Everything that made the Champions League great this season is under threat.
The final hasn’t yet been played, and a proposal put forth by the richest and most powerful clubs already imperils the future possibility of the very Cinderella runs and collapses by the favorites that made this such a captivating edition of the continental club championship.
If adopted, could Ajax have found the formula to returning to European prominence and coming within seconds of reaching the final, as it did this season?
Could Tottenham Hotspur have overcome years, even decades, of late-season collapses to survive heart-stopping thrillers with Manchester City and Ajax to make their first-ever title game?
Even a legacy club like Liverpool’s second straight final, courtesy of a stunning comeback against FC Barcelona, would have been less likely.
The European Club Association – a sort of trade group of 200 clubs controlled largely by the biggest teams – has convinced UEFA, the regional governing body, to consider its idea of reserving places in the Champions League for the 24 biggest clubs in Europe. The other eight spots would be split between qualifiers from outside the major leagues and the semifinalists from the prior season’s second-tier Europa League in a kind of promotion-relegation scheme that would trickle down into the third-tier tournament envisioned by UEFA.
The plan was first reported by the New York Times but has since been acknowledged as a possibility by UEFA, although it claims it’s very much in the concept stage. The thing is, Europe’s biggest clubs hold enormous leverage over their governing body, aware as they are that they generate the bulk of the $2.3 billion in prize money UEFA redistributes. They want a bigger piece of it, while UEFA is trying to avoid a would-be departure of its rebellious cash cows.
Such a scheme would ossify the current hierarchy in the sport and create a kind of über-class of clubs that already enjoy enormous economic advantages at the top of the food chain. And it would leave an incredibly narrow path for new teams to join that upper crust.
Ajax, having mostly spent two decades in the wilderness after its last spell of European competitiveness, likely wouldn’t have made it. It wasn’t supposed to be able to get this far, outspent in multiples by its adversaries. And if this new arrangement had been suggested just a few years ago, Spurs surely would have missed out too. After all, it didn’t qualify for the elite European tournament from 2011-12 through 2015-16. Or indeed from 1962 through 2010. In fact, if the timing had been less fortunate, Liverpool would also be on the outside looking in, as the Reds qualified for the Champions League just once in seven seasons before these back-to-back runs to the final.
And that’s just it. Fortunes rise and fall, but the ECA’s plan would effectively prevent that from happening in continental competition. It would make it harder for small teams to do well, since the proposal includes a group stage that would last 14 games per team, rather than six, making the chances of surprise eliminations smaller.
What’s more, a slate of guaranteed Champions League entrants would make the domestic leagues largely unimportant. In the Premier League, for instance, Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal wouldn’t have had anything to play for, other than marginal bumps in prize money, once they were out of title contention. Fewer game would matter.
Much of the drama this season in the Spanish and Italian leagues came not from Barcelona and Juventus winning yet more domestic titles – Barca’s fourth in five seasons and Juve’s eighth in a row – but from little Atalanta and puny Getafe chasing Champions League berths. They would be a pair of major upsets and generational achievements for each club, but if they weren’t even playing for a place among Europe’s elite, nobody would have cared about their final standing.
The domestic leagues have understandably pushed back against this plan – La Liga president Javier Tebas has called it “catastrophic” – which would not go into effect until 2024. Because there is even talk of the expanded schedule of Champions League games partly taking place on weekends, rather than being confined to Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as they are now. This, too, would undermine domestic soccer, no matter how beloved the league.
In some ways, this sort of proposal was inevitable. The megaclub-controlled ECA has agitated for a breakaway league for years, figuring it would stand to make more money and suffer less risk by simply shutting out the smaller clubs. This is a more palatable version of the once-mooted Super League. And from a fan’s perspective, there is an argument to be made for the biggest clubs playing the biggest games on the biggest stage more of the time.
But then the biggest clubs don’t always stay the biggest. Some decline. Others emerge. That’s the beauty of sport. The beauty of soccer, above all. Nothing is ordained – Ajax almost made the final. The games still have to be played. And sometimes the smaller team wins.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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