Football Shaped

Notes and News by Leo Hoenig

The European Game

The New European Frontier

It is the end of an era – the last week of group stage matches in the three European Competitions, before we go to the Swiss Model for next season.

I have heard many comments to the effect that this is the end of football as we know it, and that we should stick to the current group structure. I just get the feeling that these generally come from the same people who railed against the creation of the group structure when it was introduced.

I see the new structure for what it is, an imperfect way of increasing the number of games between the top clubs, without subjecting them to the early risk of being knocked out of the competition.

This will of course rob us of the drama expected in Group A tonight – Manchester United need to win to progress, and that’s in a home game against Bayern München. (The German team has already won the group). Any win gives United the minimum of continued European participation, but unless the other game, FC København v Galatasaray ends in a draw, United will only move into the Europa League. To add to the mix, FC København and Galatasaray both know they will carry in the Champions League by winning their game.

While few of the other groups have been completely settled, there is only one other with a similar degree of uncertainty. PSG needing to get something from their visit to already qualified Dortmund in order to progress with Newcastle United hoping for the slip that allows them to go forward, (if they beat AC Milan).

Next season will be different, but there will still be edges to climb over. The 36 teams will be shown in a single league table. The top eight only have a place in the final 16 confirmed. The next 16 will have to play an additional round (in February) in order to join the top 8. So, finishing 8th or 9th will be crucial, and 16th rather than 17th should give you a much better chance in the draw for the February matches. There is no Europa League consolation, so twelve of the teams will say goodbye to European football, albeit it at the slightly later stage as the last two group games are in January.

The pattern will repeat itself in the Europa League and Conference, except that the Conference will still have only six matches and will finish its league stage in December.

UEFA got the plans for this through on the nod, just after the Super League controversy had boiled up. Prior to that point, there was much more opposition from the clubs. It was route of least resistance, and UEFA appear to have upped the anti in rights sales so as the next three year period will surpass everything that has gone before in financial terms.

The rights sales are increased not just because of the extra matches, but also because of the increased number of big matches. I am indebted to the Twitter/X posts of Football Rankings, for giving an idea of how the seeding pots may look next season/

Each team will play on home and one away game against a team from each pot, a total of 8 different opponents. As far as possible, the fixture computer will be avoiding matching teams from the same nation to play each other. There will not be a week where all the teams in Pot 1 play others from the same pot. The prime matches are going to be scattered throughout the 8 matchday schedule.

Of course, the lines above are just projected, based on current league positions and UEFA rankings. They will change before the end of the season, but they do give an idea of the promise the competition brings.

I won’t print the suggested rankings for the other competitions, but it is worth mentioning that the arrangement forces more countries than ever before to get representation in the league stage, with the champions of Wales and Gibraltar being in the projected groups for the Conference.

However badly you view all this, it has to be considered against the threat of a Super League. An overriding factor in the UEFA competitions has always been that you need success in your domestic league in order to qualify to play in Europe. With a small gap when they tried to do away with the idea, UEFA allows every country’s Champion club to have a run at trying to qualify for the Champions League. While the qualification scheme looks immensely complex with second and third competitions, it achieves the aim of increasing the number of countries with representation at the group stages and also rewards Champions with that chance. A simpler scheme may mean that finishing as a runner-up, playing only in the Conference was preferable to being a Champion and knocked out of the Champions League at an early stage.

Even so, the spectre of the Champions League still haunts European Football. The long-awaited European Court of Justice ruling is now due on the 21st December. I think there are two strands to this, firstly as to whether or not UEFA have exclusive rights to run competitions while they are also the regulator, but just as importantly – should they lose those rights, they need to remain in a position where they can impose rules on the competitions in order to protect each country’s league.

The Super League as originally suggested said no jeopardy for some of the founder members, but as I see it, any competition which does not depend on the finishing positions in the domestic leagues to define entry is damaging to the domestic leagues.

It must be hoped that the clubs in the English Premier League, which has the biggest income from TV rights will see that their home advantages would be eroded by moving over to a Super League, and that the highest income they can receive is still be the duality of playing in both England and Europe. In other countries, the biggest clubs may feel that there is more to be gained from a Super League, than would be lost by devaluing the local competition, but so long as the English clubs hold out, then the current basis will remain. You just cannot seriously talk about a Super League without the English.

If the Super League spectre can be pushed back at least for a while, then UEFA can consider whether their new model needs refining or not. The calendar for 2024-5 is interesting to say the least. Extending two of the competitions from 6 to 8 match days at the group/league stage adds two more weeks, (the last two weeks of January) to the schedule, but UEFA has also added two more. The opening week of the Champions League fixtures will have the same dates as before, but the Champions League will stand alone that week. The following week, the Europa League gets started in a week that has not, in the past been used for European matches. This is a week that has been used by several leagues (including Spain and Italy) across Europe for League games and in England for the League Cup. The Conference will not start its fixtures until a week later, when the Champions and Europa League play their second match day. The fixtures then revert to the current pattern with two out of any five weeks given to the games, and the Conference always one match day behind the others. The Conference will get its week in the sun (or more likely the snow) in the week before Christmas, when it plays its final matchday unencumbered by other competitions in the same week. France, Germany and Spain are using that for League matches this season, while the English League cup and the Netherlands Cup are also scheduled. The Club World Cup is also playing that week, but that is the last of the current series, and the new expanded competition takes place in the summer of 2025

I can see the benefits of these dates, in terms of shining light on the different competitions at different times. The Champions League and Europa League can both be highlighted as they start, while what they hope is the most interesting week for the Conference also stands alone. Of course, while the first two can spread out their fixtures, the Conference will need to play all together. By its nature, the Conference will have a greater spread of matches geographically, and more are liable to be challenged by the closing in of winter. There is a reason why all the competitions with summer leagues have completed league fixtures by now.

League fixtures can be tweaked though. This season the African Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup start in January (dates that UEFA want), but the next two African competitions (2025 and 2027) are both scheduled as summer. That does leave the Asian Cup 2027 being played in January, with the clashes that could create.

The rules around transfer windows and competition eligibility may also have to be changed. This season, clubs can make up to three changes to their A list of 25 players between the group and knock out stages, even if the players have played for another club in the group stages. This allows them to make changes for new signings or players leaving in the January transfer window. If the rule does not change, then a club may find it has lost players in the transfer window before its final games.

In the end though, its all about the money – so I must end on a money issue. There is a feeling that even within the major leagues, the disproportionate income of the top clubs is ending competition. Although at the time of writing, there is just a hope this is not true. The Bundesliga is becoming interesting again, and Girona are the surprise leaders in La Liga. The Premier League still finds its top teams are fallible, especially as the Financial Fair Play rules are finally beginning to bite. In the end though, despite the league tables as we approach year end, no one is going to be surprised if Real Madrid, Bayern München and Manchester City win their leagues.

Across the borders from England, there is less doubt though. TNS is well clear to win the Cymru Premier League, and I would be surprised if Celtic do not win the Scottish League – but this would go down to complete shock the champions were neither Celtic or Rangers. The old firm in Scotland already hold all the advantages. No one comes close to them on match day income, and these are the clubs the sponsors queue up for. They are on TV almost every week as well. The Champions League income for Celtic, as opposed to Europa League for Rangers makes enough difference that Celtic are always going to be favourites. The other teams, even those that are in Europe tend to receive to much less that they are not going to use this to compete with the old firm

If Scotland is uneven, Wales is not even that. Some years back, the chairman of TNS through some money at his club, providing a ground (curiously its in England, but the club has been defined as Welsh) and seeing they could win the league. Now they are favourites for the title every year because every time they win, they gain enough money from UEFA to maintain a full time squad while the rest of the league remain part time. They were canny enough to realise there could be an odd year when someone else wins, and have weathered through past COVID and Connah’s Quay taking the title to be back on top.

It is a pattern that is being repeated elsewhere, often by previously unheralded teams, Lincoln Red Imps have won three titles in a row in Gibraltar, Ludogorets have won 12 in a row in Bulgaria. In all these cases, success begets success thanks to the rewards of the Champions League – even in cases (as is true in Wales and Gibraltar) where the clubs get knocked out of European competition in the qualifying rounds.

UEFA makes “solidarity” payments to each league, money that can be distributed to the clubs not in European competition – and this helps to keep each league and team running. This is not enough though to make the leagues competitive. UEFA needs to rethink this as it is damaging smaller leagues. If the have a domestic TV audience, it is small – people prefer to watch the satellite broadcasts from the bigger leagues and it is hard to keep the crowds up when everyone knows who is going to win.

I think UEFA need to rebalance the amounts on offer. When the Welsh clubs play in Europe, they should be making money for Wales, with most of the money distributed evenly across the league and a much smaller bonus for being the club with the success.