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Closed Champions League foiled by revolt against elite clubs

By ROB HARRIS and GRAHAM DUNBARSeptember 9, 2019
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The Champions League trophy is displayed before the UEFA group stage draw at the Grimaldi Forum, in Monaco, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
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The Champions League trophy is displayed before the UEFA group stage draw at the Grimaldi Forum, in Monaco, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

GENEVA (AP) — A revolt by European clubs has foiled plans by their wealthiest counterparts to turn the Champions League into a largely closed competition.

Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and his European Club Association leadership team has been forced to reset their expectations after failing to win support for a plan to steer the lucrative competition even more in favor of an elite group of elite teams.

Lower-ranking clubs made their voices heard in tense private meetings across Europe, suppressing a radical Champions League reinvention from 2024 that would have had profound implications for the intrigue of domestic competitions by largely severing qualification pathways but placating teams with more placed in a new third-tier competition.

Accounts of some of the small ECA-organized gatherings throughout August were provided to The Associated Press by people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters.

By the time Agnelli addressed the ECA assembly in Geneva on Monday, there were signs he had reluctantly listened to less storied members.

“We have different views on formats and the stability principles,” Agnelli said, according to a Twitter posting by the ECA which blocked media access to a meeting attended by more than 150 clubs. “There is an overall acceptance that reform must happen in 2024-25.”

Agnelli had hoped to use this speech to build momentum for a decisive meeting on formats on Wednesday at UEFA with clubs that has now been taken away from them. But the AP revealed last month that UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin called off the talks after sensing they were not “ready for a meaningful discussion.”

Now the ECA is rebooting a process it hoped would have been resolved by December, with no firm plan after what has been described as a “vehement but constructive debate” with members by an ECA official.

The vision championed by Agnelli, presented by UEFA to its member federations and national leagues in May, would have guaranteed 24 out of 32 teams slots to return to the Champions League each season. Rather than the 32 being split across eight groups as they are now, there would be only four divisions, providing more matches between the biggest teams.

Agnelli, a scion of the Fiat-owning family dynasty, sent out ECA general secretary Michele Centenaro to sell the largely closed Champions League.

One soccer club executive recalled telling Centenaro in a meeting attended by more than a dozen clubs: “Why do you keep showing us this model? We don’t like it.”

Centenaro had been pleading with less illustrious clubs within the ECA to buy into a concept that would largely sever the pathway into European competitions based on finishing positions in domestic leagues or cups.

“It is not the objective of the whole vision to destroy domestic leagues,” Centenaro told the AP recently, when asked about the criticism.

Inevitably, a clique of the elite — Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and, of course, Juventus — are firm advocates.

Splits emerged in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, where the league champions advocate the ECA-championed revamp.

When the ECA gathered English member clubs in London last month, an attendee recalled how an executive from Arsenal pointed out the process had achieved something rare: Uniting the Premier League. The moment was recalled by a person in the room who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the contents of the meeting.

A public joint statement from the 20 English topflight clubs after their annual meeting in June expressed unanimous opposition to “inappropriate” plans that would no longer leave them chasing the top four places to qualify for the Champions League or the next two to make the Europa League.

The wealth of the English Premier League — the world’s richest soccer competition — is used by the ECA to deepen a sense of jealousy, of being left behind.

Addressing a forum with around 15 clubs in Switzerland, Centenaro blamed the top five leagues — England, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain — for deepening financial disparities in the European game and enticing viewers away from domestic games elsewhere, according to the club executive in attendance.

As one of the meetings became increasingly fraught, according to the club executive in the room, Centenaro pleaded: Don’t you want more money?

But Lille chief executive Marc Ingla reflected the anger across Europe.

“I feel the proposal put on the table (by the ECA) is overly disruptive and poses a clear threat to local domestic competitions which are the drivers of a sustainable football ecosystem in every country,” Ingla told the AP. “Given the high level of rejection by leagues in several meetings I believe the format proposals have to be put in the drawer and a new plan has to be put in place. It’s a bit confusing these formats that keep being discussed by the ECA because the majority of clubs aren’t in favor.”

The ECA has been used to getting its own way. A format change agreed to in 2016 secured four group stage places from the top four leagues in Europe: England, Spain, Germany and Italy.

Sensing the ECA’s latest vision fading, clubs have started to share other concepts.

DANISH PROPOSAL

Danish champion FC Copenhagen has distributed a model that would increase the number of European games, but using past UEFA performances over the past decade to determine the stage teams enter the Champions League and ensuring access is still dependent on domestic success.

The model retains the three-tier system envisaged by UEFA and the ECA, with 32 teams in the group stages of both the Champions League and Europa League plus 64 teams in a new third competition provisionally called Europa League 2.

The “Copenhagen Access Model” would see 80 clubs eligible from across Europe eligible for the Champions League, 55 for Europa League One and 103 for Europa League Two. In the Champions League, the top 20-ranked clubs would go straight to the group stage and the remaining 12 would come from teams that went through qualifying rounds.

It would protect the entry of teams like Liverpool and Barcelona but making Champions League debutants like Leicester and Atalanta go through qualifying.

SWISS MODEL

The “Swiss system” would shake up the format. The 32 Champions League group stage teams would be placed in a single division and ranked by UEFA coefficient. They would play eight to 14 games, with fixtures based on ranking position. Every team would not play each other.

The top eight teams would qualify for not only the round of 16 but also the group stage the following year. The remaining last-16 participants would be determined by a knockout round which features teams who finished nine to 24. The round of 16 fixtures would also be based final positions in the group stage.

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Harris reported from London.

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