Platini’s plans and other pipe dreams

The proposed restructuring of the Champions League, which emerged from UEFA’s strategy council on Monday and will probably be approved by the executive committee later this month, has been perceived as a significant setback for Michel Platini, the man elected as UEFA president in January.

Platini campaigned for the presidency on a platform of opening up the Champions League to clubs from less powerful footballing nations. He came up with proposals to hold two separate qualifying competitions. The first route to qualification would have been a knockout competition amongst the domestic cup winners from the 16 top associations. Those clubs would be battling for four Champions League places. The second route would have the domestic champions from the bottom 40 nations playing each other for six Champions League spots.

Both the cup winners idea and the proposal to hold two separate qualifying competitions were strongly opposed by the continent’s top clubs and leagues. Instead the top European leagues have even more influence then before. It has been recommended that from the start of the 2009-10 season and onward that the top three clubs from the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A be given automatic entry into the group stage, which is an increase from the two that are granted automatic entry at present.

The strategy council did agree in principle to Platini’s wish of having teams from a wider range of nations involved in the competition proper. From the start of the 2009-10 season, six group places will be taken by the league winners from Europe’s 40 smallest countries. A proposal to to move the Champions League final from a Wednesday evening to Saturday in order to attract younger audience has also been dropped from consideration.

The G-14 consortium of top European clubs were threatening, as they’ve done in the past, to breakaway from UEFA and form their own European Super League if Platini had forced through his reforms. By agreeing to back down on his reforms Platini has averted the threat of a major rebellion but at what cost?

I will admit that I supported Platini’s idea of opening the competition up and making it more of a true Champions League. To me, a Champions League should include domestic and cup champions not teams that finish fourth domestically. I’m disappointed that once again the G-14 has thrown its weight about and we are likely to see even more of a wealth gap developing
between the G-14 clubs and the rest of European club football.

There is no question that the Champions League is need of a shakeup and that it has become a competition dominated by the English, Spanish and Italian clubs. It is now considered an accomplishment for domestic champions from smaller leagues like Scotland, Norway or Belgium to reach the last 16. In its current form it is neither a league nor a cup competition but a strange hybrid of the two. Having the group stage increases the number of games involving the big clubs and has generated much interest in the TV rights. However, if we continue to see one-sided games like the 7-0 and 8-0 results posted by Arsenal and Liverpool in recent Matchdays, the audience will soon lose interest.

UEFA will need to decide at some point what it wants the Champions League to be. The clubs will continue to resist change as long as the cash continues to roll in. If I were in charge, I would eliminate the qualification rounds and simply go with teams based on their performance in the previous season. I would adopt a league format with a playoff to decide the ultimate champion. I would change the league format instead of random drawings to decide groups, I would adopt a regional system to take advantage of local rivalries and keep the travel to a minimum. For example, you could have a UK Division with the top 3 English & Scottish clubs plus the two domestic cup winners. A Scandinavian Division could feature the champions and domestic cup winners from Sweden, Denmark and Norway along with the domestic champs from Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. The team finishing first in the UK Division could then face-off in a two-legged tie against the winner of the Scandinavian Division to advance.

I’m just working off the cuff here and haven’t plotted this out completely so please take it easy on me 🙂 I’d have to sit down and do a lot more work on the conference/division setup but I just wanted to put the idea forth as a discussion point.

What are your thoughts on the state of the Champions League? Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me with your ideas for reform or arguments on why things are fine the way they are.

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