If you believe the leaks there is a new European Super League on the horizon. Ben Lyttleton searches for the clubs’ real motives

Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas blamed his team’s Champions League elimination by Barcelona on fundamental flaws in the structure of French football; AC Milan managing director Adriano Galliani has asked UEFA to consider a salary cap as “a wind of crisis” blows across the European game; and Spain’s professional clubs have a combined debt of over €700 million. Reason enough, apparently, for all three to be accused of leaking plans of a new European Super League to sports papers across the continent. They all denied the claims, but the reasons behind the leak are as interesting as the plans themselves.

In the current economic crisis, investors are at a premium and broadcasters, hampered by a lack of advertising revenue, are unlikely to be generous when the Champions League contract is up for renewal in 2012. The mooted Super League plan is therefore, according to one of its backers, “an inevitable and logical next step for football”.

The European Clubs Association (ECA), a body of 137 clubs that have replaced the G-14 and operate within UEFA’s jurisdiction, also denied these plans were ever discussed but they seemed pretty detailed when revealed in France Football and Gazzetta dello Sport in the week of the Champions League quarter-final draw. The plan is for three divisions of 20-22 clubs, with Division A featuring the top four clubs from England, Spain and Italy, the top three sides from France and Germany and one from Portugal, Holland, Scotland and Belgium. Division B would bring together the remaining Champions League sides plus the UEFA Cup qualifiers from the major leagues. No one has bothered to spell out what C would involve but we can presume that it would be the teams that currently pick up the UEFA Cup spots from the middle-ranking leagues. Teams would move up and down between these divisions and gain entrance to the bottom end of the League via play-offs. There is also talk of a “history bonus”, allowing formerly successful teams to be invited even if they have slipped down the ladder, like previous Champions League winners Borussia Dortmund or Ajax. The clubs involved would be expected to continue playing in their domestic leagues, although “fixture lists would need to be completely reshuffled” as one of the reports put it, understating nicely.

Current European club formats would disappear, although there are problems that become obvious pretty quickly: the fact that winning domestic cups does not lead to qualification devalues those tournaments, while the “history bonus” protects certain clubs from the highs and lows of normal competition. Introducing promotion and relegation, as opposed to G-14’s original closed league model, keeps the idea within European law, while clubs would agree to spend no more than 65 per cent of budgets on salary. That would please UEFA president Michel Platini, who is desperate to see clubs toeing the line in terms of financial concessions. “If clubs have financial problems, they should pay their players less instead of coming to the authorities for help,” he has said. “If you or I buy a Ferrari we can’t pay for, we go to jail. Yet there are teams that not only take Ferraris they can’t pay for, but also get the prettiest girls. It’s not fair.”

If kicking indebted clubs – or indeed, those who don’t comply with prospective plans to restore competitive balance, which is where the salary cap debate comes in – out of Europe is one of Platini’s main objectives, his other is restoring the European Cup to a knock-out format. “When the time comes, it will be up to the Executive Committee to decide,” he said of the Super League plans. “But the big clubs fear that the economic crisis will hit them hard. I have always been in favour of a more equal competition. But if it was only up to me, I would go back to the original format of the European Cup with knock-out matches from the first round.”

This last comment puts the European Super League plans into some context: if Platini is threatening to end the Champions League in its current format, then the clubs would need to come up with a reason to make him change his mind. The European Super League is just that: a plan hatched as a bargaining-tool to keep the Champions League as it is. English clubs may be dominating Europe at the moment, but none of the ECA clubs want to play fewer European matches, as they would in Platini’s proposal.

Platini told the European Parliament last month that he was looking at American sports models to solve the issue of competitive balance in the European game. In Major League Baseball, for example, a “luxury tax” is imposed on teams that break a wage ceiling: once over that amount, the team pays money to divisional rivals who are below the tax-threshold. As the European Super League is reportedly based on the model of the NBA, it is ironic that another American example is likely to prevent him seeing through his grand idea.

From WSC 267 May 2009

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