21/11/2007

The Perils of Platini – Part 2.

After the World Cup draw, we wait another week for the next big draw – for the finals of Euro 2008. This will be the end of a big week in European Football, as not only is there another series of games in the Champions League and UEFA cup, but the week will end with UEFA’s Executive committee delivering a verdict on the Platini plan to reform the club competitions. It appears however, that the plan has already been holed below the waterline after last week’s meeting of the European Professional Football Strategy Council. This organisation brings together representatives from UEFA, Clubs, Leagues and Professional footballers, and includes three Englishmen in its sixteen members. Geoff Thompson, (FA Chair/UEFA Vice President), Peter Kenyon (club rep from Chelsea) and David Richards (Premier League chairman). It cannot be co-incident that Platini had threatened to be less than fully supportive of England’s 2018 World Cup bid just before the meeting started.

The piece of the Platini plan that has certainly been lost is the idea of allowing the cup-winners of 16 top countries to play a special qualifying competition with four places in the group stage at stake. However, it may still be possible for individual countries to choose to send cup winners instead of an extra league team into this qualification place. Rumour is that Italy, where the national cup is run by the league may choose to do so, whereas here in England, the FA do not have the power to push the Cup Winners above the fourth place in the league. What Platini will keep is an extension on the number of Champions automatically placed in the group stages. Currently there are 16 places directly allocated (10 Champions and six runners-up), but this will be increased to 22 (13 Champions, six runners-up and three third placed clubs). Platini wanted to separate the qualifying competitions, so as six of the ten qualifying teams had to be champions, the other four being from the Cup-winners section. It will still be an achievement for Platini if he can reserve the six places for Champions.

The UEFA Cup part of the plan was to change from 8 groups of 5 teams with three qualifying from each to 12 groups of 4, two qualifying from each. This is logical and I would expect it to be carried through. In order to provide the extra dates, teams knocked down to the UEFA Cup in the last round of Champions League qualifying will go direct to the group stage.

Platini has been publicly raging against the inequalities of the current system. These are two fold, the Champions League (but not the UEFA Cup) is earning riches that go in the main to those clubs in the group stages. These earnings allow the clubs that make it to this stage to be in a higher financial league than that of their league rivals. This has created an inequality and lack of competitiveness within many leagues, including the best in Europe. The earnings are not equally distributed between the clubs in the Champions League though, and those clubs from the ‘bigger’ countries have a major advantage over the smaller nations based on both national and champions league earnings. I wrote to UEFA and asked what the plan to deal with these inequalities would be. The reply was that they had not decided yet. This is the battle yet to come for Platini. And again the trump cards are all in the hands of those clubs whose wealth may be affected by a Platini victory.

In another move, Platini wrote to the prime ministers of every European state back in the summer, asking for special treatment for the sport in European treaties, (especially the current EU one that is under debate across the continent). There are a few lines about sport in the treaty, and Platini is actually claiming a victory. But those few (almost meaningless) lines fall well short of the standard Platini was asking for. Indeed, Gordon Brown openly said no to Platini within days of the original letter. What UEFA have been asking for is a position for sport that places it separate from other businesses, and allows it to at least negotiate to stand outside certain aspects of company law. The European Union would argue that in fact there are only around five major leagues in Europe (of which the Premiership is one). To not allow all European citizens equal rights to play for clubs in these leagues is a restraint of trade and will not be allowed.