League form should be ignored for "prestige"
16 October ~ In the 1990s AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi complained that it did not make economic sense that the European season of top clubs such as his Milan could be over by the beginning of November, or even earlier. Those were still the days of European competitions with straight knockout rounds and no seedings. So, in 1988-89, Napoli found themselves up against Real Madrid in the first round and promptly went out, a fate which also befell Inter two years later against the much more modest Malmo.
Berlusconi's wish was soon granted as the European Champions Cup became the Champions League. But some people are never satisfied, and so now, again from Milan, has come another suggestion. The author is Umberto Gandini, a director of the club who is little-known outside Rossoneri circles.
No doubt influenced by the fact that Milan are not in Europe this season, he has come up with the idea that in order to improve the prestige of the Champions League certain clubs who have had the misfortune not to qualify due to poor league campaigns should be granted wild card entry to the competition. He named seven Italian and six English clubs who fight for, respectively, three and four places, and his argument seems to be that they should all be in the Champions League ex officio.
He says: "Every year two or three miss out and either go into the Europa League or 'have to' go without European football." And of course he could not fail to mention the importance to the clubs of revenue from European football, though it seems to have escaped his notice that for most clubs "going without" European football is the norm.
That this suggestion should come from Italy, a country where the national cup competition is programmed to ensure that two of the top clubs reach the final, should not come as a surprise. If its wider implications, the idea is clearly outlandish. Imagine that a medium-sized club, say Verona or Sampdoria, finish above Milan but out of the European placings. Gandini seems to be saying that Milan should leapfrog over them simply because of their past glories. So some Serie A clubs would be in Europe whatever their final league position, while others knew that no matter how well they performed they would never be allowed in. Yet most small- to medium-sized top division clubs manage to survive without any of the European money that Gandini seems to think is indispensable.
According to Gandini's logic clubs such as Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Derby and Nottingham Forest should be in the Premier League at the expense of five of the current members with less "sporting merit" or support. That is without mentioning all the former League clubs in the Conference and the often smaller clubs that have replaced them.
Gianni Infantino, UEFA general secretary, has said that there is no chance of Gandini's proposals being adopted, but the power that the top clubs now wield suggests caution. It is not inconceivable that it could happen. And if it does it will be another nail in the coffin of the idea of football as an exercise in meritocracy and a sport which, more than almost any other, sometimes sees little triumph over large and be rewarded for doing so. Richard Mason