Tuesday 18 August ~

The idealistic president of UEFA, Michel Platini, once said that he would favour abolishing the current European club cups to stage instead a single, 256-team, unseeded knockout tournament. A real European Cup, in fact, where the final eight would be impossible to predict, and where Milan, Bayern, Barcelona and Chelsea would risk being knocked out in September. How New Football laughed at that idea. But it’s doubtful Platini ever seriously thought he could even start the discussion about such a plan. Like all idealists, he was merely setting out his best-case utopia. Something we could at least think about working towards.

Platini may not have reversed football’s top-heavy tide, and we will likely never again see Malmo play Nottingham Forest in a European Cup final. But this year’s Champions League reforms carry the mark of the idealist, even if they are a far cry from the Frenchman’s original vision of a level playing field. They come in the form of this week’s Champions League play-offs, which have added another round to the already intricate process of qualifying for what must necessarily be described as the competition’s “lucrative” group phase. This fourth and final pre-league round of ten, two-legged ties is divided into two sections. One for teams who placed second, third or fourth in their domestic leagues, including CL regulars such as Arsenal, Celtic, Lyon, Anderlecht and Sporting Lisbon. And the other section for actual champions.

And so, Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova play Greek champions Olympiakos Piraeus. Swiss title-holders FC Zurich travel to FK Ventspils of Latvia, FC Copenhagen match up against APOEL Nicosia, Salzburg host Maccabi Haifa, and Levski Sofia face Hungary’s Debrecen. In previous years, most of these sides would have faced the likes of Atletico Madrid or Fiorentina (two more very strong teams in the other half of the draw), and that would likely have been the end of their participation. Champions would be eliminated by non-champions and the wealth from the group phase headed towards the same old major leagues.

Critics say the reforms are akin to watering down the competition and that it is UEFA’s equivalent of positive discrimination (as if that were a bad thing). How many Manchester United fans, they ask, will want to watch their team take on FK Ventspils in the group stage? Not to mention the millions of armchair neutrals around the world – football’s most important demographic by far. The question is better reversed. Think how many fans of the Latvian team will look forward to hosting Manchester United. The Champions League group stages are in any case seen by most fans as a bit of a grind. At least this way they can channel some money to a genuine champion, watched by fans who won’t be mutely expectant of yet another victory. And there’s the possible bonus for the rest of us – bar-stool sceptics rather than armchair neutrals – of a humiliating shock result.

There have of course been teams from Denmark, Greece, Cyprus and Switzerland in past group stages, and although few have progressed to the second set of knockout games, they have provided more of what Platini has sought for years – a greater variety of representation and a fairer distribution of UEFA’s wealth. We can already guess that the final eight will feature teams exclusively from La Liga, Serie A, and our own globally stupendous Premier League. Still, it’s nice to know that however much someone like Platini may be scorned for being a man of values in the age of £50 tickets, at least he’s placed a small obstacle in the path of football’s rush to turn itself into a super-bland, over-branded cash cow where one season seems much the same as the next.

“I’ve never been an idealist, that implies you aren’t going to achieve anything,” Arthur Scargill once said. True, a Moldovan team in the Champions League group stage might not represent a footballing counter-revolution. But it’s a start. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (5)
Comment by AMMS 2009-08-18 11:30:45

Nice piece. One of the attractions of European football used to be the unknown, good to know a bit of that might be coming back.

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2009-08-18 14:37:50

Yes, I agree wholly with the article too.

It's good to see Platini having a go at reforming the competition though this is probably about as radical as it will get given the influence of the Gwhatevernumberitisnowofclubslookingsolelyaftertheirownselfishinterests.

Contrary to the views of the English press, I quite respect Platini and his vision as UEFA president. He's quite fairly criticised the domination of UEFA's number one competition by a small number of teams from the league that is the richest and questioned the sustainability of clubs operating on massive debts, most of which happen to be the Premier League clubs.It's only 5 years ago we had a Monaco-Porto final with the semi-finalists being Deportivo La Coruna alongside Chelsea.

Perhaps it could happen again...

Comment by danielmak 2009-08-18 17:58:17

Yes, good piece. I would add, though, that the Europa League was an opportunity to radically transform the catering to big clubs. That is, allowing 3rd place CL teams to drop into the UEFA Cup was a way to allow richer clubs to get even richer because those teams got to continue on in Europe. Maintaining this in the Europa League just does the same thing. I do not fully understand the co-efficient system but at the end of the day, this system awards countries for their team's victories in competitive continental fixtures. So the longer Werder Bremen plays (dropping from the CL and making it to the UEFA Cup final) just strengthens Germany's opportunities in Europe vis-a-vis more slots. Now I know that Germany has been weakened in Europe so the example isn't the best, but I hope you get the general point: CL teams should be done once they are knocked out and Europa League teams should play each other all the way through. Platini had an opportunity to truly reform the competition but ultimately it is just renamed with the same new steps that exist in the CL.

Comment by The Exploding Vole 2009-08-19 09:10:23

Nice to see Arthur Scargill getting a mention.

Comment by irishreddevil 2009-08-19 11:55:03

Broadening the number of countries involved in the group stages is certainly a good start, and both Anorthosis and BATE did enough last year to suggest that there won't be any hammerings. Ideally, I'd rather the '94 to '98 group stages where at least it was guaranteed that every team was a champion, but while that's a non-runner, there should be a limit of three teams from England, Spain and Italy and two from Germany and France, so that both the Europa League would be strengthened and the smaller leagues would have a more level playing field.

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