UEFA choice

Jon Spurling reports on Michel Platini's ambitious plans

“Football is a game before a product, a sport before a market, a show before a business,” said Michel Platini in January. The new UEFA chairman has since claimed that all his proposals – including his suggestion in August to cut the number of Champions League places allocated to Europe’s leading leagues from four to three and his aim that European finals be played on a Saturday afternoon with 75 per cent of allocated tickets going to the finalists’ supporters – are based on “sporting philosophy and not anything financial”. Others don’t share Platini’s altruistic vision.

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) dismissed his proposal to have domestic cup winners qualify for the Champions League. EPFL chairman Macedo de Madeiros accused him of “pursuing his own bizarre agenda”. Representing the Premier League, the German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga, among others, EPFL’s stance demonstrates that leading clubs have rigid agendas of their own. “I think clubs generally across Europe felt that there wasn’t a need for change,” claimed Peter Kenyon, after emerging from an EPFL lunch. The guest list, unsurprisingly, didn’t include Lithuanian, Hungarian or Polish delegates.

Unsurprisingly, the positive noises from Greece, Russia, Holland et al have received little media coverage. “Platini’s idea would go some way to stopping the Champions League from becoming a closed shop, and that would reignite the feeling of the old style European Cup, where there was a more even playing field,” argued Panathinaikos’s owner. The Polish FA said: “A more competitive cup competition gives more clubs an incentive to sort their acts out. More of our top sides could dream of matches against big European sides. There could be a massive reward at the end of it.” The EPFL dismissed this view, with De Madeiros claiming that, with the seeding process still in place, a greater number of smaller clubs’ presence in the group stages would simply make for dull, uncompetitive spectacles, impacting on TV revenues. Barcelona’s president was blunt, saying: “You need the major leagues to remain strong. One of the bigger clubs will always win the Champions League anyway, and it will be the stronger teams who progress from the group stages, so what is the point of tinkering with the format?”

Platini has claimed that his proposals, which he wants in place for the 2009-10 season, would lead to “a greater meritocracy throughout Europe and destabilise the oligopolies which have taken root”. UEFA’s decision to award Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine – as opposed to scandal-hit Italy – hinted that Platini is determined to “encompass the interests of football fans throughout the whole of Europe”. In England, Platini’s critics have pointed out that since 1995, the FA Cup winners have come from the current “big four” anyway and, with huge squads, bigger teams can deploy squad rotation and still reach the final. Yet with teams like Aston Villa, West Ham and Spurs investing large sums on players, the added fillip of potential Champions League football may convince these sides to play full-strength sides in the FA Cup, in preference to resting players and concentrating on a UEFA Cup push.

Ultimately, it remains unlikely that a “minnow” will actually win the Champions League, although recent history has shown that clubs such as Villarreal and Monaco can go a long way. Platini is more concerned with the spirit of competition and the principles of a European tournament. By allowing domestic cup winners into the Champions League, the door will be left ajar for a number of upwardly mobile outfits, whose presence in the tournament would place strain upon entrenched domestic interests. Yet the G-14 group is implacably opposed to attempts to cut its power. When Juventus were demoted in 2006, the group refused to condemn them, responding: “The Champions League will be weaker without their formidable presence.”

Platini has claimed: “I am not interested in protecting the status quo. I believe that through this tournament, football can fulfil its social responsibilities and make ours a more integrated continent.” When leading clubs finally vote on the proposals in November, the Frenchman is likely to discover that many are happy to maintain a disunited Europe.

From WSC 249 November 2007