If Michel Platini has learned anything from his first year in office as President of UEFA, it will be about the need to compromise, and the clear fact that the power lies with the money. His advisors have done well to hide some of the scale of his defeat from view. The changes to the European Club Competitions for 2009-2012 will still have Platini’s stamp upon them. By making the announcement on a Saturday, the day before the draw is made for the Euro 2008 Championship finals, UEFA have made sure that the political ramifications of the announcement will not be read centre page of European newspapers.
The changes are not without some success for Platini. Increasing the numbers of actual champions in the Champions League group stages was always one of the biggest objectives, and this has been achieved. The number of Champions that get direct entry into the group stage is increased from 10 to 13 (it was the top nine countries, plus the holders, and will now be the top twelve countries). The compromise was to allow the third placed team from the top three countries in the rankings (currently Spain, England and Italy) to go through without a qualifying game. An even bigger change is to separate the qualification competitions into two parts, one for champions only, and one for ‘other clubs’ from the top 15 ranked countries. Each part of the qualifying draw will produce 5 teams into the group stage. So the number of actual champions in the group stage, 2009 will be 18 (Holders, Champions of countries ranked in the top 12, and five from the rest of the Union).
The plan to allow cup winners into the draw has been lost, although I believe that hidden in the rules will be a clause allowing individual countries with a ‘non-Champions’ qualifying place to enter their cup-winners instead of the one league team. Strangely, an idea that started in England was condemned by opposition primarily from England. Certainly, the FA were in favour of the FA Cup winner being in the Champions League, but some Premier League clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea, perchance) were the biggest opponents of the plan. When the consequences of the cup-winners plan came out, Scotland too (and we are talking of Rangers and Celtic here) were massively opposed.
For England, the change in 2009 will be quite small – three clubs rather than two have direct entry to the group stage, while the fourth club will play a single qualifying match, but this must be against a non-champion from a country ranked 1-15 (seeding probably means from a country ranked 6-15), as opposed to the possibility of the champion of a weaker country. For Scotland, assuming their ranking (currently 11) remains between 7 and 12, it is good news for the Champions, excused from qualifying (they played one round this season), but not for the runners-up who will still playing two qualifying rounds, but can no longer draw a weak country’s champions. Should the Scots drop down to 13-15 in the ranking, then the task for the runners-up is unchanged, but the Champions will face other Champions, and have to face two qualifying rounds.
For UEFA’s other competitions, there are certainly positive improvements. The five team UEFA Cup groups, which were just too easy to get out of, have been replaced by four team groups, with only two teams from each passing through to the knock out stages. The number of groups goes up from eight to twelve, so the number of teams in the group stage has increased. Only one team is exempt from playing at least one qualifying match for the group stage – that is the current champions. The UEFA Cup qualifying rounds will produce 37 of the teams in the groups. Three English sides will be involved, but one of these will have to face two rounds to reach the groups. The remaining ten teams in the UEFA Cup group stage will have been knocked out in the Champions League final qualifying stage (i.e. five Champions, and five others), whereas those knocked out in the next to last stage (ten Champions, and five others) also get a second life in the UEFA Cup.
The Intertoto cup is being abolished. It will be missed by few. An extra place in the early rounds of the UEFA Cup is being given to middle and low ranked countries, but not to the top ranks, (so England will not get an eighth place by this route). The lowest ranked countries therefore are guaranteed four places in Europe – but this requires an extra qualifying round starting on the 15th June. Wales and Northern Ireland will feel the pinch here, so there may be renewed calls to move their Premier Leagues to the summer. This also means those three extra UEFA Cup places given to the ‘fair play champions’ are a mixed blessing. They too will start qualifying in mid-June.
Platini has achieved something in terms of spreading some of the Champions League money thinner. There should be more countries represented in the group stages, with more cash going to them. The Final Qualifying Round and the UEFA Super Cup (an unchanged challenge between the Champions League and UEFA Cup winners) are now included in the central marketing and TV rights packages. But the largest parts of wealth redistribution have remained beyond him – Platini’s comments has shown he is only too aware that Champions League money is damaging the competitiveness of leagues across Europe. If he could bring the UEFA Cup into the marketing package with the Champions League, then a big step would be taken to change this.
Finally, the Final itself will be changed. From 2009 it will be on a Saturday, rather than a Wednesday evening. The claim is this will make it more fan friendly, but this is only true if UEFA go out of the way to make sure the tickets end up with the fans of competing clubs.