22 March ~ Zibi Boniek, the former Juventus and Roma player, predicted recently that soon there will be only one European club competition. Speaking on Italian TV, Boniek claimed that UEFA president Michel Platini will try to enlarge the Champions League after 2015, when the current TV deal runs out. There would be 64 clubs (after preliminary rounds) in 16 groups, with the 32 survivors playing in the knock-out phase. Boniek was reacting to worries expressed by Milan's Adriano Galliani that Italy are losing ranking points because of their clubs' poor performances in the Europa League. Galliani thinks there should be separate ranking points for the two competitions. Boniek suggested that soon it may not matter.
Having just one competition would be a retrograde step that would put European football even further into the possession of the elite. If there are to be changes in 2015, they should include the reintroduction of the Cup-Winners Cup and the retention of the Europa League or UEFA Cup.
These competitions should not try to ape the Champions League. Instead they should revert to the original concept of European football and be straight knock-out competitions from the start. Clubs hate the Europa League as it forces them to play six group matches but they are not rewarded with anything like the income that the Champions League generates. UEFA should also move away from playing games on Thursday nights.
The Cup-Winners Cup should be reintroduced because it rewards teams that have actually won something. It should not be open to the losing finalists when the winners are also in the Champions League. As for the Europa League, maybe it should be for the highest-placed non-Champions League clubs, whose facilities meet UEFA criteria and actually want to take part.
The clubs would have to promise to take the competition seriously and field their strongest available sides. The cups could be incentivised by giving the winners – or finalists – admission to the next season's Champions League. Teams that do not field their best sides could be punished by having their European licence withdrawn.
It is difficult to know whether there are enough midweek dates to do this, but if it were possible the two lesser competitions should not be played in the same weeks as the Champions League. This might mean that the Europa League could be played on Tuesdays and the Cup-Winners Cup on Wednesdays. If there are not enough midweek slots to fit in two-legged ties, they could adopt the FA Cup format. Home advantage would be given to the team first out of the hat but gate receipts should be shared equally between the two clubs.
An even more radical solution might be for UEFA to insist that by 2015 no country’s top division should consist of more than 18 clubs. With some countries now having 20 clubs in the top division, this would free up four dates for European matches, which could be played in midweek or even at weekends, with games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.
In its heyday European club football in all its forms was seen as a break from the bread and butter of league matches and could produce nights of high drama. Those of us who were there will never forget Atalanta’s Cup-Winners Cup semi-final against Mechelen, the unfashionable Belgian club, in 1988. Should we not be asking UEFA to at least try to recreate some of that magic? Or have TV and its money killed European football for good? Richard Mason