The Changing Game Part 7- 1994/95 in Europe

European competitions undergo several significant changes in 1994. First, that its top competition would begin in a group format for the first official stage. Second, that only 16 teams would compete in the first phase proper of this competition. Third, that only the champions of the 23 or 24 best ranked leagues (depending on the status of the holders) could compete at all in this top competition, with the remaining champions instead competing in the UEFA Cup.

Fourthly, that set match days would be introduced for the different competitions, with said UEFA Cup matches all taking place on Tuesday, the Champions League on Wednesday and the Cup Winners’ Cup on Thursday. Thursday night football was also a new addition. Finally, in addition to being played on Thursday nights, this competition would officially change its name from the European Cup Winners’ Cup to the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.

The reason for all this re-formatting was largely down to the expiration, in 1994, of UEFA’s contract with the European Broadcasting Union. After 30 years and with the internet not being widely used back in 1994, it’s difficult to find any verification for this.

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I’ve also been unable to find a definitive reason for the decision to exclude half of Europe’s Champions from the top competition, to reduce the number of teams in the first official phase (the Group Stage) to 16, or to bring this group stage forward to take place immediately after the preliminary rounds. Therefore, what follows will be speculation.

A more favourable format for the wealthier clubs had been under consideration since 1986, when two of Europe’s heavyweights, Real Madrid and Juventus, faced each other in the last 16, i.e. the second round of the knockout format. With both teams among the favourites to win it, the fact that they were pitted against each other in the early rounds instead meant that one of them would see their European adventure come to an end in early November. The absence of one of these giants from the latter stages of the competition could also have an adverse effect on interest, and consequently viewing figures, attendances and therefore revenues on the competition itself.

Ironically the initial change – to replace the old quarter-finals and semi-finals with a group stage, would not have altered that situation, as that format would still have seen these two giants meet in the second knockout round. Having seeded teams could only really be applied in the first round, so that wouldn’t have helped either.

Under the system in place from 1991 to 1994, one only has to listen to interviews from managers involved in the second knockout round during what would be its final season, in the autumn of 1993, talking about the importance of reaching “the lucrative group stage” – for teams who weren’t realistically going to win the competition, a place in the group stage became as sought after as the FA Cup Third Round for teams outside the top two divisions.

With new and bigger broadcasting deals at stake, this group stage would become even more lucrative.

A four team group stage guaranteed the more influential clubs from the top ranked nations three home games for gate receipts and six matches for TV revenue.

It also guaranteed the broadcasters themselves six games featuring their nation’s top side, along with highlights of all the other group matches involving the Europe’s other more glamorous clubs.

And, to be cynical about it, the system of having two top-ranked teams in a double-round robin group with two unseeded preliminary-round winners would increase the likelihood of these powerful clubs reaching the latter stages, furthering the interest and therefore revenue of the competition later on.

In a one off match, anything can happen – the unpredictability of individual games is one of the reasons for the sport’s popularity. Even over a two-legged tie, the unfancied team might scrape through by a single goal or through the away goals rule or a penalty shoot-out. However, over the course of six matches in the group stage, the quality and the strength in depth of the richer clubs should prevail. It still wasn’t a guarantee – in 1994, unseeded Swedish part-timers IFK Gothenberg finished top of their group which contained Barcelona and Manchester United.

Ironically the English side would have been more concerned at the prospect of facing the other unseeded team, Galatasary, for the second season running. Alex Ferguson’s reaction to the group stage draw was recorded for the club’s video magazine, and while being interviewed during this same recording session, in July 1994, the Manchester United manager quite prophetically stated:

It’s time for Manchester United to grow into Europe and realise that it’s part of the modern game.

Little over four years earlier, Europe still wasn’t on the agenda for English clubs, which just makes this statement even more startling. From these comments, it’s also possible that the prospect of this Champions League being further expanded, or the breakaway “superleague”, was around even as early as this.

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As stated in the 1993/94 review, it’s ironic that when criticising the 2021 model of this super-league, one of the biggest concerns was that it would be a “closed shop”, as that’s exactly what the competition became from 1994.

For the reasons to exclude so many of Europe’s champions from even competing in preliminary rounds of this competition:
Since 1991, several former Soviet and Yugoslav states had become independent countries and formed their own football leagues. In addition to it meaning Europe would no longer conveniently have 32 eligible teams (sometimes one or two more, sometimes one less) for its two main competitions, respectfully, many of these entrants from newly formed nations would not be of the quality to compete.

Obviously there are exceptions – the Ukrainian and Croatian leagues could still boast high calibre club sides, as could what remained of Russia and Yugoslavia. However, the fall of the old Eastern Bloc meant greater freedom of movement for players in this region, so many of the best players from these leagues were expected to head to the more lucrative leagues of Western Europe. Even greater freedom of movement could be enjoyed from December 1995 onwards, thanks for the rulings after the Bosman case. More on that next time! For now though, all these changes were expected to further dilute the quality of the teams from the Eastern European leagues, leading to more “mismatches” if all these teams were involved in the competition.

Instances of the aggregate score being in double figures, especially in the first round, were plentiful throughout European footballing history. Even in 1994, under this newer format, the preliminary round saw the aforementioned Galatasary achieve a 9-1 aggregate score against Avenir Beggen of Luxemburg, and they were one of the 24 chosen teams!

Imagine this happening in all six matches. In addition to it being painful for the minnows involved, supporters of the bigger clubs, and the TV audience, could quickly lose interest. While it can be argued that it happens all the time in International Qualifying groups, this was different because this was a reformatted club competition that UEFA were trying to make as appealing as possible.

The only way to include all champions (I believe it would have been 39 at the time) while giving the higher ranked ones a bye into the group stage, would have been to have two or three qualifying rounds, as they do now. It’s therefore worth noting that, at this point, there had only ever been one preliminary round, taking place in August, and where possible they kept to the calendar of allowing two weeks between each leg, and three weeks between each tie. Given that the 1994 World Cup Final only took place on July 17, they would have had to have started the qualifying process while that tournament was still going on – again, it happens now, but it would have been incomprehensible at the time.

Furthermore, there was already a summer tournament, the Intertoto Cup, so having qualifying rounds for the biggest European competition of all take place in June and July would have infringed on this. Therefore the format of only having one preliminary round was adhered to, and presumably it was capped it at 24 teams simply because it made the numbers neater – 16 unseeded teams are whittled down to eight, to join the eight seeded teams in the groups. Two of each per group.

Like today, the top two teams in each group progressed, with the group winners playing the group runners up in a knockout round, group winners having home advantage in the second leg.

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I’ve often wondered why the round after the group stage isn’t a one-off match, with group winners at home to group runners up. The answer may lie in the 1994 semi-finals, in which they experimented with just this format.  In both matches, the home team won 3-0 (AC Milan and Barcelona both enjoying blowout victories against Monaco and Porto respectively), so perhaps it was felt that a two-legged tie would make it more competitive while still giving the group winners an advantage by having the second leg at home. Maybe if the 1994 semi-finals had been closer games, in future years the quarter finals, and later the “round-of-16” that we have now, would have been decided in one match.

So much of these events combine.

Maybe if they hadn’t already had a group stage, it could have followed the format of the Cup Winners’ Cup, which simply had more teams involved in the Preliminary Round to get the numbers down to 32 for the first round proper. But once a group stage had been introduced in 1991, there was no going back.

Maybe if the European nations and leagues had stayed as they were in the 1980s, the reformat wouldn’t have been as drastic – even if the number of teams had been capped at 24, there’d be fewer Champions excluded.

The combination of events, though, along with further considerations for broadcasting and maybe even threats of a breakaway league as early as 1994, resulted in this outcome. To put it simply, something had to be done.

On to the set match days, and the effect this would have on domestic leagues. The Cup Winners’ Cup being played on a Thursday night meant that English entrants could move their following league fixture, traditionally played on a Satuday, to Sunday instead. It wasn’t guaranteed – the proposed Saturday opponents would have to agree to it. In April 1995, QPR refused to move their game after Arsenal had played in the first leg of their semi-final against Sampdoria, caretaker boss Stuart Houston blaming  this for his side’s loss at Loftus Road. Even as late as September 1998, Newcastle played at Coventry less than 48 hours after playing at home to Partizan Belgarde , and showed little sign of fatigue at Highfield Road as they won 5-1.

However, with only one entrant (or two if an English side were the holders), and with it now being the competition with the fewest matchweeks, the affect this had on the Premier League was minimal compared with the affect that the set UEFA Cup matchday would have on the continent.

With up to four entrants, more matchweeks, a tendency for their teams to reach the latter stages and an aversion to playing twice in three days, the traditional Sunday matchday in Spain, Italy and Germany was to be severely disrupted, with potentially almost half the weekend’s fixtures having to be brought forward to Saturday to accommodate teams competing in the UEFA Cup.

While the UEFA Cup still proved difficult for English clubs to progress in – since the ban, only Liverpool (in their first season back in Europe) had been able to reach the Quarter Final – and as ever, the English Champions failed to reach the last eight of the European Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup continued to provide a platform for them to prosper. Chelsea, thrashed 4-0 in the 1994 FA Cup final and only in this competition due to Manchester United winning the double, and still a mid-table side in 1995, would reach the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Arsenal, also having a mid-table season and dealing with all kinds of turmoil off the pitch (see previous article), would go one better and reach the final, famously conceding Nayim’s long range effort in the last minute of extra time.

The continued involvement of English clubs in the latter stages of this competition, when they couldn’t seem to get going in the others since being re-admitted to Europe, would suggest that, despite still being considered Europe’s second competition with its winners competing in the Super Cup, it was starting to look third rate, and a poor relation to the increasingly sophisticated Champions League, and now even to the highly competitive UEFA Cup, with its volume of numerous entrants from top leagues and (by comparison) marathon run to win the competition.

Perhaps this is why the Cup Winners’ Cup was moved to the unusual Thursday night spot. Maybe this spelled the beginning of the end for this storied competition.

The 1994/95 season was arguably the beginning of the modern era in Europe.

The Author

David Hardman

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