Michel Platini was at it again this week, the Uefa president floating the idea of an expanded 64-team Champions League, which prompted renewed speculation that elite clubs could counter this dilution by creating a European Super League – a professed goal of Barcelona president Sandro Rosell among others.
That is the theory. In reality Platini, in response to a question, merely said all options are being considered as Uefa prepares to discuss the future of European competition with the European Clubs Association (ECA). Uefa's memorandum of understanding with the ECA expires in 2014.
A Super League has already been a long time in gestation. European club football began in earnest in the 1950s. The European Champion Clubs' Cup was dreamed up by French newspaper L'Equipe as a response to Wolves' claim that they were the world's best, having beaten Honved and Spartak Moscow. Simultaneously the Inter-Cities Fairs' Cup arose out of the friendlies played between cities engaged in trade fairs. The Cup-Winners' Cup was conceived soon after and, aside from Uefa taking over and renaming the Fairs Cup in 1971, this remained the status quo for decades.
Then in 1987 Diego Maradona's Napoli drew Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup, meaning one of Europe's biggest football nations (and TV markets) would lose its entry at the first stage. Silvio Berlusconi, then merely owner of Milan and a large slice of Italian television, thought this was not "modern thinking". He commissioned a feasibility study of alternatives which fell to Alex Fynn, then working for Saatchi and Saatchi.
Fynn, now a freelance football consultant and author who later advised on the formation of the Premier League, recalls: "Berlusconi wanted more guaranteed big games for the big clubs." Fynn looked at the example of the NFL and conceived a league based on big clubs in big TV markets with qualification gained by a mix of merit and tradition. The aim was to produce more "events", and to guarantee sustained participation for the major teams. It was to head off such a Super League that Uefa created the Champions League.
But, adds Fynn, "clubs always need more money" and they have continued to lobby Uefa to make changes to meet that need, several times reviving the spectre of a Super League. The Cup-Winners' Cup disappeared, its entrants going into an expanded Uefa Cup. Group stages came and went or were refined in both remaining competitions. More recently the Champions League was remodelled to increase the participation of champions from the smaller countries – who had backed Platini's presidential bid.
This, though was at the possible expense of clubs from the major nations and, this season, Udinese and Borussia Mönchengladbach went out in the play-off round. Then there are still seasons when a big club (such as Internazionale this year) fail to qualify. Thus, though the Champions League has become a huge global success, for the continent's football aristocracy it remains flawed. For differing reasons clubs such as Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool want and need Champions League level competition every year, Meanwhile the Europa League is unloved in England and some other leading countries. In addition Barcelona and Real Madrid are so dominant domestically they want more European "event" games, thus Rosell's call, a year ago, for Uefa to increase the Champions League at the expense of domestic leagues.
Platini laughed off the idea of a breakaway, but the NextGen Series, an invitation-only pan-European Under-21 competition modelled along Champions League lines, but, crucially, not run by Uefa, has shown the ECA and Uefa what is possible. However, such an expansion could only be achieved by reducing the size of domestic leagues to 16 clubs and there is little appetite within Premier League clubs for this. Such a change would require 14 clubs to vote in favour and that will not happen as four would be relegated and everyone would lose the matchday income from eight fixtures a year. And there is no prospect of the likes of Manchester United quitting the Premier League. As one official said, "the next television deal will guarantee the leading clubs £80-£90m – why leave?"
So how will European competition develop in the next decade? There has been a slow but steady expansion in the number of clubs playing in Europe, reaching 233 this year across Uefa's 53 constituent countries. Seven of these are English, two fewer than a decade ago when Fulham qualified through the Intertoto Cup and Ipswich through a Fair-play place.
The big league clubs will push for more places, but they will want them to be more rewarding than the Europa League which last year brought Stoke City £2.85m for a 12-game odyssey. Manchester United, departing the senior competition at the group stage, earned £28.4m.
"I think the Champions League has gone as far as possible in making it as universal as possible without degrading it," said Fynn. "They need to preserve the scarcity value." Fynn said he could envisage a European League with four groups of 10 clubs, and the top two progressing to a knock-out stage. "It is a possibility, if Platini tries to make it more representative [bringing in more nations' champions] there is more likelihood of revolution by the big clubs who want guaranteed big events."
The problem any revolutionaries will have, though, is balancing their desire to ensure guaranteed participation and income with the need to retain a sense of qualification by merit, and the possibility of upsets. Without that fans will lose interest, followed by TV, at which point the money tap is turned off.
1. How to make developing English talent pay
How to evade European Union Law yet promote native talent? Cricket's solution is cash incentives for fielding English-qualified players, which has transformed the make-up of several squads without, as Derbyshire have proved, necessarily damaging results. Under consideration in football are cash bonuses for producing England internationals. It is an idea that should be pursued.
2. Rained-off youngsters deserve League's largesse
For the third week in four, though my area has escaped the drenching the north and west received, the local football pitches are waterlogged, robbing nearly 400 boys of their Saturday morning match at one site alone. Premier League clubs paid agents £77m last year. As it ponders how to spend its £5bn TV windfall an increase in its current £18m provision would be much welcomed.
3. Rugby moves goalposts on the moral high ground
Last Saturday at the Millennium Stadium the crowd was asked to "respect the opposition" after some mild booing as the All Blacks kicked a penalty. The following day West Ham fans at White Hart Lane sang songs glorifying Lazio thugs and Adolf Hitler. Yet it was in Cardiff that a player brutally concussed an opponent after two minutes, was allowed to play the rest of the match, then banned for only two competitive games. That moral high ground is as elusive than ever.
4. Pardew's backline shuffle offers pointer to decline
A year ago Newcastle United, having fielded an unchanged back four, were fourth after conceding 13 goals in 13 matches. Then Fabricio Coloccini was injured against Chelsea and Newcastle lost 3-0 without him. The defence became more porous but the good start set the Magpies up to finish fifth. This season Alan Pardew has used 10 players and two goalkeepers at the back in their first 13 games. That is why they are 14th.
5. Roaming Stones return home to great fanfare
One of the biggest gates outside the Football League this weekend will be at Gallagher Stadium, the new home of Maidstone United. The Stones went bankrupt in 1992 and were thrown out of the Football League. Having reformed they are now in the Ryman League First Division (South) and have been given fresh impetus by returning to the county town after 11 years in exile. In a league where 300 is a good gate they expect more than 1,500 for today's visit of Herne Bay, proving once again the power of a new ground.