Enjoy the Premier League season. It might not be like this for long. The landscape of European football is about to change and when it does the English game will never be the same again.
Plans are advanced at Uefa to transform the Champions League. The revamp will have a massive knock-on effect on the domestic divisions. The present format will continue until 2024 but European football’s governing body will lay out the blueprints next year to allow the television companies in the next bidding cycle to see what is available.
The new configuration will feature 32 teams in four eight-club leagues. How they will be chosen is still yet to be decided. It may be on European pedigree or domestic performance in 2023-24 or a combination of both. So far so reasonable.
The problem comes from what happens next. There will be relegation. The bottom two clubs in each group will drop out. They will be replaced by the semi-finalists from the Europa League and four sides who have registered high-placed finishes in their domestic league. The reality of this is shocking. If this system had been in place in 2015-16 when Leicester City came from nowhere to win the title then Claudio Ranieri’s team would not have automatically earned a Champions League spot. They would have had to play in a pre-qualifying tournament or take up a place in the Europa League.
Manchester United finished fifth in Leicester’s glorious campaign but if they were already in the 32-team Champions League and managed to finish in the top six of their group then they would have retained their place. Domestic achievement will become almost incidental. The integrity of the top flight will be threatened.
The Big Six – United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – have mixed feelings about the restructure but ultimately understand that being part of the new format would effectively ringfence their place in European football’s most prestigious and lucrative competition. At the Premier League Annual General Meeting in June their representatives gave the impression that they were lukewarm about the future arrangements. The European Clubs Association (ECA) get-together was on the same day and the Big Six delegates left the Premier League meeting early to fly to Malta to sit down with their European counterparts. Only five made it to the Mediterranean island – John W Henry took his own private jet and never arrived at the ECA pow-wow. The English clubs’ opposition to the new proposals was as absent as Liverpool’s principal owner.
The Big Six should be careful. It is likely that only four places will be made available to English teams in the new system. Who would miss out? If the criteria is European heritage, United, Liverpool and Chelsea, as Champions League winners, can make compelling arguments. Arsenal, Spurs and City less so. The change of structure could arrive at a bad time for City, too. They are facing a ban from the Champions League for breaching financial fair play rules. Uefa’s verdict is likely to be announced next month and the Abu Dhabi-owned club have already approached the Court of Arbitration for Sport about a potential appeal. It will be a protracted and ugly legal battle but Uefa could undermine City’s credentials to be included in the new setup with any prolonged ban.
Do the fans want the changes? Their voices have not been heard and there is unlikely to be any real consultation. Cash is at the dark heart of this plan. Domestic TV rights holders like Sky and BT Sport are often vilified but they at least understand the value of the Premier League and the traditional rivalries that enhance English football. The next generation of broadcasters – Uefa and the clubs hope that will include the likes of Netflix and Amazon – are more likely to be swayed by the prospect of showing Liverpool vs Bayern Munich or another continental giant than the European Champions versus Norwich City on a Friday night. They are eyeing a global audience and have no time for parochial matters that lack star quality.
In some ways the Premier League have brought this on themselves. The English top flight is bloated with money. Only Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern can outspend even middle-ranking Premier League clubs. Uefa can look at their new system and claim it will breathe life into teams like Ajax, Celtic and Benfica, who have all fallen behind financially despite their fabulous history. The Premier League is despised and feared across swathes of Europe and English clubs should not expect too much sympathy if the television money departs and moves towards continental competition instead.
The nightmare scenario is that the new Champions League gobbles up a huge amount of resources and four of England’s biggest attractions lose interest in the domestic game and concentrate on Europe. The domino effect will sweep down the divisions and could threaten the existence of a number of clubs. Championship teams overspending in search of reaching the gilded world of the Premier League could find themselves in the top flight just as the game’s riches move elsewhere. All that will remain are the debts.
Who will fight back? Not the Big Six. Self-interest dominates their thinking. The other 14 Premier League clubs seem powerless. If they are relying on their wealthy peers to make a stand they will be disappointed.
Change is on its way. Cherish the Premier League campaign. The football culture that we have now may have many flaws but it’s probably better than what’s coming in the next five years.
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