Points make prizes

European qualification rules are increasingly becoming a scandalous affair thanks to an unfair  points system

No one remembers the losing semi-finalists, so they say. UEFA, however, remember everyone, not only the unlucky losers in the semis, but even the hapless minnows from Azerbaijan, whose representatives bowed out of all three European club competitions in the first round in 1997-98 without so much as mustering a goal between them.

These things matter to some people at this time of year. While we have just finished with the Champions League, for much of Europe it runs between the middle of July and the first week of August. By that time, the campaigns of a third of Europe’s countries will be over.

The performances by each country’s teams over the past five years determine UEFA’s rankings, which in turn affect how many of their clubs get into the Cha­­mpions League and UEFA Cup, and which round they start at (we’re going to mention the word “coefficient” in a moment, but be brave). Azerbaijan, in case you were wondering, are currently 48th out of 50.

The system awards points for wins by each country’s clubs in any round of European competition, with bonus poi­nts for wins in the Champions League group games and latter stages. All the clubs’ points added together, divided by the number of clubs, make up their country’s coefficient (see, it didn’t hurt). In the days when the Champions Cup meant what it said and was for champions only, it was a reasonably fair system.

However, now that some countries (next season Italy, Germany and Spain) have as many as four teams in the Champions League, it is increasingly scandalous. Clearly, the countries with more clubs playing a guaranteed number of games will accumulate more points, ensuring their high rankings can almost never be challenged.

And just in case the countries with the biggest TV markets (sorry, the most successful clubs) are still worried about slipping down the table, a further tweak has been introduced to next season’s draw which borders on downright fraud.

The distribution of places in the Cham­­pions League groups and preliminary rounds is wildly disproportionate. The countries ranked 1–6 – England, handily, are sixth – get two clubs in the groups plus one or two in the third qualifying round. But you only have to drop as low as 17th to find your champion club forced to scuffle through from the second round, where defeat means you don’t even get a consolation place in the UEFA Cup.

This year the 17th-placed country is Ukraine and their champions are Din­amo Kiev, who, of course, lost narrowly in last season’s Champions League semi-final. That performance will help raise Ukraine’s coefficient next year, though only far enough to give Kiev eq­ual status with, for example, the fourth-best club in Spain.

The fix is in. Individual clubs like Juventus or Internazionale may still suffer domestic seasons dire enough to dump them in the InterToto or out of Europe altogether, but they can rest assured that everything is being done to smooth their path back. For while a club like Kiev is virtually alone in accruing points for Ukraine, risking a huge drop in the rankings if they happen to go out early, lucky old Juventus (also losing semi-finalists last year, of course) may have four teams in the Champions League groups battling away on their behalf.

The next logical step, surely, is for individual clubs to have their passage to at least the third round guaranteed. It’s a campaigning task right up the alley of the mysterious “G-14” group, routinely billed as “Europe’s most powerful clubs”, even though it includes Liverpool. The G-14 contains a whole gaggle of past winners of the European Cup who surely feel entitled to a permanent place in future, though strangely Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest are not among them.

Of course that may entail either a further expansion of the Champions League, or the relegation of the current first round entrants (UEFA rankings 29-50) to the UEFA Cup, with the likes of Kiev taking their place at the start line of the Champions League in mid-July.

This system arose, of course, after the top clubs threatened to break away and form their own, exclusive European super league. What a relief UEFA managed to nip that one in the bud.

From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month