The Champions League is great but here’s how we can make it better
The coronavirus pandemic has, as with every other industry and walk of life, had a permanent effect on each sport's financial infrastructure. Games and seasons were cancelled or postponed, those leagues that returned mostly did so without fans, and while a good portion of television revenue was salvaged, the shortfalls from 2020 will have ramifications for a while. Soccer has been hit as hard as any other sport.
A lot of European soccer's richest clubs — the ones not named Chelsea, anyway — have been forced to rein in spending to some degree, and it stands to reason that while clubs don't usually go bankrupt and fold, the pain will last a while in lower-level leagues. Any ways to add revenue streams will be welcomed by all.
Luckily, UEFA already has in its possession quite a money cannon in the Champions League, and with a few tweaks it could add revenue in ways that benefit both rich and poor clubs and leagues.
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How the Champions League works
After a few decades as the European Cup, a true champions-only event — league champs and the previous year's winner played in an elimination tournament — UEFA's showcase event has evolved into something more. Now, like a golf tournament, you've got a few different ways to qualify. Every European country's champ (sans Liechtenstein's, who usually goes straight to the second-tier Europa League) qualifies, all the way from San Marino to England.
Leagues with more recent success, per the multi-year UEFA coefficient, get up to three extra spots in the field, and the previous year's Champions League and Europa League champions each get automatic places.
An enormous field of 79 or so teams slowly gets whittled to a final 32 over the course of five qualification rounds, from a four-team prelim — this year, Northern Ireland's Linfield topped Kosovo's Drita, Andorra's Inter Club d'Escaldes and San Marino's Tre Fiori — to the final 12-team, six-winner playoff round. Along the way, the pool is broken out into champions and non-champions, but it mostly washes out. Those who fail to qualify drift down into Europa League qualifying, and beginning in 2021-22 some who fail to qualify for Europa could drift down into the new, third-tier Europa Conference League.
In a normal year (i.e. not 2020) the first round of qualifying begins in June, the last in late-August. The 32-team, eight-group draw is completed the day after qualification ends, and away we go.
When it comes to an event like this, you could choose to define “fairness” in a couple of different ways. You could say that giving everyone in Europe an equal shot at the crown, even those with fewer resource advantages, is fair. You could also say that giving the actual best teams in Europe a shot at the European crown is just, even if most of these teams are from a small handful of leagues.
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The old European Cup was the model of the former. While there was eventually a qualification round put in place, once you made it to the main draw, you could end up playing absolutely anyone. In the 1972-73 competition, for instance, Italian champions Juventus drew French champions Marseille in a first round that also included Cyprus' Omonia against Ireland's Waterford United. In 1978-79, English champs Nottingham Forest drew defending cup winner Liverpool in the first round while Bulgaria's Lokomotiv Sofia faced Denmark's Odense.
The intensely random draw meant smaller clubs often had a chance to advance pretty far. After upsetting Liverpool on its way to the 1979 finals, Forest faced Sweden's Malmo, which had defeated Wisla Krakow and Austria Wien in the previous two rounds. And from 1986 to '91, Romania's Steaua Bucharest, Portugal's Porto, the Netherlands' PSV Eindhoven and Yugoslavia's FK Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade in English) all not only reached the finals, but they won.
Even then, however, these teams probably weren't the best in Europe. Using the archived rankings at EloFootball, Crvena Zvezda's highest end-of-year European ranking during this period was seventh, Steaua's was 10th and PSV's was 11th. When Steaua won in 1986, the Red and Blues faced only two top-50 teams the entire way — No. 21 Anderlecht in the semis and No. 8 Barcelona in the finals.
When the European Cup evolved into the Champions League, then, it wasn't just a money-grabbing move, even though it most certainly grabbed money. It also opened up the field to some of Europe's best (and, yes, richest) teams. It has since tried to balance the two definitions of fairness: everybody technically still gets in, but, well, Steaua Bucharest probably isn't going to lift the trophy again unless you're playing Football Manager.
Yet, the balance has tended to shift toward the richer clubs and leagues through the years. Every few years like clockwork, the idea of a Super Champions League begins to float around, either because a rich owner (probably Real Madrid's Florentino Perez) expressed a desire for it, or a billionaire (Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, perhaps) shows interest in funding it, or e-mails leak to the media about secret meetings. The general gist is that the richest teams from the top leagues remove all pretense and decide to simply play each other all season. When this rumor starts, UEFA makes a few more concessions in a Champions League redesign, and the subject dies for a couple of years.
During times of financial struggle, inequality tends to grow. From that perspective alone, you wonder if the coronavirus made the idea of a Super Champions League even more inevitable than before. But before we go down that road, we can make a few more Champions League tweaks that would both benefit the rich leagues and offer a spotlight to other champions. There are still some win-wins on the table.
Let's make a bigger production out of qualification
Let's add even more ways to qualify, and let's gussy up the playoff.
• Let's give each of the five biggest leagues two extra teams in various qualification rounds — one each in the second-to-last round, one in the third. There are currently 12 English teams, nine Spanish teams, seven German teams, seven Italian teams and three French teams in the EloFootball top 50 (with two more French teams just outside of it); that's nearly three-quarters of the spots. Whether or not they've generated this quality from resource and money advantages, they've still generated this quality. Give them more spots, but make them earn their way into the actual field.
• Let's also give out a few more tickets based on the previous year's tournaments. Right now, the winners of the Champions and Europa leagues automatically qualify, but let's expand that. If you reach the quarterfinals of either tournament, you're into the playoff. (Yes, even you, 2020 Europa quarterfinalists Wolves and Copenhagen.) If you reach the Champions League semis, you're into the final round of qualifying. (You're welcome, Lyon.)
None of these spots counts toward your country's allotment either, so no more “Chelsea wins the 2012 Champions League and therefore steals Tottenham Hotspur's UCL bid” situations, as funny as those may have been.
If you stop here, you've already plumped up your playoff to include some “name brands” like Spurs and AC Milan, and those last couple of qualification rounds would likely be more attractive to TV viewers, maybe even selling more tickets (when there are tickets to sell).
We're not stopping here. We're also merging the last couple of playoff rounds together to create a 32-team, eight-group and eight-bid playoff. We're letting the top-seeded teams (based on both ranking and which round of qualifying they landed in) host each group, and we're playing it over the course of about nine days in early August, before the big leagues begin their season. It's one of the only voids on the normal soccer calendar, and we're filling it without adding to the total number of games being played.
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Here's what a 2020-21 qualification playoff could look like using EloFootball rankings to seed clubs in different pools. (Why EloFootball instead of the UEFA coefficients? Because it's my piece, and I don't like the coefficients — that's why.) Teams qualifying via one of the new rules are in bold.
A: Leicester City (host), Hoffenheim, Gent, Crvena Zvezda
B: Roma (host), Wolves, Slavia Prague, Maccabi Tel Aviv
C: Lyon (host), PAOK, Krasnodar, Copenhagen
D: Villarreal (host), CFR Cluj, Dinamo Zagreb, Basaksehir
E: Olympiacos (host), Real Sociedad, Lokomotiv Moscow, Molde
F: Benfica (host), AC Milan, Basel, AZ Alkmaar
G: Red Bull Salzburg (host), Tottenham Hotspur, Young Boys, Viktoria Plzen
H: Bayer Leverkusen (host), Celtic, Dynamo Kyiv, Midtjylland
Over the course of nine days, you could end up with these headline matches as a season opener:
• Saturday: AC Milan vs. Benfica, Leicester vs. Crvena Zvezda
• Sunday: Bayer Leverkusen vs. Celtic, Spurs vs. Young Boys
• Tuesday: Leicester vs. Hoffenheim, Wolves vs. Slavia Prague
• Wednesday: RB Salzburg vs. Young Boys, Lyon vs. PAOK
• Saturday: Wolves vs. Roma, AC Milan vs. Basel, Olympiacos vs. Real Sociedad
• Sunday: Spurs vs. RB Salzburg, Villarreal vs. Dinamo Zagreb
Are they all heavy-hitting matches? Not necessarily. All the best teams have already qualified, after all. But you're getting more brands involved, you're creating a lot of fun, watchable match-ups and, perhaps most importantly, you're creating an even stronger (and potentially more lucrative) main field of 32 teams.
The best teams from lower leagues — your Benficas and RB Salzburgs — still have an excellent chance of getting into the field (teams like Zenit, Shakhtar and Ajax keep their automatic bids, too), but the Moldes and Viktoria Plzens face longer odds and likely end up with more manageable levels of competition in the Europa League. You're creating another showcase for some of these teams, and you're adding more money to the pot, which, if distributed properly, benefits everyone.
(Needless to say, this might be a great time to maybe alter how those UEFA solidarity payments are divvied out. But that's another post.)
Let's bring more chaos to the Europa League, too
The Europa League is a glorious mess, in the best possible way. Qualifying is multi-pronged, and you could end up playing a ton of matches — Sevilla played 19 during its 2014 title run — but lifting a European trophy is worth it, right? And with the new bids I'm handing out, even reaching the quarterfinals could pay off handsomely. That could help from a motivation standpoint.
Europa could also be a perfect venue for a recent discovery: the draw of single-elimination wackiness. The last three rounds of both the Champions and Europa Leagues were completed in single-elimination format on neutral sites, and it added an extra level of intensity and potential chaos to the proceedings. As UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin recently told the media: “We had to play this way, but at the end, we see it's a very interesting system. We saw that people want exciting matches, that in one match, every team can beat every team in Champions League or the Europa League. So it's something to consider for the future.”
Ceferin also noted that while a single-elimination format results in fewer total matches played (and therefore smaller gate receipts or fewer TV opportunities), “the value can be higher if promoted properly. I see my friends from football and out of football calling me and texting me, and they are all extremely excited about this system.”
I'm not sure how “proper promotion” could make up the financial value of cutting the number of Champions League knockout matches in half, but this seems absolutely perfect for an already-chaotic mess like Europa. Excitement and experimentation should be the name of the game for both this tournament and the Europa Conference League. So make the knockout rounds a single-elimination affair, hold at least the last two or three knockout rounds on neutral sites, and wait for the chaos to begin.
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The Conference League is an interesting acknowledgment
Beginning in 2020-21, the Europa League will get slightly less chaotic — the field will start at 32 teams instead of 48, and those extra 16 teams, plus others primarily from lower-level leagues, will compete in the Europa Conference League instead. The goal for the Europa Conference League was to include more countries in at least the group stages of one of the continental tournaments.
“There will be more matches for more clubs, with more associations represented in the group stages,” Ceferin said. “There was a widespread demand by all clubs to increase their chances of participating more regularly in European competition.”
As with everything else, this is of course an attempt to wring out more money (which, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing), but it's also an acknowledgment of maybe the biggest issue for everyone outside of the top five or six leagues: a lack of competition and opportunity.
• EloFootball currently ranks Wolves as the No. 26 team in Europe. In the Premier League this coming year, they will play 34 games against teams currently in the Elo top 100, 22 against the top 50.
• No. 24 Ajax, meanwhile, will play six games against top-100 teams in the Eredivisie, none against the top 50. The only other Dutch teams with double-digit rankings are No. 70 Feyenoord, No. 89 PSV Eindhoven and No. 97 AZ. They're pretty close in current stature to the Premier League's Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Brighton, and again, they're the best league opponents Ajax will face. And even that is better than what No. 23 Olympiacos or No. 20 Shakhtar will face in league play.
Competition levels alone don't make you a good team (just ask [insert bottom-of-the-barrel EPL team of your choice here]), and Ajax recently proved that you can still succeed in Europe despite a weaker league. Still, you get a much more complete understanding of your strengths and weaknesses when you play better competition. Your bank account probably also ends up with more margin for error.
While lower-league success stories are still possible in the 2020s, they're not as possible. Ajax finished in EloFootball's top 10 once this century, and heavyweights from former communist nations have suffered for competition as countries have broken into smaller collectives. Crvena Zvezda hasn't finished in the top 50 since 2001. Dynamo Kyiv was top-20 12 times from 1970 to 2002 but hasn't hit that mark since 2009. Spartak Moscow hasn't done so since 2000, and Georgia's Dinamo Tbilisi was top-50 in the 1980s and is barely top-600 today.
Will the Europa Conference League fix this? Not really, beyond the long-term “more teams from each league will get more European experience and revenue, and that will theoretically translate into deeper leagues with more well-funded, well-run teams” perspective. But it is an acknowledgment that this issue deserves addressing.
Honestly, applying a Super Champions League idea to only teams outside of Europe's Big Five, allowing for Ajax, Olympiacos, Celtic, RB Salzburg, etc., to play against each other twice a year, would be beneficial to those teams, but would leave their respective leagues in the lurch. And maybe the most practical possible idea — merging countries' leagues together into regional structures, like BeNeLux in one group, eastern coalitions of some sort in another — would be politically impossible.
While there's been plenty of public conversation regarding how to build attention and money at the top of Europe's pyramid, there's just as much of a need further down it, and we'll see where the conversation goes. The biggest leagues are the biggest leagues, and the biggest clubs are the biggest clubs. Those names aren't going to change. But UEFA can only stand to benefit from making its second tier as strong as possible.
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