European Football

UEFA’s Faustian Bargain

UEFA’s impending Champions League reforms are nothing more than a desperate money grab from teams ready to break away

A story that has lingered under the surface during this season is now coming into prominence, as the UEFA Executive Committee is holding a meeting next week to vote on, and likely pass, a very serious change to the format of the Champions League. Reported by Matt Slater from The Athletic, this meeting will likely be a landmark moment in the modern history of UEFA and European football in general. With all of the talk of “Super Leagues” and things of that nature, this move would clearly impact the discussions surrounding European football for years to come.

And boy, does this seem like a bad deal.

Here are the major changes, should this resolution pass. Beginning in 2024, the Champions League will be expanding from 32 teams to 36. Instead of a “Group Stage” similar to what we have now in European competition, those 36 teams will take part in a “Swiss model” competition. Originating in competitive chess, the Swiss model essentially ranks every player in a competition and seeds them from one to however many competitors there are, and each competitor plays a set number of matches against the opponents seeded around them or a random set of opponents, not playing every participant in the competition. For the Champions League, UEFA will rank all 36 competing teams, likely based off of UEFA coefficient or some other variable, and list them in seeds. The teams would play 10 matches (a substantial increase to the current six game Group Stage), five at home and five away, with the top eight performers advancing to a 16-team knockout stage. The final eight knockout spots will be decided by a playoff between the next highest finishing 16 teams (team 9 to 24 in the overall table). The competition then proceeds in a knockout format, similar to how it is now, until one champion of Europe is crowned at the end.

The other major (and maybe the most controversial) change comes from how the final four spots are decided. The first of the four extra qualification spots is expected to be allocated to Ligue 1, which currently only has three Champions League qualifying places. This would put Ligue 1 on par with the other four “Top Five” European Leagues, all having four Champions League qualifying spots. The other three spots are proposed to be awarded based on historic performance in European competition over the previous five seasons. This is basically a safety net for big teams that may endure a bad season that keeps them out of the Champions League. For example, if this system had already been implemented, it is possible that one of these slots could have been awarded to Arsenal this season, who missed out on Champions League qualification last season but have performed fairly well in European competition in previous years.

I do not need to be the one to tell you that this is wildly unfair.

I have so many problems with this idea and so many things to say about UEFA for going along with this, but let us start with the extra spots and work our way back.

Now, selfishly, I do not object to an extra spot for Ligue 1. It allows Lyon’s always-present and unescapable mediocrity to be excused, with a larger margin for error allowed in trying to finish in one of four qualifying spots instead of one of three spots. On a more serious note, I think it also does a world of good for French football if one more team is given a pathway into the Champions League and the financial boost the competition offers. Four of France’s main five teams (PSG, Lyon, Lille, Monaco, Marseille) being in the competition instead of three, or also the increased chance of a smaller team qualifying, only does good things for French football. The added revenue injection into a league with quite a few teams struggling financially should at least make things consistently more interesting at the top of the table, with three teams more financially equipped to challenge PSG.

And that is about all I like about this plan. The three spots awarded based on “historic European performance” is one of the biggest scams I have ever seen in football. We should apparently want to throw a bone to the world’s biggest and richest football clubs, who already benefit from a system that maintains their financial and sporting dominance, just in case they happen to fall victim to another club showing ambition and intelligence in building a team. They are the unwanted, after all. No one wants to watch Leicester or Atalanta or some other small team in Europe, of course not. Everyone is surely here to see the big dogs play, right? Those big money teams, yes, they are the class above everyone else, and all the other clubs are just second-class citizens within the sport.

This is all just insane. It reflects a mentality held by the biggest clubs that, because of their money and financial power, they should be more important and held in a higher regard than the hundreds of other football clubs on the continent. This is a sentiment that, time after time, has been publicly backed in particular by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, probably the most vocal supporter of a European Super League and easily one of European football’s largest mouthpieces of utterly ridiculous nonsense. Last season, while speaking at the Financial Times‘ “Business of Football” summit, Agnelli was vocally critical of Atalanta’s inclusion in the Champions League, saying “without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition. Is that right or not?” He went on to cite a similar circumstance to the one UEFA is accounting for in this concept, saying “Then I think of Roma, who contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s [UEFA League Coefficient] ranking. They had one bad season and are out, with all the consequent damage to them financially.” How is it fair, Agnelli asks, if a club who had been in Europe for several years fall out when another club has a better season than them and earns the European qualification spot over them?

Yes, this is a hilariously absurd idea.

Football, and all sport in general, is a meritocracy. If you are good enough, building a team, tactic, and mentality good enough to win games, then you will be rewarded for your success. If you are not good enough to maintain that success, then another club that has a good team, tactic, and mentality will come and take that success from you. That is the way of the world in sports. Nothing should be handed to you on a silver platter. UEFA, likely either pressured by or complicit with the world’s biggest clubs, wants those big clubs to know that it is ok if they mess up or get complacent or somehow get overtaken by a club below them because there is a safety net there to catch them. The biggest clubs in the world, purely on reputation and due to the money and influence they have, can now act as higher class citizens and enjoy perks that the vast majority of others do not: a more protected status and access to the absurd media money attached to Europe’s biggest domestic football competition, whether they have earned their place there or not. But they have earned that status because, well, you know, reasons. As Agnelli said, they have history or stature, whatever that means, and because of that they deserve special status and should constantly be in the Champions League even if their performances do not merit inclusion.

And it is funny because European football is seemingly bigger than those few teams and few leagues, right? For example, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest are two of the five English teams to have won the European Cup, being a much more significant part of England’s history in the competition than, say, Tottenham or Manchester City, but those two clubs would be given priority over Villa or Forest in a hypothetical qualification situation under this new system. RB Leipzig, a club founded in 2009 as a cheap marketing strategy by Red Bull, would hold priority in this new system because their stature, money, and ability to consistently use that money to build a team to qualify for European competition surely means they have more of an international reputation than, for example, Hamburg, the only German team not named Bayern or Dortmund to win the European Cup.

And what have these big clubs given to the competition that teams in smaller leagues have not? Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord have all been crowned champions of Europe in their history, yet UEFA does not reward the Netherlands with an extra Champions League qualification spot. Benfica and FC Porto have each won multiple European Cups, yet Portugal only has the one guaranteed Champions League qualification place. Glasgow Celtic’s European triumph in 1967, the first British side to win the European Cup, is as much a part of British footballing lore as anything done by an English side, yet the champion of Scotland does not automatically qualify for the Champions League. Neither do the champions of the top leagues in Denmark, Switzerland, or Serbia, despite Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade also having a European Cup to their name. Is this truly a competition meant to represent the best in the whole of Europe? Or is it just one for those few clubs that hold all of the influence?

I keep coming back to that point Agnelli made, implying that it is wrong that a team without “international history” can have access to the riches of the Champions League while keeping a “higher status” team out. Let us flip that argument back at him. Why would an underperforming Tottenham team, an example of a team not currently in a Champions League qualification place but with some recent performances in Europe that might get them in under this new system, deserve a spot over a club like PSV or FC Porto, who have actually won the European Cup in their history? Can you legitimately say that Porto, who have won the Champions League in my lifetime, have a significantly lower international history than Tottenham? Of course not. But Tottenham are part of the cartel of elite clubs, one of the “haves” of world football, so they would get the special treatment and get the extra qualification place instead of giving it to Liga NOS.

And even then, what is wrong with “smaller” clubs becoming good? What is wrong with clubs of lower stature getting the right plan into place and growing into successful powerhouses? This is what we all do on FIFA Career Mode and Football Manager, right? A club like Atalanta, a fairly small club in size and resources from a small city northeast of Milan, rising from minnows to successful Serie A club and Champions League near-regular should be applauded, not demonized. The ability for Atalanta to build a very good team and employ a very good manager to lead them despite their limitations should be a model of how to run a football club, but the rich and powerful view it as unfair that such a team is able to reach this level and keep one of them away from their money and fame, which is clearly their inherent birthright as a big club. How dare a club far below them figure out how to be better than a big team, that is just not natural!

The Champions League has been criticized recently for being too predictable and being the same teams over and over again, and this proposal does nothing to change that, and, in fact, it only makes it worse. This is not a European competition, this is a competition between the same half a dozen clubs who just so happened to strike rich a decade ago. And because of that, they feel they are important enough to make things more advantageous to them, whether it be structuring the payout of the Champions League to reward the same clubs that keep going far in the competition or by just closing participation to others by doing things like this, taking away the meritocratic aspects that have built the sport to this point.

And this is not even my only issue with this.

The big clubs went into the discussion room with UEFA with two clear desires: adding more games to the Champions League and putting up safeguards to make sure they always qualify. More games is more money, and added safeguards ensures they have routine access to the money. Europe’s top clubs have wanted to play more games against each other for years now; this was one of the main driving forces behind forming a Super League. The Champions League is a television ratings and sponsorship bonanza, an absolute goldmine for TV rights revenue for the clubs involved. These club owners, naturally fixated on the sole goal of earning more money, came to the conclusion that playing more of these games would give them more money. While I disagree with that ultimate conclusion, that is for another article for another day, and they determined there needs to be more games in the Champions League. Thus formed the Super League idea, and the concept of the Swiss model being used in football emerged as a sort of compromise, more politically palatable than a Super League.

The only issue is teams and players cannot deal with more games on the schedule. Fixture lists are already admittedly very crowded, and the rampant fitness issues during this condensed 2020-2021 season illustrate perfectly the physical, mental, and emotional toll that this incredibly crowded schedule is causing on players, and it also illustrates the sporting effects that their fitness issues can have on teams. We all have heard Jürgen Klopp’s repeated complaints about fixture congestion, and while I hate agreeing with Klopp on anything, he is right. However, the club owners will likely move to address this problem in a less popular way. They cannot reduce the amount of Champions League games, because that is where the money is made. Going away instead will likely be domestic cups. The EFL Cup, the FA Cup, the DFB-Pokal, the Coupe de France, all of the domestic cups that have been part and parcel of league football in Europe for nearly two centuries will likely be removed to appease the owners desire for more Champions League money. Gone will be avenues for any club to win silverware and prize money. Gone will be pathways to European qualification for many smaller clubs. Gone will be the “magic of the cup” and the underdog stories that make knockout cup competitions so great. How dare we let the success of minnows get in the way of my money, clamor the top owners. If fixture congestion continues to be an issue, do not be surprised if these competitions are quickly put on the chopping block. Nothing can get in the way of the Champions League money.

And then here is the ultimate kicker: this in no way stops the formation of a Super League. The top teams have now shown that their threats can pressure UEFA into changing the system to benefit them. It has now been thoroughly demonstrated that UEFA is afraid of a Super League, and the lingering threat of the top clubs breaking away from UEFA is enough to pressure the federation into action. What is stopping them from pressuring the federation into more changes? The whole point of a Swiss model in chess is that it is almost infinitely scaleable, able to make a competition out of 10 competitors, 100 competitors, or 500 competitors playing 10, 30, or 60 or however many matches without really any issue. What is stopping these owners from going to UEFA and saying “we want 10 more Champions League games per season.”? 20 more? 30 more? What is stopping them from pressuring UEFA into essentially turning this system into a Super League?

Nothing, absolutely nothing is stopping them. Yes, there are clearly vocal opponents to this, but if this resolution passes and becomes set in stone, then the top clubs in the world have basically shown they can bully UEFA into doing their bidding.

In German folklore, the story of Faust revolves around a man who sold his soul to Satan in order to gain unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, only for his soul to be irreversibly corrupted by the evil he embraced. This is the Faustian Bargain, often called the “deal with the devil”. This is UEFA’s Faustian Bargain. They seem to believe a Super League is inevitable, but instead of working to resist it, they will crack a deal with the big clubs in order to stay in on the action. They are selling the soul of football to the world’s elite, allowing those clubs to remain in UEFA and the federation to keep raking in the television and sponsorship money from the Champions League but embracing the greed and capitalistic ruthlessness that could irreversibly and negatively change the football world forever. They are laying the groundwork for the formation of a Super League in exchange for keeping the UEFA branding on it and still getting their cut of the big money.

Faust dies at the end of his story. Will football die at the end of this one?


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