A Step Towards a Champions League for Champions

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Remember when the Champions League wasn’t called the Champions League, but it was actually for champions and not a bunch of runners-up from Europe’s biggest leagues?  Well, we’ll surely never return to the halycon days of the European Cup, but Ian Plenderleith at When Saturday Comes has a very good piece on the change to the qualification structure this season by Platini & co. at UEFA which has, in a small way, redressed the balance towards national champions.

Platini may not have reversed football’s top-heavy tide, and we will likely never again see Malmo play Nottingham Forest in a European Cup final. But this year’s Champions League reforms carry the mark of the idealist, even if they are a far cry from the Frenchman’s original vision of a level playing field. They come in the form of this week’s Champions League play-offs, which have added another round to the already intricate process of qualifying for what must necessarily be described as the competition’s “lucrative” group phase. This fourth and final pre-league round of ten, two-legged ties is divided into two sections. One for teams who placed second, third or fourth in their domestic leagues, including CL regulars such as Arsenal, Celtic, Lyon, Anderlecht and Sporting Lisbon. And the other section for actual champions.

And so, Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova play Greek champions Olympiakos Piraeus. Swiss title-holders FC Zurich travel to FK Ventspils of Latvia, FC Copenhagen match up against APOEL Nicosia, Salzburg host Maccabi Haifa, and Levski Sofia face Hungary’s Debrecen. In previous years, most of these sides would have faced the likes of Atletico Madrid or Fiorentina (two more very strong teams in the other half of the draw), and that would likely have been the end of their participation. Champions would be eliminated by non-champions and the wealth from the group phase headed towards the same old major leagues.

Of course, it would be even better if all national champions at least automatically qualified for the group stage and all runners-up had to go through a play-off system to get there. After all, UEFA’s new system also guarantees a large number of champions can’t make it to the group stafe by default, since they’re all playing each other to qualify, but Plenderleith is right that it realistically raises the odds for the likes of a Levski Sofia making it to the group stages in this set-up.

But of course, UEFA would face an unwinnable fight to get back to anything closer to the old European Cup.  Unless they’re willing to see a breakaway of the elite clubs, they must obviously strike a fine balance with the continued pressure towards a closed-shop European Super League from the biggest clubs who never want to run the risk of missing out on lucrative guaranteed group play and their stated desire to spread wealth more widely. Such a need to compromise is why Platini didn’t remove the bizarre continued aberration that Champions League group stage losers still luck into what’s now the Europa League’s knockout round, itself revamped and rebranded to guarantee more revenue to more clubs.

This is a small step, but UEFA should be praised for at least trying to hold back the tide towards a guaranteed Big Club Bonanza every season by ensuring some smaller champions definitely make the group stages and gather some much needed attention and revenue.

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