The Simpler and Better Alternative Reform that UEFA Should Have Used for Its European Club Competitions
When it comes to European football, two of the most influential countries in its landscape are without question England and Scotland.
In 1888/89 the English Football League was formed and saw its inaugural season, the first such league round-robin competition in the sport’s history.
It was Preston North End who emerged as its first-ever champions, the Lancashire club being christened “The Invincibles” due to completing the campaign unbeaten with 18 wins and 4 draws from their 22 matches.
The English Football League’s foundation in addition to the luring by English clubs of top Scottish talent due to professionalism in the English game compared to amateurism in Scotland, prompted Scotland to follow England’s lead and form its own football league.
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The first Scottish Football League took place in 1890-91 and saw Dumbarton FC and Rangers share the title after both finished level on points and both then drew a title-deciding replay by a 2-2 score-line.
However, it was earlier events than this that had a greater impact on the sport of football. From 1876 to 1904, a series of matches took part in the Football World Championship, the first-ever example of cross-border footballing tournaments. This tournament pitted the English FA Cup winners up against the Scottish Cup winners.
An additional one-off match, known as the 1895 World Championship also took place between Sunderland FC and Heart of Midlothian (Hearts), the respective English and Scottish league champions of the time which was won by Sunderland by a score of 5-3. The first-ever match-up between league champions of two different countries ever played.
This game between Hearts and winners Sunderland, who ironically had a starting eleven entirely composed of Scottish players served as a precursor to cross-border European competitions such as the Mitropa Cup, the Coupe des Nations and the Latin Cup between 1927 and 1949.
However, it was the events of December 1954 when Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves) defeated Hungarian giants Honved Budapest 3-2 at Molyneux that really set the ball rolling.
Immediately after Wolves’ victory, their manager Stan Cullis declared his side “Champions of the World”. This prompted famous French journalist Gabriel Hanot to lobby UEFA to create a pan-European club competition, the European Champions Cup for the following season (1955-56).
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Throughout the years, the European Champions Cup saw many changes. A two-legged straight knockout format was used from its inception in 1955-56 to 1990-91 and the competition comprised solely of domestic league champions and the previous season’s winners if they were not the domestic champion.
For 1991/92, the competition comprised of two straight knockout ties before the final eight teams remaining were paired into two groups of four teams with the winners of each meeting each other in the final.
With the rebranding of the competition into the UEFA Champions League for 1992-93, this aforementioned format remained in place until 1994/95 when it was replaced with a 16 team group format divided into four groups of four teams.
From 1997/98, league runners-up from higher-ranked nations were allowed to participate in the competition and the group stage expanded to 24 teams divided into six groups of four teams. Eventually third and fourth-placed sides from higher-ranked nations were allowed into the competition.
The final major alteration came from 1999-00 to 2002/03, the competition was expanded into an initial 32 team group stage comprised of eight groups of four teams.
The winners and runners up of these groups would then advance to a second group stage comprised of 16 teams divided into four groups of four teams with the top two in each group advancing to the Quarter Finals.
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After all these alterations we see the current format which has been in place since 2003/04. It consists of a 32 team group stage, top two advance to the Round of Sixteen and straight knockout from that round until the final.
However, at the beginning of March 2022, a new format for European football’s premier club competition was announced.
The New Format and Its Controversies
The new Champions League format will see the 32 team, 8 group stage replaced with one big league of 36 teams. Two of the extra four places in this new format will be teams with the highest UEFA club co-efficient who finished outside of the Champions League qualification places in their country’s domestic league.
Another of the extra places will go to the 4th place side in the country currently ranked 5th in the UEFA country co-efficients (currently France), thus bringing France into line with its fellow “big five” leagues England, Germany, Italy and Spain, who all normally have four representatives in the group stages.
Finally, the last of the four additional places will be an additional team that qualifies through the “Champions” qualification path, set up for lower-ranked domestic league champions.
In the big “Swiss-system” 36 team league format, each team will play ten matches, five at home and five away from home. The opponents each team will be drawn against will be taken into account due to seeding.
After the ten “league” matches are played by each team, the sides ranked 1st to 8th in the league will automatically qualify for the Round of Sixteen.
The sides then ranked 9th to 24th in the standings will go into a Play-Off Qualification round with the eight winners of this additional round then joining the best eight placed sides in the group stage in the Round of Sixteen.
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UEFA has reportedly as revealed by The Athletic inserted a rule to stop teams who would qualify for the competition by virtue of past historical performance but finish outside of the normal qualification spots from jumping the queue ahead of non-historical performing underdog clubs.
So, using this current Premier League season as an example of applying this new method of qualification for this new Champions League format, if Manchester United hypothetically were to finish 6th in the Premier League behind West Ham United who hypothetically finish 5th, The Red Devils would not be eligible to qualify by virtue of “historical performance”.
If Manchester United were to finish 5th in this season, they would be eligible to qualify through historical performance. UEFA stress that “historical performance” for two of the additional places is only eligible if the club in question finishes in the first position outside of league qualification for the Champions League.
However, there is a twist. Again, using this season of the Premier League as an example, if Tottenham were to finish 4th and qualify for the Champions League via the league, Arsenal finish 5th and Manchester United were to finish 6th, there is a chance England could get six teams into the Champions League.
This would be possible because Arsenal like Manchester United have a high UEFA club coefficient rating. Therefore, if both clubs had the highest club co-efficient of sides who didn’t qualify for the competition by virtue of league position, then Manchester United could qualify for the Champions League by virtue of a sixth-placed finish as they wouldn’t be “jumping the queue.”
The new format, which is due to be formally discussed next month by UEFA, ironically one year to the month after the hugely controversial and eventually abandoned Super League plans could then by ratified and approved to come into effect from 2024/25 sometime in May. Quite simply, like the Super League proposals, this new format has so many controversies about it right from first viewing.
The largest bone of contention is the two spots that have been reserved for non-league qualifying sides who have a high club co-efficient and would qualify via “historical performance”. Essentially, UEFA is introducing qualification wildcards into its premier club competition akin to tennis how that sport offers out wildcards to Grand Slams and other major competitions.
Wildcards are controversial in tennis for a number of factors. There are only four Grand Slam tournaments which are held in Australia, France, UK and USA.
Thus, tennis players from these nations can be perceived as having an enormous advantage over other young players of promise from other non-Grand Slam countries when it comes to obtaining wildcards.
At each of these Grand Slams, there is an understandable onus on finding the next “home-star champion”. Thus, inevitably nearly all of the wildcards will go to players from these countries when their respective home slam comes around.
In addition, wildcards in tennis have generated controversy due to a recent article in The Guardian which highlighted how the way they are handed out for certain tournaments can open up allegations of nepotism and favouritism.
The final big controversy is that when it comes to the four Grand Slam countries, whose tennis players will get most of the wildcards, complacency can breed amongst players from these countries due to constant increased likelihood of being offered wildcards, should their rankings not qualify them automatically for the Grand Slams.
It is this final point of a complacency culture in tennis when it comes to wildcards which makes the idea of handing the elite clubs in football “wildcards” into the Champions League under the guise of “historical performance” so controversial.
Under no circumstances am I singling out Manchester United here. However, I will use them once more as an example to highlight the absurdity of UEFA’s plans.
If Manchester United were to finish in 5th place in the 2023/24 Premier League, outside of the league positions that would guarantee Champions League qualification for the following season’s edition, there is only two circumstances which should get them into the Champions League.
Firstly, if they finished in the top four of the Premier League the previous season and go on to win the 2023/24 Champions League, thus qualifying them for the 2024/25 edition as reigning champions.
Secondly, if Manchester United go on to win the 2023/24 UEFA Europa League, thus qualifying them for the 2024/25 Champions League by virtue of the place on offer for winning UEFA’s 2nd tier competition.
If neither of these two aforementioned things happen and Manchester United finish 5th in the Premier League, they should not be playing in the following season’s Champions League as quite simply they will not have meritocratically deserved it.
The current presence of no wildcards to get into the following season’s Champions League under the competition’s current format should act as motivation for a struggling “elite club” such as Manchester United this season alongside the likes of Arsenal, Juventus, Barcelona and others in either past seasons or in upcoming future seasons to “earn” their place in the competition.
Gifting places to previously highly ranked sides based on club coefficient creates conditions whereby fundamental problems at a club that hold it back are not addressed and thus an underperformance cycle has a greater chance of being maintained at said club.
Moving away from the wildcard aspect of why this new format for the Champions League from 2024/25 is controversial is an increased number of additional matches that now have to be played to fit the Champions League into the footballing calendar of each country.
A problematic situation given the already crowded calendar alongside additional plans to stretch said calendar further with additional expansion of the Club World Cup and controversial plans for a bi-annual FIFA World Cup.
Currently, a side that automatically qualifies for the Champions League group stages will have to play thirteen matches to win the competition in its current format.
Six in the group stages and seven in the knockout rounds. It is manageable alongside the current calendar of a 38 game Premier League, La Liga, Serie A etc league season.
However, the Champions League’s new format from 2024/25 onwards means that a club will have to play a minimum 17 matches to either reach the competition’s final or win it.
This scenario would occur if said club finishes in the top eight ranked clubs at the end of the league format, thus earning a bye to the Round of Sixteen.
If a side finished between 9th and 24th at the end of the league format, they would have played nineteen matches if they reach the final, as said club would have to negotiate the play-off qualification round and an additional two matches there.
19 matches represent half a league season. Throw in alongside this number 38 domestic league fixtures and a several matches in a long domestic cup competition run and that can stretch a season out to over 60 matches for some clubs.
In addition, factor into account in the current footballing calendar, there are four international breaks, where for a period of eight weeks over a European club season no league football in the top tier of a country’s league system can be played.
Of all the major European leagues, England is set to have the most headaches when it comes to finding a solution to fit all these extra games into an already crowded club calendar because it has two domestic cup competitions rather than the one present in the other “big five” leagues.
This Champions League expansion surely has to raise serious question marks about the future of the secondary English cup competition the EFL League Cup.
Matches in the League Cup are exclusively played midweek with the exception of the final which is played on a weekend.
With an additional four Champions League matches now to fit in as a result of the changes to the competition’s format, the current midweek spots taken up by the League Cup might be the only spaces in the calendar that can accommodate the additional Champions League matches.
Therefore, will the League Cup be scrapped completely from 2024/25 onwards? Will it just morph into a competition which only the Football League clubs (Championship, League One and League Two) participate?
Is playing the early rounds of the League Cup before the league seasons start in pre-season to keep more in-season midweeks free for the expanded Champions League an option?
The latter proposal may encounter problems given many Premier League are away from mid to late July playing overseas in various pre-season friendly competitions.
This new format for the Champions League has opened up all sorts of question-marks about it from a meritocracy and calendar scheduling point of view.
Throw in the additional issue of enhanced risk of player burnout due to the extra games and one realises just how controversial a can of worms UEFA have opened with the latest alteration to the Champions League format.
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The new format that looks set to be introduced to the Champions League has also reportedly been approved for use UEFA’s 2nd and 3rd tier club competitions, the UEFA Europa League and the UEFA Europa Conference League respectively.
This also has to raise question marks about exactly how the additional four spots in the group stages of both these competitions will be distributed.
Will there be “wildcard” spots for high-coefficient rated clubs from Europe’s “big five” leagues? If this was to happen, it would be a disappointing development for the new Europa Conference League, which was specifically set up as a competition predominantly for non-big five league clubs.
The introduction of the new third tier Europa Conference League into the European club competition landscape this season also brought with it an excellent new innovation from UEFA.
Currently, in both the group stages of the Europa League and Europa Conference League, the group winners get automatic qualification for the Round of Sixteen of both competitions.
In essence, this is the equivalent of finishing as the top-ranked side in either conference of the National Football League (NFL) and then getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
Rewarding the group winners in the Europa League and Europa Conference League with a bye to the Round of Sixteen incentivises all clubs to take European competition seriously.
In addition, it adds a real reward to a team for winning their group and makes every game of the group stages of both competitions as high-intensity as possible.
The new format of the Champions League from 2024/25 onwards does incorporate a bye for the Round of Sixteen for the best eight ranked teams at the end of the league stage. So why not take this initiative of handing out byes to group winners in the Champions League and incorporate it into the current Champions League format as an alternative to the new and soon-to-be-approved format for Europe’s premier club competition?
My proposal would be to keep the group stages of the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference Leagues at 32 teams in each competition.
The 32 teams are divided into 8 groups of 4 teams like they are at present. In each of the groups, the eight group winners progress automatically to the Round of 16 with a bye.
The 16 sides that then finish either 2nd or 3rd in the group stage progress to the knockout play-off round. The winners of these knockout play-off round ties then fill up the remaining eight places in the Round of 16.
This proposal would be used in all three of the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League. So instead of the third placed sides in the Champions League and Europa League group stages dropping post-New Year into the Europa League and Europa Conference League respectively, they will play against a 2nd placed side from a different group in the knockout playoff round instead.
In addition, rather than going out of European competition like what happens at present, sides that finish 3rd in Europa Conference League groups would go into the qualifying play-off round of that particular competition against a side who came 2nd from a different Conference League group. Sides that finish bottom of their groups are eliminated from European competition.
Finally, under this proposal, there would be no dropouts from the Champions League into the Europa League and from the Europa League into the Conference League from the group stages. The only way a side could drop into a lower-tier European competition is when they lose in the pre-group stage qualification rounds of higher competition.
This is a proposal which would be ideal for all clubs in all three competitions. Firstly, the current format of the European competitions would be retained.
It is a simple format that fans by and large enjoy and after so many years of this format being present in European club competitions are familiar with, as opposed to the proposed new 36 team league format.
Offering a bye to the Round of 16 for the eight Champions League group stage winners really would be much more of a reward for said clubs’ endeavours, especially if a club is drawn in what many fans consider a “group of death”.
It also brings the Champions League into line with what the Europa League and Europa Conference League offer the respective group winners of those two competitions. Removing dropouts from the Champions League into the Europa League and from the Europa League into the Europa Conference League is also a positive step.
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One of the criticisms of the knockout stages of the Europa League in recent seasons has been a large number of dropout clubs who finished third in their Champions League groups then end up either winning or reaching the final of the Europa League after dropping into it and being given “an unfair second chance” in European competition.
Atletico de Madrid twice (2009-10 & 2017-18), Sevilla FC once (2015-16) and Chelsea FC once (2012/13) have all won the Europa League after dropping into it post-Christmas by finishing third in their Champions League group and thus being eliminated from that particular competition.
In addition, SC Braga once (2010/11), SL Benfica twice (2012-13 and 2013/14), Inter Milan once (2019/20) and Manchester United once (2020/21) have all reached the final of the competition after dropping into it after finishing third in their Champions League group.
There is also the strong possibility that this season could also see a Europa League final between two sides who have dropped out of the Champions League after having come third place in their groups. FC Barcelona and either RB Leipzig or Atalanta BC both look favourites on their respective sides of the draw to make the final in Seville.
If this were to happen it fuels the argument that allowing Champions League dropouts turns a prestigious competition like the Europa League into a “consolation competition”. A tag it doesn’t deserve given how exciting the knockout rounds of it have been over the years.
An extra qualification play-off round in the Champions League to fit into the calendar should not be a problem too. The Europa League and Europa Conference League manage to fit both their qualification playoff and Round of 16 ties into the four-week period that it takes nowadays to play the Champions League Round of 16.
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Furthermore, my proposed tweaks to the Champions League structure would allow a competition like the EFL League Cup to remain in the calendar. Something clearly not possible with the bulky 36 team “Swiss system” league official new format being proposed by UEFA.
Tweaking Rather Than Mass Change
Of course, this new, proposed tweaked format still has short-comings. Some argue that third placed teams in the group stages still being in the competition in a qualifying play-off round is a safety net for a big club to have at their disposal for below par performances.
Nonetheless, said big club finishing third in the Champions League group stage in its current format and dropping into the Europa League is also an example of a safety net. In addition, the ten-game league new format being discussed will give the elite clubs arguably the largest safety net ever for poor performances.
However, my proposal is a considerable improvement on the official new format which looks to be ratified soon by UEFA. There is a unique simplicity to the template of eight groups of four teams. Furthermore, you do get so-called “groups of death” in the existing format or clashes between the so-called “elite clubs”.
See the Liverpool, Atletico de Madrid, FC Porto and AC Milan group or the group stage match ups between Real Madrid & Inter Milan and FC Barcelona vs Bayern Munich in this season’s edition of the competition as an example.
One of, if not the only positive of the new format does see the exclusion of drop out teams from the Champions League into the Europa League and the Europa League into the Conference League for when the knockout rounds take place.
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However, as I outlined above, there is no reason why this feature cannot be included in the current eight groups of four teams format.
Any decision on the new format for the Champions League from 2024/25 onwards has not yet been fully confirmed. In the time between now and official confirmation, UEFA should think carefully about the reforms to its European club competitions from their current format. Especially those around the Champions League.
Allowing certain teams to qualify for the Champions League group stages who fail to qualify through league placing because of their historical high co-efficient should from a sporting merit viewpoint evoke similar criticism that was levied at the eventually failed Super League concept one year on. The failed Super League concept that UEFA correctly fought hard to prevent happening.
Not to mention the potential scheduling and player burnout concerns that this expanded Champions League format also brings.
Occasionally an elite club will miss qualification for the Champions League. However, there are always enough big-name clubs, great matches and storylines present in the group stage to keep it permanently interesting.
Easy to administer tweaks to the current competition format which mainly focus on removing third-placed drop-out clubs, not wholesale changes are all that is needed to provide a better competition for all.
By: Richard David Pike / @RichDPike89
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Ash Donelon / Man United / Aurelien Meunier – PSG