04/09/2007

Platini Plan has Merit, but also opponents.

Michel Platini presented his plans for the European Champions League and the UEFA Cup to the UEFA Congress meeting in Monaco. The plan makes good on his promises to open up the Champions League, by reducing the number of ‘big’ teams in it, but only just. In doing so, Platini has created more enemies than friends. However, the plan only details the mechanics – how many teams qualify and where they come from. It does not detail the financial package behind it, and it will be the financial package that will be the key to the plan’s success or failure.

Platini has promised that his proposals will reduce the inequalities in the distribution of money from the Champions League, and send a greater share down to the grass routes of the game – but if he does this, then he will antagonise the biggest earners – who may find their income eroded, as well as those that miss out. If he does not support the lesser earners, then they will not have the wherewithal to compete in the Champions League anyway, and the result will be a weaker contest where the like of Liverpool and Valencia are replaced by Levski Sofia and Zaglebie Lubin. In order to keep almost everyone happy, Platini needs to keep the earnings up for the big clubs, distribute a better portion of the money to the others and improve the profile of the UEFA cup so as those that miss out on the Champions League riches have a decent second prize to go for. If he does not manage all of this, then he may find the big clubs pulling out of European competition and setting up a rival concern – and if this happens he will find that the sponsors and TV companies are linked by an umbilical cord to the big football clubs, and that UEFA is merely a knot in that cord – one that can be easily untied!

The current situation is that 32 teams qualify for the Champions League group stage. 16 of these have no preliminary matches to play – these are the Champions of the top nine ranked countries, the runners-up from the top six, and of course the holders. In addition, third placed clubs from the top six countries enter the final qualifying round, and fourth placed clubs from the top three, while countries down the ranking list as far as 15 have both their champions and runners-up in contention somewhere within the process. In the current season, from the top six countries with three of four entries, only a single club (Toulouse) has failed to make it through to the group stages. From the fifteen countries with dual entry, only Belgium have not got a team into the groups, while only one club – Rosenborg, champions of 19th ranked Norway have made it through from lower in the rankings. So the final 32 of the Champions League consists of just 14 champions (including Milan as holders, even though they finished fourth in their league), along with 11 runners up, 5 third and 2 fourth placed clubs.

The new proposal will mean that 19 Champions will play in the group stage, with only six runners up and three third placed teams, plus a special bonus group of four cup winners. This means that nine clubs who have finished runners-up of their domestic league, three that finish third and all three fourth placed clubs are not given an opportunity to qualify for the group stage. The carrot to make this prospect more palatable to the clubs from these leagues is that 22, rather than 16 clubs reach the group stage without playing a qualifying game – that is the champions of 12 countries instead of nine, and the three third placed teams still allowed to participate. So for the country that is placed 11th in the rankings (i.e. Scotland), the Champions have direct access to the group stage, while the runners-up do not get to play at all (while at present, both play in qualifying rounds), and similarly for the country 2nd in the rankings (England), there will be three direct places, whereas up to now there have been four, two direct and two through qualifying. The final team to directly qualify will be the current Champions, so there would be some adjustment if they are already in the list.

One of the oddities of the plan is to keep two groups of qualifiers separately. In one group, the champions of all the lower ranked teams will be involved – with six places to be won, (three knock out rounds, as now). The other group will have the cup winners of the 16 highest ranked nations, with two knock out rounds, and four places to be won in the groups. The detail has not yet been explained, so we will have to wait longer what happens when the cup winners have already qualified.

The new plan calls for a revamp of the UEFA Cup as well. The new competition will have 48 teams in 12 groups of four. The ten teams defeated in the last round of Champions League qualification will get into these groups as a consolation prize, while the only other team guaranteed a place in the groups will be the cup holder. That means 37 further places up for grabs in the qualification process, but the number of teams that will start the process and how it will work has not yet been stated. Of course, 12 groups of four means 24 teams to qualify, so as now – they expectation is that 8 third placed teams from the Champions League group stages will play in the knock out rounds of the UEFA Cup.

As I have said, finance will be a big part of the equation. In monetary terms, the UEFA Cup is not a second division to the Champions League, but a very poor cousin indeed, but there is no need for it to be so. I have heard it said that the sponsors only want to be associated with the big clubs, but the idea that there is a ‘big four’ in England has only come about since the Champions league has given four clubs an advantage over the rest each term. Apart from the fact that one of the big four drops to the UEFA Cup given this plan, there are a number of other English clubs that are equally, or near equally good for sponsors – Newcastle, Everton and Spurs immediately spring to mind. The same is equally true for most other major countries in Europe.

It is, however, already clear that many of the biggest clubs are going to be against the changes. The revised concept may threaten their access to the competition, or their earnings within it. It is these big clubs that have the best scope to brief against the plans, so the opposition is likely to be loud, while support for the plan may find it difficult to get an airing. If they act together, the biggest clubs can simply refuse to be part of the new competition, and branch out to create their own European League. UEFA may think they have powers to stop this – but UEFA may find they do not have the powers they think they have. If Manchester United, Milan and Real Madrid are all together in the alternative European League, then where are Ford, Mastercard and Amstel beer going to want their money to go? And who is Sky wanting to televise? Even disenfranchising the clubs is not a serious threat, as there is no way you can stop them going their own way.

Overall, I find myself in favour of the Platini plan, subject to some reservations, and the big question over money. Certain we need to reform the competition and create a more equal playing field. There is a danger that in each of the major countries a small and unchallengable elite will come to the fore, perpetuated by champions league money, while the same factors are preventing clubs from other countries challenging for the honours – showing to all and sundry that their leagues are second rate. We should want competitive leagues in as many countries as possible, and also for these leagues to be able to compete with each other

I am uncertain about the cup-winners idea. The FA wanted to have the option to give a place to the FA Cup winners in order to restore the cachet of the competition, but most countries are ambivalent about cup competitions and would prefer a place for league sides. While ten of the failed qualifying sides have been accounted for in the UEFA Cup, the fate of the remaining 46 odd clubs remains uncertain – would some (or all) also get to the consolation prize? Finally, if the UEFA Cup is the second division of European football, then should its champions win promotion and enter the Champions League in the following season?