Football Shaped

Notes and News by Leo Hoenig

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UEFA Conference names the Conference League (and other stories)

We now know the name of UEFA’s new third competition. We also have a fair idea of how the clubs will be allocated to it. UEFA may be calling this a greater opportunity, with more clubs (96 instead of 80) playing group games, but in reality, they are creating a new competition that is clearly the third division.

For those that have not spotted the title, the new third cup will be called the UEFA Europa Conference League. I think a special plague needs to be invented for the committee that thought up this name, nonsense in English, absolutely unintelligible in any other language. I am going to refer to it as Conference League, so as you can clearly see references to it, as opposed to Champions League and Europa League

When Michael Platini was running for the position of UEFA president in 2007, he was supposedly determined to create a fairer wealth distribution system for the Billions of Euros that UEFA competitions were generating since they adopted centralised marketing.

In office, he bowed to the pressure of the elite teams and their threats of European Super Leagues, so more and more of the money from both European and Domestic Leagues is pushed to fewer teams. UEFA still has a plentiful stash that they give to the minor combatants, but this can destabilise the leagues and kill competition

I am writing this piece while waiting for a flight to Bulgaria. According to UEFA figures, the clubs in the top division on the Bulgarian League (a 14-team league) had a combined income of €40 million in 2016-17, placing it as 27th of the 55 national competitions. [They still give a figure for Liechtenstein, although the principality does not have a league].

Of that income, 28% (around €11 million) comes from UEFA, the TV revenue at 6% (€2.4 million) is low for a league where almost every game is televised, while the gate income is shown lower at 5%. Not surprising in a league with an average attendance under 2,000. The rest of the income comes from commercial/sponsorship and “other sources”. UEFA specifies the other sources as things like grants and donations, but is unclear about where these come from, or the line between sponsorships, grants and donations considering many sponsors are connected to clubs in other ways.

Looking at the figures UEFA show as going to Bulgarian clubs this season, not allowing for the fact that one club is still in competition and can earn more, one can see at least €5 million going to that single club (Ludogorets Razgrad), between €500,000 and €780,000 going to the other three clubs, eliminated in UEFA league qualifying rounds, and around €2.5 million in solidarity payments to be distributed the teams in the league.

If the average income from all sources is under €3 million per club, but one gets €5 million on a fairly regular basis, it is easy to see why the same team wins the league year after year. Ludogorets have won their league 8 years in succession, having been financed in rising up the leagues before that. They have played in the Champions League group stage twice since, and the Europa League group stage on four occasions, including the current season.

Looking ahead though, it remains to be seen how their income will develop, and how the other clubs will be affected. The clear feeling within UEFA is that they have not bled the Golden Goose dry yet, and thy can still increase the income streams further.

The practise that every Champion has a shot of getting into the Champions League remains in place in the period 2021-24. It is the post 2024 league where this principle may be ended. However, having introduced the idea that the Europa League creates a second chance for clubs knocked out of the Champions League (at any stage), they are downgrading this to the Conference League from 2021. The twenty champions knocked out in the Preliminary and First Qualifying rounds of the Champions League drop down to the second qualifying round of the Conference League. Those that make it through two rounds will come up against a further five champions clubs that have lost in both the Champions League (second qualifying round) and the Europa League (third qualifying round).

Overall, UEFA are expanding the chances of League Champions making the group stages of one or other competition with 35 champion clubs making this stage.

The real change is for clubs in countries ranked lower than 15 on UEFA’s table. With the exception of the Champions, none of these clubs get a run at Champions or Europa League, but all start in the first or second round of the Conference League

While no team gets an automatic place in the group stages of the Conference, a sprinkling of clubs from the top 15 leagues are added during qualifying, or drop into the competition after failing in the Europa League. The result in my view, for countries such as Bulgaria is that their Champions are more likely than not to reach a group stage, but this is more likely than not to be the Conference. The other clubs will continue to be swallowed up by the lengthy qualification procedure.

There are of course, just enough clubs from the more elite leagues, (the seventh placed clubs from Spain, England, Germany and Italy, etc.) to make sure that few little clubs get through and none get to close to the pointy end of competition.

If UEFA succeed in generating more income, then much of it will go to the Europa League, where the rewards, when compared to the Champions League are poor, resulting in some clubs (especially in England) feeling that it is worth getting knocked out early so as they can concentrate on retaining their Premier League placing.

UEFA have always been disappointed in the reception of the Europa League as a poor second division, when it followed the UEFA cup, which was always something to aim at. They want to promote it as a good second division, but this means less funding for the Conference League, which I suspect will be a very poor third division. To date, UEFA have given the same ranking awards to teams in the Champions and Europa Leagues, excepting the bonus points. I would not be at all surprised if the Conference League offers less points in the ranking table than the others, a simple system that makes sure any smaller clubs that make the group stage cannot move their country’s ranking up and hence threaten to join the elite.

While the idea that the champions league becomes more elitist from 2024 has been mooted, with the greater number of matches from 8 team groups, and teams earning their place year after year by a moderate performance in these groups, I suspect it will not happen (yet). For the moment, even the richest clubs can see the value of their own leagues. They are picking up large cheques from the TV companies for games that are won quite easily. In many leagues (England being the most notable exception), we can safely state that only two or three teams will be contenders come the end of the season.

Domestic cups will however drop by the wayside if a move is approved to scrap their claim to direct European places. The domestic cup winner is currently considered the highest non-Champions League position unless they have secured the Champions League place as well. The European place for the winner of the English League Cup is even more in doubt. I believe the French are ending qualification for their equivalent competition and as in France, this is decided by the FA and League, and not enforced by UEFA. (UEFA can choose to refuse to allow it, but there is no sign of this happening).

Meanwhile, UEFA have also announced changes to the Nations League, based mainly on the success of the first run of the competition. When it started, UEFA had decided it had to be four levels, with four groups at each, so 16 groups. With 55 countries involved, this meant that nine of the groups would have 3 teams, and only 7 would have four. They also decided to give more League matches lower down the ladder, so it was the top two divisions, and one group in division C that had the three team sections.

The teams relegated in the first series have now all been reprieved. Teams will be promoted so as Divisions A, B and C are all four groups of four, while Division D is the rump seven countries, in one group of four and one of three.

It will be one up, one down in each group, and I do not expect another change in a hurry. Still, one can see that with the top 16 countries now in Division A, the Nations League is coming close to a Euro Championship with home games. If UEFA were to introduce quarter finals (maybe single matches in the countries of group winners), then this would become more so.

UEFA need to be careful here – the Euro Championships are now 24 teams, and any further expansion would certainly threaten their status. Having three European titles, and one World title in every four-year cycle could start to overkill the system. The whole structure depends on the demand of the TV companies and sponsors for what is on offer. If everything becomes so common place, that it can no longer be sold at a Premium rate, then the edifice will begin to crumble

We have seen how quickly crowds and interest have dropped off with teams dropping the quality of the players in domestic cup games. With no friendlies left to allow experimentation, will some countries now prioritise one competition over another? The fact that FIFA are also looking at ways to add to the crowded international schedule could also move closer to the point where some international games lose their lustre.

We are now beginning to get a clearer view of how last years Nations League is going to affect the qualification for Euro 2020. Clearly with many teams having four games left to play, the final tables will change before the end – but if there was no change then the qualified teams would be 9 out of 12 from both the Nations League’s A and B Divisions, with the remaining two coming from Division C.

This would mean the play-off games for Division D would go ahead exactly as expected with the four group winners, Georgia, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Belarus playing for one place in the final. From Division C, three group winners would be involved – Scotland, Norway and Serbia, but Finland are currently on course to qualify, which would mean the next team in the table, Bulgaria would take their place. All three Division B teams that miss out on direct qualification would go into the play-off, even though only Bosnia was a group winner. Austria and Wales would therefore get a second chance and the quartet would be made up with Israel (sixth in the Division C list). Similarly, in Division A, Netherlands, Switzerland and Iceland all get into the play-offs, and their extra team would be Hungary (seventh in Division C). Of the dozen host nations for 2020, Azerbaijan and Romania are not currently due to qualify, or play-off, while Scotland, Hungary and the Netherlands are all potentially in the play-offs. To complicate the 2020 draw even more, Hungary and the Netherlands could both the in the same play-off section.


The remaining seven hosts, England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Russia and the Republic of Ireland are all currently in qualifying positions.

Going forward, UEFA have indicated that they wish to continue to give the Nations League teams a step up for the major finals, but not how it is to be achieved. Only 13 UEFA teams will qualify for the 2022 World Cup, and the rumour is that this will be 10 group winners, and 3 from play-offs involving 12 teams. This would mean the 10 group runners-up, and two from the Nations League entering the draw. The most likely scenario in my mind here, is it will be the two highest ranked Nations League teams who have not made it otherwise.

For 2024, there are 23 places at stake, as of course Germany will qualify automatically as hosts. I suspect the 2020 formula may come back again, with the exception that no place is given to a Division D country.