Football: Uefa expands Champions' League to counter breakaway

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UEFA THREW down the gauntlet to Europe's clubs, the European Commission and the powers behind the mooted breakaway super league yesterday by announcing plans for the reorganisation of its continental club competitions.

Lennart Johansson, the president of European football's governing body, said Uefa would introduce an expanded 32-team Champions' League next season and would merge the European Cup-Winners' Cup with the Uefa Cup.

He was dismissive of the breakaway league being arranged by the Italian- based company Media Partners. "A private company wanted to take over the best part of our club competitions and have appealed to the European Commission to help them do so but the European Commission can take what decision it likes," he said.

"I am not prepared to sit back and let this happen. We are perfectly entitled to organise our own competitions and will do so, and I am confident our member clubs feel the same way."

Although the Cup-Winners' Cup is disappearing after 38 years, more clubs than ever (nearly 200) will play in Uefa's competitions. Europe's 48 national champions, plus runners-up, third and fourth-placed teams from the top nations will be eligible for the Champions' League, a total of 71 teams. Fifteen of them and the reigning champions will gain automatic entry to the first-round group stage and will be joined by 16 survivors from qualifying rounds played in July and August.

Those 32 teams will then be placed in eight groups of four, with the top two in each group advancing to a second round of 16, comprising four groups of four. From there the top two teams in each will proceed to the knock-out stages. The two teams who reach the final would have played at least 17 matches; if they had come through qualifying, they could have played 23 matches in all.

As now, losers in the qualifying rounds will switch to play in the Uefa Cup instead.

Uefa has been galvanised into action by Media Partners, a Milan-based sports marketing group, who are planning to organise a 36-team super league with prize money of $1.2bn (pounds 710m) and a new knock-out competition comprising 96 teams. They have made a complaint to the European Commission, accusing Uefa of abusing its dominant position by preventing independent bodies from organising and marketing football competitions in Europe.