Michel Platini’s announcement that UEFA were considering scrapping the Europa League and doubling the size of the Champions League was met with uproar from many corners, and perhaps understandably so. Many people have taken the view that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – an understandable view given the year on year entertainment which the Champions League delivers. But delve deeper into the idea and there are a number of positives to an expanded Champions League.
The first matter to address is the future of the Europa League. For many, the death-knell of UEFA’s second tier competition was sounded in the 2004-05 season, when a bizarre 5 team group stage was introduced, thus ending the straight knockout format which had existed for a number of years so successfully. Since then the competition has been tinkered, and now exists in a format largely similar to the Champions League, with an extra knockout round following the group stage, but the competition retains a convoluted feeling, and more and more teams are failing to take it seriously. The recent leaked UEFA memo instructing managers to talk up the competition and its heritage was an embarrassing reminder of how the competition has fallen. Whilst teams from the Iberian Peninsula and Eastern Europe have enjoyed success in it through taking it more seriously than their Central and Western European counterparts, the reward for the likes of Atletico Madrid’s success limited to meagre prize money in comparison to the UCL, and a Super Cup jolly in Monaco. This perceived lack of reward has led many managers to field reserve sides in the competition, seen not only by English clubs, but Italian and German clubs as well.
There is little doubt that the tournament is in trouble. Whilst I enjoy the presence of the competition as a Thursday night TV filler, issues abound within its structure. Allowing the third-place teams in the Champions League to drop into the UEL makes a mockery of the competition. It rewards failure, and means that the sides who took the competition seriously in attempting to qualify from the group are joined by Champions League losers who didn’t want to be in the competition in the first place. The competition is too convoluted. Teams must play a minimum of 14 games to reach the final, whilst Fulham’s run to the final in 2010 saw them play an incredible 19 matches.
When discussing the idea of enlarging the Champions League, a number of ignorant points have been made from various sides. Firstly, the misty-eyed purist will hark back to the days when the Champions League only included national Champions. Now whilst this is a perfectly valid point, it is quite clearly never going to happen. Football has changed a lot in the previous few decades, and the prospect of Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich playing in the second-tier competition, as would have been the case this year, is frankly unrealistic. Fans, the media, the players and the sponsors all want to see the best players and best teams in Europe competing in the same competition, and in this vein, a 64-team competition which could lay claim to featuring all of the strongest teams in Europe has a definite attraction to it.
Secondly, a number of people seem to think that doubling of the competition would dramatically reduce the quality of the competition, another contestable point. People appear not to understand the ever improving quality of clubs from Europe’s less glamorous leagues. One only needs to look at the success of Shakhtar, the group stage victories from CFL Cluj and BATE Borisov, and last year’s historic run by Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia to the quarter-finals. Increasing the size to 64 teams, could merely mean including 20 teams from the Europa League, a competition which includes the likes of Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Internazionale, Lazio, Liverpool and Lyon, and 12 clubs that just missed out on Champions League qualification.
Whilst there may be a slight increase in one-sided games, in general, the quality would remain. Teams would perhaps take the group stage a little less seriously, but then one only needs to look at Manchester United, who qualified for the knockout stages this year with two games to spare; games that they, inevitably, went on to lose, which goes to say that the group stage isn’t always a holy grail of competitiveness. One solution could be having 16 groups of four, and allowing only the group winners to qualify for the knockout rounds – this would guarantee competitive group stage games, as clubs would have to take each game seriously, and it would mean that the expansion would not result in any extra fixture congestion.
There were outcries that in England, the team finishing as low as 7th could earn a place in the Champions League. Allow the top four in the league to qualify directly – as is already the case more or less – and then give places in the qualifying rounds to the winners of the FA Cup and the Capital One Cup, thus adding more value to the respective domestic competitions, offering the incentive of Champions League football, and in the process curbing the unerring habit of Premier League clubs fielding reserve or youth teams.
Talk has abounded in recent years of a European Super League, featuring the best teams in Europe, being set up as a rival to UEFA. This possibility, arguably, is what is leading UEFA to consider making the Champions League the sole club tournament in Europe. The idea of just the one tournament, featuring indisputably the best teams in Europe is an attractive one. There is little doubt that adding the likes of Atleti, Bilbao, Anzhi, Napoli and Fenerbahce would do little to harm the integrity – on the contrary it would add to the tournament’s prestige. On top of this, a few more spots could be available to the champions of Europe’s smaller leagues – not the champions of Andorra, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein – but of the mid-ranking leagues, the champions of which deserve a greater shot at the big-stage. Food for thought, certainly.
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