Are UEFA’s Decisions Actually Helping Soccer Clubs?

By Elias Wagner in Soccer
| May 1, 2020 2:56 am PDT
A Critical Look at UEFA’s Decisions

Europe’s top soccer governing body, UEFA, has been the subject of some of the most fierce debates among fans, players, coaches, and analysts.

Needless to say, regulating the sport at the top level is no easy job, and it’s impossible to please everyone all the time. However, there are many reasons to believe that the organization’s intentions are not as healthy as it may appear.

In light of the news that UEFA will make further changes to the Champions League qualification process, I thought it was a good moment to take a look back and highlight their biggest decisions in the modern soccer era and whether they have benefitted soccer clubs.

I start with an overview of the most recent announcement. It’s a rather huge change for the most elite club competition in Europe, so let’s get a deep dive here and see what the innovations will bring.

UEFA’s New Champions League Plan

If you’ve been following European soccer for years, then you’re probably aware that the UEFA lawmakers have been pondering over changes to their crown jewel events for a while now.

Soccer’s popularity has not stopped its growth, and any governing body would want to make the maximum out of such a situation. UEFA, of course, is no different.

So, unsurprisingly, in a time when the organization has ample time on its hands, news broke out that Champions League qualification will go through a radical makeover.

Let’s see what the new plan is all about.

How Will Teams Qualify for the Champions League?

The league will keep its 32-team format, but its 2024/2025 edition will see the start of a new qualification process.

It states that clubs will qualify for the event based on domestic rankings for the past three seasons. Meaning that starting with the 2020/2021 season, depending on how well they do in their native league competitions, teams will accumulate points that will count towards booking a place in the 2024 UCL edition.

The exact number of points that will be earned by clubs is still unknown, but UEFA will probably follow the same model that is used to determine the winner of the European golden boot.

Since there are quite a few domestic competitions on the continent, it would be fair that finishing high in a more competitive league will earn you more points.

It’s not a perfect metric, but it’s the only one that can put things into context and make this new format work. Of course, this is highly subjective as we still haven’t seen how exactly the new process will affect clubs.

Let’s explore the topic a bit further and see if any other teams would be allowed a place in the tournament starting from 2024.

Are There Any Exceptions to the New Rule?

There isn’t too much information on that right now, but UEFA has already confirmed that teams outside the highest-ranked bracket will have two ways of entering the Champions League.

The first one is by winning their domestic league outright. Again, we still don’t know whether all of the champions across Europe will secure automatic qualification. This will most probably be true for the bigger leagues, but others will still have to go through a playoff stage.

Another route to the UCL will be getting to the Europa League semi-final stage. No details on that have been disclosed yet, but I believe it will go down pretty much the same way.

The domestic ranking will still be accounted for, and the four teams that contest the Europa League semi-finals the previous year will either be granted automatic entry into the UCL or will have to go through one or more qualification rounds.

Previous UEFA Major Changes

Now that we’ve gone through the governing body’s latest big amendment, let’s take a trip down memory lane and check some of the other decisions that are currently shaping Europe’s club soccer scene.

Re-Branding the European Cup

Possibly the biggest move in UEFA’s portfolio was the introduction of the Champions League in 1990 and the format changes it brought. The European Cup used to be a competition reserved exclusively for the domestic champions across the continent.

With the emergence of the Champions League, more and more clubs were given a chance to enter the top competition with the big leagues quickly getting three or more slots to fill.

There was a huge debate on whether it should even be called a Champions’ League since the majority of teams entering the competition had not won gold medals.

However, the event still holds this name to this day, and its popularity across the globe has risen to astronomical levels.

Merging the Cup Winners’ Cup with the UEFA Cup 

The Cup Winners’ Cup was a competition that pinned together teams who had won domestic cup titles and has some of the most memorable finals in soccer history.

The introduction of the new Champions League format, though, had disastrous consequences on the tournament.

It was still regarded as very prestigious by the majority of teams and fans until the ‘90s came, and with them, a chance to enter the top event without having to win your domestic league.

Naturally, clubs turned their attention to the new and shiny UCL, and the Cup Winners’ Cup quickly became viewed as a lower-tier competition without any incentives for Europe’s elite.

After UEFA saw a notable decrease in revenue, attendance, and overall interest in the competition, they decided to merge it with the UEFA Cup, which is now called the Europa League.

Discontinuing the Intertoto Cup

The Intertoto tournament had many critics back in the day, but there’s no doubt that it provided a lot of opportunities for smaller clubs, their fans, and soccer bettors around the world.

The entry to the event was open to any team that wanted to participate and didn’t have a chance to qualify for the bigger tournaments otherwise.

Clubs from each nation would be seeded based on their domestic ranking and would gather every summer to face off with the prize being qualification to the UEFA Cup.

This not only saw some minnows make it to the second-best soccer tournament on the continent, but it also provided exposure for talented players and a lot of opportunities for starved gamblers who didn’t have a lot to bet on during the summer break.

The competition was discontinued after Michel Platini was appointed at the UEFA helm. It was decided that the Intertoto Cup was a surplus to the schedule, and teams that would be eligible to join it would go directly to the UEFA Cup qualifiers.

My Verdict and Conclusion

Looking at all four changes, there’s definitely a trend there. Creating the Champions League in its current format had the sole purpose of gathering the elite and riding the wave of money coming into the sport.

If you analyze how other tournaments that featured lower-ranked teams were handled, it becomes even clearer where UEFA’s intentions lie.

Obviously, they would say that all this re-structuring that happened during the ‘90s was made in an attempt to centralize teams in two big tournaments where opportunities are aplenty.

However, this isn’t true. Despite expanding the competitions’ size, it has progressively become harder and harder to qualify for them.

An Intertoto Cup option would be great for, let’s say, Eastern European teams, but they now have to battle in two or three rounds of Europa League qualifiers if they are to enter the main tournament.

The same line of thinking seems to apply to UEFA’s new Champions League plan.

It may sound fair on paper, but actually implementing it can have the same dire consequences for lesser teams.

Some clubs don’t have the financial muscle of the top dogs, and they can’t regularly come up with brilliant seasons that can place them at the top of the pile.

Imagine if a team like Sheffield United manages to clinch 4th spot in any of the coming seasons. This almost certainly means that bigger clubs will come for their players, and it will be mightily difficult to repeat such a feat.

And instead of making the Champions League on account of their 4th-place finish, they could drop out of the top 32 teams with worse performances in the next two years.

Doesn’t sound too fair, right?

And that’s not even the end of it. I reckon that top teams will suffer a lot from the innovations as well.

Sure, clubs like PSG and Juventus who have no actual domestic competition will be just fine. However, imagine what this could do to the Top Four Race in England.

The top EPL teams were incentivized to push for a higher spot each year, and this has created some of the most competitive and exciting moments in the league’s history.

Now, a team like Chelsea can easily allow a drop to 5th after a season in which they have finished 2nd, and this will in no way jeopardize their Champions League spot.

Of course, that’s just roughly speaking, and I have no idea how the points ranking will work exactly, but you get my point.

It just feels to me that this is another money-driven decision with no regard for how the smaller teams will cope with it and how it will affect competitiveness in Europe’s domestic competitions.

And sure, you can make the case that some of the earlier changes have been prudent. And have possibly helped garner soccer’s global popularity and use it to pin together the juggernauts and watch them fight for the ultimate club prize in the sport.

However, it does seem like all these decisions favor a small circle of elite clubs that would have no problem regularly qualifying for the main events.

And UEFA’s recent banning of Manchester City seems to prove that. The Cityzens were accused of not complying with the Financial Fair Play, and honestly, we all know that’s true.

The strange part is that the same principle has not been applied to other clubs. PSG, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus are just a few of the soccer entities that seem to hold favor with the governing body.

City is a relative newcomer on this stage, and despite having all the money in the world, the club doesn’t have the same global popularity. It seems they have been a thorn in the sight of UEFA for a long time, and I’m not surprised they were the ones to get the boot.

On the other hand, the organization frequently listens to advice from people like Andrea Agnelli, who, as chairman of Juventus, has been investigated on multiple counts, including mismanaging of the club’s ticketing system and links to one of the biggest organized crime syndicates in Italy.

Final Words

So, to wrap things up and answer the question from the title — yes, they are helping soccer clubs. It’s just that they are helping only a few select clubs that are actually the richest and most powerful on the continent.

It’s probably harsh to say that the governing body is killing the sport, but they are sure as hell not helping it out a lot.

Their new Champions League qualifying scheme looks to be another bid to further commercialize proceedings by pushing the big names and providing them with more revenue, while the little fish will have to continue finding ways of surprising us all.

I’m curious to see whether you agree with me. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and share your thoughts, and if you’re looking for more similar content, just head to our blog’s soccer section.

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