 1998 they became the only Finnish club to reach the UEFA Champions League group stages.

Europe’s biggest leagues had only two spots at the time and HJK defeated FC Yerevan and met the surprise French runner-up Metz in the final qualifying round. A 2-1 aggregate win earned them a place in the group stages.

In 2014 they became the first Finnish side to reach the group stages of the Europa League by defeating Rapid Vienna.


From 2018 teams like those cited above will need a miracle. The new changes mean an extra Champions League spot for the fourth placed teams in the major leagues and only four places for those champions outside of Europe’s top ten leagues.

Crucially for the smaller champions it will mean an extra round will need to be negotiated. They will require three huge results to reach the group stages.

The new format does provide the safety net of a second chance in the Europa League to those who lose first time out.

However, the path to the Europa League Group stages will now require at least two wins over higher ranked national champions.

For the likes of Dundalk and HJK two such wins in the same season is a huge ask.

The gap between rich and poor in European club football is staggering. The recent UEFA Club licensing report states that the combined revenue of the 20 English Premier League clubs is higher than the combined revenue of the 597 clubs in the top flight of UEFA’s 48 lowest ranked leagues.

The SSE Airtricity League is ranked 36th in revenue, just below the Icelandic league and just above the Irish League of Northern Ireland.

The average League of Ireland club revenue is €900,000; the average revenue per club in the Premier League is over €220 million.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a pay cut of €30,000 per week to join Manchester United.  Despite that, the Swede still earns almost €3 million more in a year than the twelve clubs combined in the top flight of the SSE Airtricity league

Whereas Dundalk’s revenue from the group stages of the Europa League ensures their financial stability for years to come, Manchester United’s won’t cover half of Zlatan’s annual salary.

UEFA do state they will continue to increase contributions to all clubs and leagues, but significantly they also state:

A new four-pillar financial distribution system (starting fee, performance in the competition, individual club coefficient and market pool) will see sporting performances better rewarded.

This, unfortunately, means an even bigger share of the revenue for those who advance furthest in the competitions.

It is not just the revenue for these clubs. In practical terms Dundalk’s exploits meant exposure to potential new fans and sponsors and in very real terms it gave the current players and fans an experience of a lifetime.

From 2018 these games will again seem like an impossible dream.


UEFA’s new Nations League guarantees a place in Euro 2020 and subsequent tournaments for one of the 16 lowest ranked UEFA national teams.

Only Latvia of the current bottom 20 has ever appeared in a major finals. This move will ensure new countries get to experience tournament football in the years to come, thus developing the game across Europe.

Yet as UEFA open up major tournaments to the smaller countries they are closing off the big stage for the clubs of the smaller leagues.

If one of the 24 places in a European finals can be reserved for UEFA’s smaller countries, then surely one (or two) of the 48 on offer in the group stages of the Europa League can also be reserved for the minnows of Europe and allow them the experience of top level continental competition.

The Author

Gary Spain

Limerick born, Dublin based fan of Limerick FC and the Republic of Ireland national team. Gary has a keen interest in football across the island of Ireland and worldwide. He is a contributor to the Republic of Ireland and Limerick FC programmes and to Northern Ireland Football magazine.

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