Champions League revamp delayed amid row over extra spots
Plans to force through a controversial new Champions League format on Wednesday have been scrapped at the 11th hour amid a row over who gets the extra places in the competition.
Uefa had been planning to approve the most radical revamp of its elite club competition for almost 30 years – one that would see the likes of Liverpool qualify if they finished outside the Premier League top four – but announced on Tuesday that an official decision would take place instead on April 19 “in order to finalise ongoing discussions”.
The announcement followed a meeting of its Club Competitions Committee which broke up without agreement.
That committee includes Uefa executive committee member David Gill – the former Manchester United chief executive – and his successor at Old Trafford, Ed Woodward, as well as Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano.
That would also see the current group stage replaced by a so-called ‘Swiss system’ under which all qualified teams would be guaranteed 10 games instead of six, five at home and five away against opponents of different strength.
Controversially, it would also see half of the additional four places awarded to sides based on their historical record in Europe provided they qualify for one of Uefa’s other club competitions. That would provide a major safety net for big clubs having a bad season, such as faltering Premier League champions Liverpool’s current campaign.
The extra 100 games would also require an additional four match-days, placing huge pressure on the English football calendar in particular and threatening the futures of the FA Cup and EFL Cup.
The ‘Swiss system’ would see the Champions League group stage change from eight groups of four teams to one group table in which those finishing in the top eight would qualify automatically for the knockout stage and those finishing between ninth and 24th would enter a play-off for the remaining eight places.
First used in chess, the format has been adopted to spice up what has become increasingly seen as a stale and predictable group stage of the competition. The knockout stage would remain unchanged.
Plans for back-door access for historically-successful clubs have helped stave off the threat of a European Super League, although critics argue it would nevertheless widen the gap between the big clubs and the rest.
There are also major fears the expanded competition will cannibalise non-qualified clubs’ domestic revenues.
In basic terms, it is a massive expansion of European football’s elite club competition from 32 teams to 36, and 125 matches to 225, from 2024/25. More fundamentally, it would see a complete revamp of the group stage.
Instead of eight groups of four teams where sides play the three others in their group home and away, it would consist of one single group in which each team will play five home matches and five away matches against 10 different opponents. Each team would be seeded and play opponents of varying strength. This is known as the ‘Swiss system’, a format pioneered by chess and since adopted by other sports.
The sides who finish in the top eight will qualify automatically for the knockout stage, while those finishing between ninth and 24th will enter a play-off to determine the remaining eight last-16 spots. The knockout stage will remain unchanged but the new format nevertheless will represent the biggest shake-up of the competition since it became the Champions League three decades earlier.
Why would it change?
Money. The 100 extra matches alone would allow Uefa and clubs to command more in television and sponsorship income. The ‘Swiss system’, which guarantees each participating team 10 matches instead of six, has been adopted for the same reason in the hope it will be more attractive than a group stage increasingly viewed as stale and predictable.
It is also designed to stave off the perceived threat of a European Super League, something highlighted by two of the additional four spots going to teams based on historical performances.
One would go to the league rated the fifth-strongest in Europe, which is currently France, which would join England, Germany, Spain and Italy with four guaranteed spots. Another will go to the highest-ranked domestic champion from one of the smaller leagues.
But, in the most controversial format change of all, the remaining two would go to the clubs with the highest Uefa coefficient (historic ranking) who qualified for one of its other club competitions. That would mean the likes of Liverpool could finish as low as seventh in the Premier League and still be parachuted into the Champions League.
How will the planned changes affect the calendar?
The expanded competition would require another four match-weeks on top of the 15 already carved out. That will be almost impossible to fit into the existing English football calendar, meaning something will have to give.
There is no chance of the size of the Premier League being cut, meaning the impact will be felt by either or both of the FA Cup and – more likely – EFL Cup. The future of the latter competition is very much under threat, with England now the only country with two domestic cups.
Who would be the winners and losers?
The winners are the big clubs, the richest of which are likely to get even richer. The losers will almost certainly be smaller teams and especially those who do not qualify for the Champions League.
The additional 100 games risks cannibalising domestic revenues from the Premier League right down to League Two and Uefa will now be under major pressure to ensure any shortfall is filled by making solidarity payments. Whether the new format entrenches the on-field dominance of the big clubs remains to be seen but history suggests it will.
How has it been received?
The ‘Swiss system’ as a concept has been met by almost no opposition. But that is where the consensus ends. Complaints range from the new format’s back-door access for big clubs to the sheer number of additional matches.
The European Leagues held a meeting of more than 300 clubs this month at which EFL chairman Rick Parry warned that if the EFL Cup was sacrificed, it would deduct a third of his organisation’s income and threaten the existence of lower-division clubs.
Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish added: “This would have a devastating effect on domestic competitions in England. The League Cup is the largest financial contributor to the Football League and this will either be the end of that cup in its entirety or reduce it to a youth competition.”
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