The G-14, Michel Platini and the Bluff of the European Superleague

Superleagues, ego, politics, diplomacy, money, money, money. The chess battle between UEFA and Europe’s biggest clubs continues to go on, but today, there was a strong indication the endgame is here.

The G-14, the now misnamed grouping of eighteen elite self-selected European clubs, seems likely to extinguish itself soon with a new organisation apparently to be formed. G-14′s General Manager, Thomas Kurth explained to Reuters.

“Let’s be clear this is not an expansion of G14, it is an evolution,” Kurth said, adding that the new group would be called the International Club Organisation.

“If it is formed and it can find a solution to the current problems, then it would make no sense for both G14 and the new group to co-exist,” he said in an interview. “Ideally this will happen some day soon. G14 clubs are the facilitators and are leading the formation of this group but, yes, the clubs may decide there is no more necessity for G14 anymore.”

However, The Digger reports that the postponement of the expansion of the G-14 (announced a couple of months ago) suggests a tacit agreement has been reached with UEFA to resolve their dispute with the dissolution of the G-14 and the formation of a new, broader group approved of by Michel Platini.

The future of the G14 group of major European clubs is in doubt after it emerged that the organisation in its current form is to be disbanded. In a development that could have major repercussions for the balance of power in European football the G14 last night abandoned immediate plans to expand to 40 clubs and cancelled its annual conference, scheduled to take place next week in Brussels. The move came as Peter Kenyon, Chelsea’s chief executive, said he would snub any invitation to join the organisation, preferring to exert influence from within Uefa.

The G14 general manager, Thomas Kurth, said last night that expansion plans had been postponed to allow more clubs to put themselves forward for membership, but the Guardian understands that the move was forced by leading clubs as part of a deal struck with Uefa’s president, Michel Platini, on the Champions League format.

Platini is thought to have backed down on his proposal to have domestic cup winners enter the Champions League and will instead allow national associations to decide whether entrants should come from league or cup competitions. As a result the top three teams in the Premier League will go directly into the group stage and the fourth-placed side will play two qualifying rounds.

In return the clubs will rebrand the G14 as a new, independent and international clubs organisation, pledged to work more closely with Uefa. The G14 approach has been to threaten breakaway competitions and to back litigation by clubs against governing bodies.

Uefa has effectively outflanked the G14 by inviting leading clubs, including Chelsea who are not G14 members, to join the Uefa Strategy Forum

(Note Chelsea’s Peter Kenyon very boldly stated that they would not join the G-14, in the full knowledge its days were numbered anyway, after years of being rebuffed).

Have the G-14 clubs been outflanked, then? To some degree, perhaps. But this is just the latest turn in the power struggle between UEFA and the G-14, and it seems to me the latter are just playing pragmatic politics.

Whilst most of the media speculation focuses on the prospects for a breakaway European Superleague, the G-14 has long existed mainly as an implicit threat to UEFA — watch out, they say, because we can organise together, and if we had to, we could take this further.

Michel Platini and Renault

UEFA, though, have in the last year or two cleverly turned the tables on them. The European Club Forum, composed of 102 clubs, has been working behind the scenes as a more inclusive European-wide initiative to involve the clubs more, such as in the Professional Football Strategy Council. By asserting European football’s breadth and depth, they’ve effectively called the G-14′s bluff.

The problem the G-14 had is that they could not keep up the breakaway threat forever while UEFA made its moves without either doing something or losing the power of the threat. Breaking away, whilst possible, would be a huge gamble of unprecedented proportions in world sports: never would so much money and prestige have been staked on a venture of unknown dimensions.

Some say we saw something a similar with the formation of the Premiership, but doing that on a national scale (and at a moment of prime television opportunity) is not the same as a European wide effort, with all the implications for the players, UEFA, FIFA, and the television deals across numerous countries.

The spur for the Premiership was all the clubs joining it knew there was a big pot of gold waiting for them in the new league, and they weren’t risking much given the English game was not awash with money then. Is it so obvious that there’s a commensurately larger pot of gold for the prospective members of a European superleague than, say, Man Utd already take home from the Premiership and Champions League?

It would be a $100 billion dollar gamble for the G-14. It may well happen one day, perhaps when there’s a trillion dollar offer from Asian television companies sitting on the table, but the comparison to England in 1991 is not quite apt.

So, knowing they had to shift tactics, the G-14 are doing what smart elites everywhere have always done — they expand their base to share a little of the power and spoils, in return for an acceptance of their hegemony. They weren’t suddenly overcome by a desire for democratic egalitarianism when they announced they’d expand to 40+ clubs Europe-wide a couple of months ago. They needed at least the appearance of support from outside the G-14 to counter Platini’s moves.

Platini continued with his own power play, though. Last month, he laid out his thoughts on the UEFA website.

The current elite of European football is not the same as it was in the early years of the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, nor does it necessarily have to remain unchanged. The European model of sport, with its system of promotion and relegation, aims specifically to prevent the elite from becoming a clique and denying new contenders the possibility of access. Nothing is set in stone: worth has to be constantly proven on the pitch.

This is one of the concerns which underlie the proposal that I put forward in Monaco to the Professional Football Strategy Council with regard to the future of the UEFA club competitions from 2009 onwards. The other key elements forming the basis of my proposal are those I argued for in my presidential campaign – namely, to allow the largest possible number of national associations to be represented in European football’s flagship club competition and to increase the number of domestic champions among the participants. This is because, as its name indicates, the competition is primarily intended for teams which have won titles, and with this in mind I also wish to give domestic cup winners the possibility of taking part.

That proposal, not surprisingly, was strongly opposed by the G-14 — it would make it much harder for those clubs to presume they would always qualify for the Champions League, if one spot were dependent more on the chance of cup competition.

But that proposal actually laid (as I suspect Platini knew) the groundwork neatly for a compromise. Platini’s proposal about the cup winners one he can “give up” in return for the elite accepting more champions from the “lesser nations” into the Champions League, satisfying his own constituency. A new organisation independent of the G-14 can then be formed based on this agreement. The G-14 clubs will be prominently involved — as the richest and most powerful clubs, they will still have the most say. Even Chelsea can join in the fun.

So the G-14 seemingly given up a little of their unilateral power in the process (no more ganging up on Chelsea as an outsider), but in fact, that power was predicated on a bluff that UEFA could always have called and that they weren’t ready for. Now they still get to keep the Champions League largely as it is with a sop to the smaller countries (it looks like the big leagues will keep four having four entrants based on domestic league standings), and can continue to milk the cash cows of that tournament and their domestic leagues without taking the wild risk of breaking away.

So then, who played who exactly?

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