Steve Menary explains how qualification for the Champions League is becoming a closed shop

Spurs’ appearance in this year’s Champions League qualifiers is the first in four seasons by a team outside of the Premier League’s big four. Since 1994-95 and the start of the group format, just nine English clubs have played in the Champions League. The Premier League is a cash cow but between 1992-93 and 2008-09, Man Utd earned €261 million (£217m) from the Champions League – and that’s just from UEFA. Research from tournament sponsor Mastercard shortly before this year’s final claimed that whoever won would earn €120m in total.

In Spain, Germany, Italy and France, the number of clubs taking part since the group stages began is in double figures but Champions League money is skewing domestic competition more than ever. Every team that fails to reach the group stage is guaranteed €200,000 as a “solidarity payment”. In other words, compensation for taking part before most clubs started pre-season friendlies.

The first qualifying round of this year’s Champions League took place before the last-16 stage of the World Cup was completed. Although neither Malta’s Birkirkara nor Andorran title holders Santa Coloma were likely to call on any players in South Africa, the tie was too early for the latter’s pitch to be ready. Birkirkara were duly given a 3-0 walkover, handing the Maltese side a huge advantage ahead of their home leg, which they won 4-3. Santa Coloma departed with €200,000 for playing one game plus another €130,000 given to every club playing in the first qualifying round. Birkirkara then netted another €130,000 for taking part in the second round, where they lost 3-1 on aggregate to Slovakia’s MŠK Žilina.

No club winning through from the first qualifying round progressed to the next stage, but with the same “compensation” on offer for playing a third tie, a side that got through two rounds of qualifiers would collect €590,000 from UEFA. Clubs that reach the fourth phase but are then beaten in a play-off for a place in the group stages don’t keep the earlier payments. Instead, there is a one-off fee of €2.1m and a place in the Europa League, where another system of cash distribution starts up all over again. Not surprisingly, that level of money can seriously distort a small domestic league.

FC Sheriff Tiraspol have been Moldova’s sole Champions League representative since 2002. A few years ago local newspaper Sport Plus offered 100 litres of beer to any club breaking the stranglehold but have not been in any danger of paying up. Sheriff narrowly missed out the group stages last season, losing 2-1 to Olympiakos in the final qualifying round. After Michel Platini was elected UEFA president on a mandate of helping small-to-medium sized countries, (“anyone but England” according to many in this country’s media) he pledged to overhaul the Champions League qualifying criteria.

Platini’s plans were diluted in the face of pressure from the big clubs, but some changes were made and sides from Belarus and Cyprus have appeared in the group stages for the first time.

Turkey’s Bursaspor will make their Champions League debut this season but with so much money sloshing around, the same teams are increasingly appearing again and again. Lyon have taken a French Champions League slot every season since 1999-2000 and Pyunik have represented Armenia constantly for nine years.

This season is the first time that Olympiakos will not play in the Champions League since 1997-98. In Ukraine, the situation is even worse – Dynamo Kiev and Shaktar Donetsk have taken all 26 places in the competition since 1994-95. Scotland is not much better. Hearts’ appearance in the 2006-07 qualifiers is the only time that the Old Firm’s duopoly in the competition has been smashed, while only three different teams from Croatia, Latvia and Serbia have ever played in the Champions League.

For all of Michel Platini’s brave efforts, the competition increasingly offers simply more of the same. Plus ça change.

From WSC 283 September 2010

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