Like a bad smell, the idea of a European Super League hung in the air for about 48 hours before players, managers and fans alike united to show their disgust at the proposal.
Message received, the billionaire owners of football’s premier operators retreated with their tails between their legs – the beautiful game is not for sale. And despite the protestations of Real Madrid supremo Florentino Perez, the sheer notion of a European Super League is dead….for the time being, at least.
But there’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has impacted upon the profitability of even football’s biggest clubs – according to reports, Real and Barcelona are struggling big time, and so there is likely to be a concerted effort to launch a competition that ensures the coffers can be swelled once more.
Which brings us nicely to the Champions League, which is – in theory if not practice – already a European Super League. The issue that football’s offshore investors have with the UCL is the number of meaningless games played against less-than-household name opponents….which impacts upon the amount of money that can be made.
Reform of the Champions League was expected before the ESL debacle reared its head, and UEFA has announced some of its plans for an overhaul of its premier competition. As of the 2024/25 season, the UCL will see:
- 36 teams enter the main tournament, up from the current 32
- Each team will play 10 league phase matches
- The top eight go straight through to the knockout phase
- Those finishing 9th-24th will compete to join them
- The last 16 through to the final will be straight knokcout
In some ways, these changes give the European Super League rebels what they want – more top-tier matches, and more revenue – a new Champions League TV deal could bring in an extra £500 million per season.
But do these reforms go far enough? Yes, they satisfy some of the financial concerns, but what about making the Champions League a more competitive tournament and a better spectacle for the neutral?
Now is the time for change. And these radical ideas might just provide the revamp that the Champions League so desperately needs….
1) Do Away with the League Phase Altogether
The more matches that are played, the more money clubs will make through TV revenue and gate receipts – that’s fair enough.
But the problem with groups and league phases are that there are so many dead rubber games played between teams with no real hope of qualifying for the knockout phase of the competition.
The new ‘second chance’ play-off system will solve that issue to some extent – you could finish as low as 24th in the new format and still have a chance of reaching the last 16, but does this go far enough?
Imagine this scenario instead: a flat knockout Champions League from round one, with the big teams protected by their seeding. You could have home and away legs starting in September, which would enable there to be more games played without clogging up the schedule.
It would increase the jeopardy and the excitement, and mean that no more Champions League games are pointless affairs that see the best in the world send their reserves to the deepest, darkest corners of Eastern Europe.
Which leads us to….
2) Increase the Number of Teams
If you want your tournament to be the best, you have to ensure the best teams in the world are competing in it.
With just four sides from the Premier League, Serie A, LaLiga and the Bundesliga qualifying for the Champions League, there are some big clubs – and some world-renowned star players – missing out year after year.
So why not expand the Champions League to 64 teams?
Yes, it’s radical, but you could have that straight knockout draw – round one would see 64 teams that would then be whittled down to 32 for the second round, and so on.
The 32 that lose in the first round of the Champions League could then compete in the Europa League, with a flat last 32 draw starting from October onwards.
3) More Places for the Elite
Why? That’s a good question, based on their recent form, however clearly a competition that wants to attract a global audience needs the big-name clubs and teams to be involved.
If you look at the Premier League as one example, the so-called ‘big six’ has been diluted by the likes of Leicester City and West Ham, and it means that at least two giant clubs will have to make do with a Europa League spot.
But Thursday nights on the continent are never quite the same, and so UEFA have to find a way to expand the number of places available to English, Spanish, Italian and German clubs to five if not six each season.
Expanding the total number of teams would help with that.
4) Keep a ‘Loan’ Window Open
At the biggest clubs, there are some quality players who are unable to get a game due to the size of the squad they find themselves in.
It’s a shame that they have to miss out on Champions League action – it’s a bigger shame for neutral football fans – and so there’s a call for there to be a loan window in which teams in the competition can loan their unused assets to others.
It’s a system that might be open to manipulation, of course, but the positives it would bring will surely outweigh the negatives – we want to see the best players week in, week out in the continent’s premier competition.
5) Host the Semi Finals Overseas
Football club owners want to make as much money as possible, that’s a given, and that’s why they are so keen to tap into huge potential markets like China and Saudi Arabia.
One of the rumours about the European Super League was that they were planning to stage matches all around the globe, which again eats into the notion that the needs of supporters are foremost in these egomaniacal owners’ thinking.
But a Champions League semi-final in Florida, Delhi or Beijing is not as crazy as it sounds. This is a game that has to be played at as neutral a venue as possible, and there is a case that moving such games to a different continent certainly achieves that.
It would be an annoyance for the loyal fans that travel to watch their team around Europe as it is, but a sacrifice can be made for a game of such importance.
The final would return to neutral soil in Europe, thus satisfying UEFA into the bargain.
Is this the future of the Champions League? Probably not, but it would certainly help to inject some excitement back into an increasingly bloated competition.
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