A look down the list of teams in the Champions’ League group stages shows a wide array of sides from the so called ‘smaller’ countries such as those in Eastern and South Eastern Europe. In this seasons Champions League there are teams represented from Cyprus, Belarus, Romania, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Croatia, Greece and Belgium. There are a number of clubs that have been given their Champions League debuts over the last few seasons including Romanian side Galati and Turkish side Trabzonspor this year, and their were also six new sides in the tournament last year.
The reason for the influx of debutantes from the aforementioned smaller countries dates back to reforms pushed through by Platini during his reign as the UEFA President. Most notably were reforms that were ratified back in 2007 with regards to qualification. The reforms meant that 15 teams from the ‘bigger’ leagues vied for five places against each other, rather than against weak opposition as they usually did. Numerous teams are emerging and gaining Champions League experience, where previously they’d struggle to qualify against traditionally stronger opposition.
With regards to England, the format change has not stopped one of their sides qualifying yet, but the tough fixture Arsenal had against Udinese does demonstrate a shift in the balance of European power. Udinese’s exit meant that Italy were only represented by three clubs this year, whereas traditionally they’d always have had their full allocation.
The Champions League, in its current format, has been dominated by clubs from England, Spain and Italy, with Porto being the only side to win the tournament in the last 10 years outside of the big three leagues. The ideology behind Platini’s plans are too make the cup both fairer and more interesting. Platini based much of his election campaign around helping smaller countries develop and it appears to be working.
One team in particular who have thrived is Shakhtar Donestk, albeit they’ve benefited from having a wealthy owner as well as from UEFA reform. Last year they made it to their first ever quarter-finals where they were beaten by eventual winners Barcelona, and shocked many pundits when they finished top of their qualification group above Arsenal. UEFA reform certainly made it easier for Shakhtar to compete, especially in the qualification phases There have been other smaller clubs over the years competing, such as PSV and Lyon, although neither side sustained their relative success or managed to reach a final.
For many of the clubs however the group stage represents the furthest the club can go in the tournament. Last year many of the smaller clubs fared badly, only Shakhtar and Copenhagen were sides that made it through. Turkish debutants Buraspor finished bottom of their group with only one point and Partizan Belgrade finished bottom of theirs with 0 points. This compounded some views that such sides were merely whipping boys for the bigger clubs.
This season has, albeit only two games in, seen some of the smaller sides proving critics wrong, and Platini right. Apoel top their group with 4 points and have a real chance of qualifying, and being the first Cypriot team to do so in the process. Trabzonspor are top of their group having stunned Inter Milan in the San Siro. Basel are top of their group also. Their stunning 3-3 draw against United is testament to their ability and confidence. Rather than looking to defend as many sides do at Old Trafford Basel came to attack and exploit United’s recent defensive frailties in what was one of the most entertaining ties of the season so far.
For smaller teams the revenue is substantial, clubs get €3.9m, plus a match bonus of €550,000 per group game played. On top of that clubs can get €800,000 for every win and €400,000 for every draw in the group stages. Teams also get a share of TV revenue based on their performances in the tournament. In the 2o09/10 group stages Apoel received over €10 million and Romanian club Unirea took home in excess of €18 million, whereas in the Europa League where smaller clubs usually played the majority of clubs received less than €5 million.
The increased finances, which as stated are substantial, give smaller clubs a direct incentive to push on and build squads capable of challenging in Europe. The flip side of this is that perhaps one or two sides can dominate their domestic leagues through the qualification revenue. However thus far this has not been the case, two Cypriot sides have qualified lately and a plethora of Romanian teams have been involved, most recently the aforementioned Galati. If anything, the domestic leagues in these countries are improving with increased revenue and thus increased competition.
What the format change is showing is the broader ideological views of Platini, who through combinations of UEFA reform as well as his drive for Financial Fair Play rules wants to shift the balance of power away from bigger clubs. The reform in 2007 to make top clubs compete against each other in qualification represents a move to wrestle away power form the bigger clubs in favour of smaller ones and in doing say has been an unmitigated success.
The clubs are thus coming up, teams like Shakhtar, through a combination of wealthy backing and changes in UEFA rules are starting to slowly emerge. The status-quo will take a long time to be disrupted but the increase of UEFA revenue into smaller leagues will no doubt help to build them up and help improve their quality. It seems like a life time ago that teams like Red Star Belgrade, Marseille or Steau Bucharest could realistically win the tournament. Even Dutch giants Ajax can now no longer compete due to a lack of finances. The financial power of teams from Spain, Italy and England has led to a huge gulf in quality and resources between them and the rest of Europe’s leagues, something which Platini is clearly trying to directly combat.
Having been elected for another four year term earlier this year it seems likely that he will push through more reform in the future, albeit anything that threatens the dominance of the bigger sides will be strongly resisted. It would be refreshing to see sides such as Basel, Trabzonspor and Apoel contesting the second round of the tournament, but only time will tell if they can sustain their early success coming into the critical phases of the tournament.