This week, Celtic’s Chief Executive, Peter Lawwell met with his European Club Association (ECA) counterparts to discuss the future of European football.
Despite being a former European champion that has one of the largest fan bases in Europe, Celtic (like other smaller nation clubs), is at risk of being marginalised from the Champions League in the coming years.
Many other clubs across Europe are facing the same predicament, including Ajax (four time European champions), PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord, FC Porto, Benfica, Anderlecht, Dynamo Zagreb, Dynamo Kiev, Legia Warsaw, Red Star Belgrade and Steau Bucharest.
A polarised and exclusive system
The objective of the elite clubs from the top five leagues (Spain, England, Italy, Germany and France) is to make the Champions League a closed shop for these nations. With fears that these clubs could form a breakaway super league, UEFA has already succumbed to their demands. Each of these league’s top four clubs automatically qualifies for the competition, whilst the champions of smaller countries must negotiate the summer minefield of four home and away qualifiers. There is now a very real danger that the champions route could disappear altogether if the elite clubs get their way!
Big clubs from smaller nations cannot compete with clubs from the top leagues, due to a lack of TV money, poor domestic competition, and an inability to retain top players that are attracted to joining clubs in the top leagues. As it stands, the system of national leagues is designed to make rich clubs in the top leagues wealthier and more powerful, whilst those trapped in other leagues continue to be excluded from the top table.
The Responsibility of UEFA
European football’s governing body, UEFA has a responsibility to look after the interests of all clubs across its 54 member associations. They should find ways to enable clubs across the continent to maximise their revenues and potential, as well as providing the means for them to compete at the highest level.
A complete overhaul of the current national league system is needed to enable every club in each country the means to compete on a level playing field.
The solution is to create cross border leagues/allow small nation clubs to join neighbouring big leagues. Its aim would be to provide fair and equal competition both on and off the pitch across the continent. This would create an inclusive system that enables equal opportunities for all clubs.
Within UEFA there should be a total of 10 hierarchical league structures (based on geographic location) as shown below:
- Britain and Ireland
- Iberian League (Spain and Portugal)
- France and Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg)
- North-East Europe (Poland, Czech Rep, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia)
- Germany and Austria
- Italy and Switzerland
- South-East Europe (Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Israel)
- Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia
- Nordic League (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland)
- Independent leagues for small nations (e.g. San Marino, Gibraltar, Faroe Islands etc.)
After a few years, the top flights of these inter-nation leagues could look like this:
Champions League/Europa League Qualification
The format of the Champions League could be altered to 8 groups of 6 (48 teams). Teams that finish in the top five places in each of the main 9 leagues would qualify for the group stages (45 teams), as well as the winners of the previous season’s Champions League and Europa League (47 teams). If those teams also finish in the top five places in their league then additional places will be given to the team that finishes sixth (and seventh if both the Champions League and Europa League winners come from the same league). The final Champions League spot would go to the winner of a play-off competition between the winners of the remaining independent leagues.
Europa League qualification could also follow a similar system for teams finishing between sixth and tenth, as well as the winners of ‘inter-domestic’ cup competitions.
The need for REAL Financial Fair Play (FFP)
In addition to creating league systems that enables all European clubs to realise their full potential, UEFA should also enforce real financial fair play. For example, all clubs should have a maximum annual transfer spending cap and total playing squad wage cap. Clubs could only spend more money through selling players. This would limit the spending power of ‘sugar daddy’ club owners like PSG’s and their ability to completely monopolise French football!
Distribute TV money evenly
The impact of TV money over the past twenty-five years has caused a polarisation of wealth between the big leagues and smaller leagues.
For example, the current English Premiership TV deal is worth £4.464 billion over four years. English clubs can expect to earn between £80m -£100m a year from this. In contrast, the latest Scottish Premiership rights were sold for £160 million over five years, which will earn each club around £2.5m. With such a disparity between a big league and smaller league, it is no wonder that clubs from countries outside of the big five are struggling to compete.
A proposal which would level the playing field further would be to put all of the money generated from each of the major nine leagues outlined above into one pot. This money could then be distributed throughout each league. As a result, clubs from the weakest league (e.g. The Nordic League), could still compete financially with the rest.
Individual clubs could however, still make money through other means, such as sponsorship, season tickets and merchandise sales.
The concept of creating cross-border leagues has been mooted for years (e.g. The Atlantic League). So too has the notion of big-small nation clubs like Celtic joining a neighbouring big league, such as the English Premiership. Although nothing has of yet come to fruition, the prospect of playing outside of the confines of their own domestic league remains highly appealing to clubs like Celtic, Ajax and Dynamo Zagreb.
Creating such leagues would undoubtedly be met with strong opposition by those that benefit from the current status quo. For example, English and Spanish clubs would not like to open up their doors and ‘give a piece of the pie’ to Scottish or Portuguese clubs. However, by enforcing league systems like these; real financial fair play; an even distribution of TV money; UEFA could provide a platform for all clubs to compete on a level playing field. This would enable football across Europe to thrive and become great again!
By Mark Nicholas