There are major changes to qualification for European Competition from next season. UEFA are selling this as evolution, not revolution – but for the clubs who have hopes of reaching the Champions League group stages, the odds have become longer. So, they may not see it that way
The big change is in the number of teams that have direct qualification to group stages in both competitions. This is particularly true of teams who have not won their leagues, playing in the Champions League. In 2017-18, there were 18 clubs who had won the major prizes in the Champions League. Twelve countries got their champions into the competition as of right, five more through the qualification process. The 18th winner was Manchester United who won the Europa League. On this occasion, the Champions League winner were also a League champion.
The champions that managed to come up through qualification were well distributed in the rankings. So while Champions 1 through 12 were automatically included, the others were ranked 14 (Greece), 19 (Cyprus), 25 (Scotland), 26 (Azerbaijan) and 30 (Slovenia).
For 2018-19, only the top ten Champions get an automatic place, and they are joined by just four other champions. With places for the winners of the Champions League and Europa League already guaranteed, this means that the number of teams with a major trophy will be reduced to 16 – or 15 if the Europa League winners are one of the top ten domestic title winners, (a scenario that is unlikely in 2018, the only Europa League semi-finalists likely to win a domestic title are the Austrians, Salzburg – who would have to fight through qualifying rounds to get into the Champions League groups).
For the non-Champions, in the 2017/18 season, nine had direct entry to the groups, from six countries while five more won through from qualification. Although countries down to 15th rank were allowed into this phase, four of the five came from the top five. The exception being the fourth German team, Hoffenheim, who were beaten by Liverpool. The Russian team, CSKA Moscow (Country rank 7) completed the line up.
In 2018/19, there will be no less than 14 non-Champion clubs with direct access, no qualifying match. They still come from six countries, but now the top four all get three non-Champion clubs. The third clubs from France and Russia (ranked 5/6) compete with the runners-up in countries ranked 7-15 for just two further places.
There was logic to changing from three to four countries with the top numbers. The recent evolution of ranking point has seen two big gaps emerging. Rounding to the nearest who number, Spain had 105 points at the end of 2016/7, followed by Germany (79), England (76) and Italy (73). France, ranked 5th had only 57 points. While it may have appeared that another season would see Italy overtake England, what has actually happened is that German clubs have performed poorly, while the English have done well. Hence, England will probably rise to 2nd on the five-year aggregate, while Germany fall behind Italy. Giving the fourth placed teams a direct place without qualification seems a more contentious point. The only reason I can see for this is that UEFA feels it needs these teams in contention to build up the TV audience.
Where the changes will be felt most of all is in the qualification procedure. More teams will have to play more matches in order to reach the group stage. For example, to get to the group stage this season, Celtic had to play six matches over seven mid-weeks. A fairly hefty early season programme with four of the games taking place before the first league game. If they are to repeat the feat in the new season, they will have to play eight matches on successive weeks.
The pushing back of matches has added a preliminary round to the qualifying competition – and it is a strange and new idea. Four teams play the Preliminary round, for just one place in the First Qualifying Round. These teams will be the Champions of Gibraltar, Andorra, San Marino and Kosovo. There will be only three games in this, and this season they will all be played at the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar. The “semi-finals” will be on Tuesday 26th June, with the final game on the following Friday.
The other twist is that every Champions League team, knocked out in the qualification games will get a second chance in the Europa League. Also, in the Europa League, teams who have won their Championship but have been knocked out play in a section distinct from those who have qualified by cups or league position. This means that 12 of the 48 teams in the group stage will be National Champions. There will be 17 places given directly in the group stage to teams from the top 12 countries in the rankings. In all cases, these include the cup-winners (if not otherwise qualified for higher competition) and for five countries, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France, it also includes the next best league side. This number is just one higher than in 2017-18 with the club that finishes fourth place in France being the one that gets the advantage here. Again, this comes at a cost in matches for the others. In 2017, 25 clubs had entry at the third qualification round stage, meaning two rounds, or four games to reach the groups. Only 12 teams get this in 2018 – and they are not from the top countries, but only from those which do not get two automatic spots in the groups. England’s seventh European club, will have to play three rounds, six matches to reach the group – they will start in the final week of July. For Scotland, only the Cup Winners get to start that late, with the other two teams starting in the First Qualification round, two weeks earlier. Countries such as both Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland will have all three of their clubs starting in the First Qualification Round, while for Wales it is even worse as their three combatants will start in a Preliminary Round at the end of June.
UEFA does not have to sell this much to the smaller nations. For most, they will find it is a take it or leave it situation alleviated by the rewards their clubs get just for taking part. Working from UEFA published figures, Welsh Champions, The New Saints will have received €800,000 for scraping through the first qualification round and getting hammered by a Croatian team in the next. This sum of money means that they can run a professional team in what is otherwise a semi-professional league without losing money year on year. It goes a long way to explain their dominance of the Welsh Premier League. The chairman, Mike Harris put in a lot of money to get them where they are today but does not have to keep spending to keep them there. What I find more surprising is that other Champions League do not all dominate their leagues to the same extent.
The other clubs in Wales also benefit from UEFA’s munificence. Not one of their other three clubs won their First tie in Europe, but all benefited to the tune of €215,000. A further €403,000 is given to the FA Wales to distribute to the clubs in the division. While the FA Wales also collects money from other TV and sponsorship deals for distribution to the clubs, one can see that this is likely to be a major part quite probably the lion’s share of the source of this distribution. [It is worth noting though that Wales only received the base payment from UEFA, the English FA had over €13 million from this source (in 2016/17), Scotland had €4.6 million. Northern Ireland received the same amount as Wales, but the Republic got just over twice that]
When I spoke to Mike Harris at The New Saints’ first game of the season, I had asked him about the fact that there are only 12 teams in the top league in Wales, despite a general wish amongst fans to increase the numbers. He said he would quite like to see the number increased, but that funding would be a problem. Sums of money such as the €403,000 I have mentioned would be significantly diluted if there were more clubs.
UEFA have promised with the new system that more money will be given to the smaller clubs – so those sums I have mentioned are all due to be increased in 2018/19. Even though the distribution through market pool is being reduced, (meaning the English teams do not benefit so much from the English TV deals), I cannot imagine any of the Premier clubs being worse off than under the current system.
UEFA still consider it necessary to keep the structure in favour of the big clubs. There is a point to this. At least with this system, the clubs are tied into this money generation machine, and this is sending money down to the leagues in the smaller countries. Most of the 55 European associations run at least one division of professional football, but only 12 of them can claim an average attendance of over 10,000 per game. There isn’t a threat of big clubs pulling out of National Leagues and playing closed competitions amongst themselves. This will not happen as long as they can fill the stadiums and sell the TV rights for their domestic competitions, even when these are not very competitive. However, they are secure in the knowledge that each of the domestic leagues needs its best teams at least as much as the teams need the league. Hence the leagues would not be quick to respond to any UEFA edict to kick them out should they ever decide to remodel the Champions League without UEFA involvement. And while so many of the World’s best players are concentrated at the few clubs at the top of the few leagues, UEFA and FIFA need them to sell their own international tournaments.
So, the small clubs in the small countries have to allow the sale of their football, and they have to accept the largesse as UEFA offer it, as for them there are no alternative tables to feed from. UEFA will continue to “evolve” the competitions every three years, as it keeps them in the headlines. The big clubs will again find the competitive bias switching their way, but the others will accept it because frankly they need the amounts that UEFA pass down from the €1.4 billion money pool.