15/10/2007

The Perils of Platini (part 1)

Michel Platini was elected as UEFA President back in January, and it has taken him until the summer to make clear how he plans to revamp Europe’s club competitions. However, as the base premise of the plan had been part of his election campaign, his opponents have had time to prepare their opposition. While the plans look at first glance to be designed to please football supporters – the opposition comes from the big clubs, and it has not taken long for them to get their big guns out and shoot at Platini’s ideas.

Platini has started with one consideration, there is a lot of money in UEFA’s competitions at the moment and it is getting distributed very unevenly, with a small number of clubs from a small number of leagues getting the lions share. Even within the two UEFA competitions, the numbers are uneven – the 32 clubs in the UEFA Champions league last season shared €580 million rather unevenly between them. In UEFA’s second competition, the UEFA Cup, 40 teams made the group stage, but under €35 million was paid out. Even the big money was in no way evenly divided – over 20% was delivered to the four English clubs. Chelsea claimed €34.6 million despite being knocked out at the semi-final stage, a little more than Liverpool, and more than anyone except the Champions, Milan. By comparison, Levski Sofia, playing in the group with Chelsea got a mere €5.5 million.

The first phase of the Platini plan is to open up the Champions League to more actual champions – only 14 countries are represented in the Champions League group stage this season, and only 12 champions (the runners up have got through from Romania and the Czech Republic), 12 more are runners-up, 5 third placed teams, and four 4th placed sides. Under the Platini plan, most countries have one less place – although as a bribe to some, these are guaranteed. So Platini wants to guarantee 22 places without qualification, giving the top three countries 3 places (but no qualification match) instead of four places, with two facing qualification. Countries 4-6 have two direct places (as now) but lose the third chance via qualification. A further 7 champions get direct entry (although one of these can be the Champions League winners). Currently only three of these get direct qualification, but runners-up enter the qualifying competition down to the 15th ranked country. For a country like Scotland (current rank, 11th), this may be good for the Champions, who are excused the potentially awkward qualification match – but not for the runners-up, whose route to the group stage is removed. Under the Platini plan, all the remaining countries would play their champions in qualifying matches, with six of them (out of about 40) getting a place in the group stage. The more controversial move was a secondary qualifying competition for the cup winners of the top 16 countries – four cup winners would eventually reach the group stage. It is this part of the plan that has generated most criticism, and it makes on wonder what on earth possessed Platini to include it. Only one member association has even brought up the possibility of entering a Cup winner in the Champions league – England. Even then the FA had a milder suggestion – that the FA Cup winners could play the fourth of the Champions League qualifiers, with the winner entering the Champions League (at the 3Q stage) and the loser dropping to the UEFA Cup. There is no reason for UEFA to object to this, if formally requested by the FA – after all they already allow the Netherlands to play a series of play-offs at the end of the season which means any team finishing 2nd to 5th can get the second Champions League place (the country only has two).
The final plank of Platini’s re-arrangement of the competitions was to extend the group stage of the UEFA Cup from 40 teams to 48; this means re-arranging the groups from the current 8 groups of five teams, to a 12 groups of four – with only the top two going through from each. Currently with three going through from five teams groups, it is easy to feel that a club does not have to do well to get through. Platini has not stated how the qualification for the groups would look, but the most likely format is one where the total number of European teams for each country would be unchanged, no team is expected to reach the UEFA Cup group without at least one qualifying tie, but teams knocked out of the final round of Champions League qualifications (6 League champions and four cup winners) would not face any more matches.

Immediately Platini had started to propose his plans, the protests started. With so much money behind the current format of the Champions League; UEFA have found that the have created a beast which is not easily killed, or even tamed. The biggest opponents of the new plan are those who see themselves as missing out as their places in the Champions league get given to ‘smaller’ clubs.

The secret in the plan, certainly as far as the public is concerned, and maybe to the clubs themselves is how Platini intends to redistribute the money. UEFA has done terrifically well in selling the Champions League, and in doing so they have created a money pot from which over €600 million is delivered each season. The success of the Champions League, however had accentuated the position of the UEFA Cup as a secondary competition – only €35 million being distributed from this pot. Platini’s plan is almost certainly to take some of the money from the rich and pass it to the relatively poor – and if he has any sense, he will start to tie the two competitions together, so as the sponsors are supporting European Club football, rather than just the Champions League.

In England, four teams picked up €20 million or more from the Champions League last season, Spurs collected €4 million from their UEFA cup run, Blackburn €380,000 and Newcastle €450,000. This gives the big four a tremendous advantage over the rest of the league in financial terms – lesser payments to the big four, and higher ones to the rest (including the ‘solidarity’ payments to Premiership clubs not in European competition) would help to return the competitive edge that the league has lost in recent years. Across Europe, the share of the market pool given to English and Italian clubs was about 20% each, German, Spanish and French clubs also take large shares, leaving a pittance for countries like Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania and Russia. A more even distribution across Europe would help the leagues in these countries to compete. The argument could then be that stronger local leagues would keep more local star players through higher wages. The flood of cheap foreign players to the big leagues would at least be partly stemmed, and local players would have to step up to the fore in their place. And so by taking money away from the big clubs in England and distributing it instead to small clubs in England, and clubs in the smaller European Leagues, Platini could actually help the English National team!