Reports that UEFA are considering expanding their Champions League competition (UCL) today floats in the wake of previous proclamations concerning the future of continental football. Primarily, the Barcelona President Sandro Rossell’s threat to UEFA, that major European clubs would form a breakaway continental league in 2014, when the European Club Association’s (ECA) ‘contract’ with UEFA ends. Rossell wants an expansion of elite European football and a subsequent decrease in the numbers of teams competing in the top tier of domestic leagues in order to make time for the extra European workload. He also envisages big European weekend clashes replacing the traditional Saturday afternoon-evening domestic meetings. ‘United V Barcelona’ rather than Watford V Wolves. Rossell’s ideas are focused towards increased profitability in the European sector, not necessarily by running his own international competition, but by manipulating UEFA and the domestic footballing governors into creating conditions that can inflate the value of football beyond its wildest dreams.
If it were not for the apparent capitalist undertones to the ultimatum, Rossell’s notion of a breakaway elite competition isn’t actually a bad idea. It returns to the original format of the European Cup, in that only the highest achieving clubs compete for the title of European Champions, instead of the more general competition that exists today. The concept of a true elite trophy would make a shorter, sharper and more meaningful competition. Unfortunately, it would also make the European format less profitable for big clubs, (the idea being that bigger is better) and thus, Rossell is hoping that enough clubs will follow Barcelona either to make a breakaway league financially lucrative, or to force UEFA into giving into the ECA’s demands for a larger UCL. It follows that in order to fit such an increased timetable into the footballing calendar, domestic competitions would have to be decreased in size.
Rossell seems to suggest some form of ‘blackmail’ to European leagues; that they must decrease in line with ‘proposed regulations’ in order to compete, should a separate competition be organised. Either way, the ECA are probably right in saying that domestic league fixtures in particular would have to be compromised somewhat in number, to allow for more European fixtures. Thus, the idea of weekend European football is conceived. As exciting as this may be, there was uproar a couple of years ago, when the UCL final was moved form a Wednesday to a Saturday night to increase audience numbers and accessibility. It is not hard to imagine the discontent, especially from top-tier clubs not involved in European football, that could arise if the entire competition was relocated to weekend slots.
What Rossell and the ECA are envisaging, is a European competition that becomes the absolute priority for players and the board of all top-tier football clubs. By reducing club numbers in top-tier divisions, and increasing places in the European competition, teams would battle longer and harder to make it into Europe. The ‘Continentalisation’ of football in this sense would bring more money to top clubs, and increase their leverage at international level, where figures such as Rossell are also complaining, claiming that bodies such as FIFA benefit too greatly from players funded by clubs. This attitude continues to portray the modern (maybe only European, but inevitably not) footballing world as overly focused on success in finance, even if there has to be some success on the footballing field to achieve profits.
Platini Under Pressure
To be fair to UEFA, they are taking a relaxed stance on the matter. Michel Platini, UEFA President, has made it clear that he cannot see the practicality of large clubs creating a breakaway competition, and thus, right now anyway, will probably be unmoved by any blackmail attempts. All that UEFA have said is that they are considering the options for the UCL after 2014 when the current agreement with the ECA, to put on a 32-team competition, runs out. A 64-team structure has apparently been discussed, and conveniently fits in with Rossell’s desires, but no further implications, such as changes to domestic leagues, has been mentioned. This 64-team trophy would, for instance, allow seven English and five Scottish clubs to compete in at least the qualifying rounds of the UCL, placing a much higher potential prize on those positions just outside of the traditional ‘glory spots’. Whether Platini, potentially like Rossell, is bluffing or not is to be seen over the next year or so, but there are those that would urge him, for both tradition’s and common sense’s sake, to back UEFA and stand firm against the clubs that want as big a share of the financial pie as possible.
As discussed, the expansion of the UCL, in its current format or not, will have effects on domestic leagues whether by force or through indirect means. In Scotland for instance, almost half of the SPL would potentially be able to qualify under the discussed ruling; the current standings show that, with a push, every side but Dundee could conceivably end up in the top five by the end of the season. Yes, the added incentive of extra European places will encourage harder and longer battles in the mid-table especially, bringing new clubs to the forefront of European football. However, how far does the UCL have to go before domestic leagues are nothing but qualifying groups for the one true prize of a European trophy? If Platini were to enlarge the UCL, as his predecessors have done in the past with the European Cup, what is to stop the competition doubling in size again in twenty years time?
It may seem naïve or far-fetched to consider this far ahead, but continued expansion of the UCL could render the end of the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga; every domestic league. Theoretically, an enlarged European trophy could see the boundaries of domestic football erased and teams competing in a purely continental environment. There are those, such as Rossell, who may see victory as Barcelona heading a league with teams from England, Italy, etc. and nothing else, with fourth tier clubs with heritage forced out of the professional sport due to the elite sucking the finance out of the lower levels. There are also those who, whilst respecting the financial benefits, and the prestige and challenge that European trophies present, still value the domestic leagues producing the clubs that play in them, and it must be hoped that communication between UEFA and the domestic governing bodies is sound enough to ensure that European continental football remains focused on realism, not idealism.