The European Super League was supposed to change the face of football and it might still do that – just not the way it was intended.
Ever since the announcement was made by the dirty dozen who signed up to the greedy venture and its quick demise that saw the concept lying on the scrapheap within 48 hours, there has been a clear appetite for change.
So-called legacy fans – one of the awful phrases coming out from those pushing for the breakaway league – made their feelings known about their owners in a series of largely peaceful protests and showed that they are the most important people in football.
Of course, football has become big business but for a while now that has caused the game to lose some of its core values, and taking sporting merit away was the final straw.
UEFA strongly condemned the actions of the clubs involved but the breakaway was in some ways a problem of their own making as the Champions League has succeeded in making the rich richer and the big clubs stronger with the rest looking in from the outside.
With all the noise surrounding the failed Super League, UEFA were able to pass their plans for a new 36-team format of Europe’s elite competition without much fuss.
The confusing new format means more games in an already packed schedule with Manchester City star Ilkay Gundogan referring to it as the “lesser of two evils”. And while it is not quite the closed shop of the Super League, it is still controversial in that big clubs from the major leagues will be able to play in the competition even if a poor domestic season sees them finish outside the Champions League qualification places.
With two of the extra four spots being offered to clubs qualifying through their league position with the highest coefficient from the last five years as long as they finish in the Europa League or Conference places – as low as seventh in the Premier League – the new format was partly to appease those who were threatening to break away. If the system was in place now Arsenal or Spurs could be beneficiaries despite woeful campaigns and possibly Juventus, who are struggling to finish in the top four in Italy.
But given that the rebel 12 clubs went their own way anyway before quickly backtracking, UEFA should bin those plans and show that sporting merit really means something.
It has been a while since the top European competition was just for league champions and it is undoubtedly stronger as a result but the power has shifted too far. Now should be the time to redress the balance and narrow the gap between the ‘super clubs’ and the rest.
In the existing format, half of the teams that automatically go into the group stages come from the best four leagues – the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga. Eight come from the next six biggest leagues.
Clubs finishing third and fourth in the Premier League have it too easy by going straight into the group stages through little achievement.
The number of clubs that automatically qualify should be reduced to 16 – two from England, Germany, Italy and Spain, the winners from the next six big leagues and the Champions League and Europa League winners.
At some point, it’s been forgotten that the aim of the game is to win trophies. There are no medals for fourth place at the Olympics, yet in football it is celebrated more than winning the FA Cup – in the boardroom at least. The euphoric scenes of Leicester’s fans celebrating after beating Chelsea on Saturday was a reminder that nothing quite beats that feeling of seeing your side win a showpiece final at Wembley.
Of course Leicester, a club who have punched massively above their weight with a recent Premier League title as well to make a mockery of those Super League plans, will also reach the Champions League if they beat Chelsea again in the Premier League on Tuesday but it would be unlikely to match the emotions of what they achieved at HQ.
That is why it is time to start rewarding teams that win silverware and the lure of Champions League football would bring a bit of magic back to the FA Cup that has been lost somewhat since clubs started pushing it down their list of priorities below competitions with bigger financial rewards.
Let the cup winners in to Europe’s top table – and not just in the qualifying stage but as the second team along with the league winners from those big four countries to go straight into the groups.
The other 16 teams would have to go through qualifying – eight from the biggest 10 leagues that make up those automatically in and eight champions from the smaller leagues around Europe.
So, that would include teams finishing second and third in the Premier League assuming they had not got in automatically through either the FA Cup, Europa League or Champions League, in which case the place would go to the next highest finisher.
It would still be possible then to have at least four places from England, making the scrap for league positions exciting and ensuring that the top teams would still be able to compete with the elite, but they would have to really earn their place.
Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid president who instigated the Super League, wanted big clubs to be playing each other from the start of the competition. Well he could have his wish if you had Manchester United v Barcelona, currently second and third in their respective leagues, or Chelsea v Juventus for example meeting in two-legged play-offs to just get into the group stages.
Perez missed a key point though when he said football fans want to see the best play the best. Yes, seeing Kylian Mbappe go up against Lionel Messi or Erling Haaland versus Cristiano Ronaldo will draw in a big audience.
But fans love an underdog story, they love a big shock. That’s why the FA Cup is still arguably the most exciting competition of all when smaller clubs take on the big boys and often give them a bloody nose.
Perez knows this. His Real Madrid side were knocked out of the Copa del Rey in January by third-tier Alcoyano, a story that gained global headlines, but he wants to prevent smaller clubs having that opportunity while expecting sympathy that the financial impact of Covid means he can’t afford to sign Kylian Mbappe.
If UEFA wants the game to grow also in other European nations they must give clubs from the smaller leagues a chance to compete with the best, so they can get a bigger share of the financial pie and give them a better chance of keeping their top players away from the clutches of the giants.
At the moment 43 champions go through qualifying, which for many starts in blistering heat in the middle of the summer, and only four get through to the groups. The odds are desperately stacked against them so it is time to give them a better chance by doubling the number of winners of those leagues gaining entry.
It is worth remembering that Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade have conquered Europe in the past and even this season in the Europa League we’ve seen Dinamo Zagreb knock out recent Champions League finalists Tottenham, while Slavia Prague beat the current third best team in England (Leicester) so these teams can be competitive.
It is time to level up and let these clubs dream again.
The 32 teams who would make up the Champions League group stages:
Automatic qualifiers (16): League and cup winners from top four leagues (currently England, Spain, Italy, Germany); League winners from next six top leagues (France, Portugal, Netherlands, Russia, Belgium, Austria); Champions League winners; Europa League winners.
Play-off winners (8): Next best two teams from top six leagues and next best team from other four leagues take part in two legged ties.
Qualifiers from champions path (8): League winners of the other leagues to progress through qualifying.