Barcelona-PSG is the major duel of the knockout stages of the Champions League which begins this Tuesday, February 16. The sixth confrontation in sixteen years, but with an epic memory during the last meeting in March 2017: the incredible “remountada” of the Catalan club (6-1 after losing 0-4 in the first leg). Even without Neymar and Angel Di Maria, the injured PSG stars, the poster is enticing.
And it is this kind of spectacle that UEFA intends to increase by 2024. Next month, the governing body of European football should have its members vote on a reform of the Champions League which subscribes to the always more matches, and therefore hard cash. A motivation that does not come out of nowhere. This reform is only the latest avatar of a desire marked for twenty years by the giants of continental football: to limit sporting uncertainty and to ensure as many benefits as possible.
Under the threat of a “Superleague”
Their ideal, expressed at the end of the 1990s? A “Superleague” private and closed, where the big clubs of the flagship nations would meet together to run their small value shop. Juventus of Turin, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester United are the most fervent supporters of this formula. Its promoters will agitate it over the years under the nose of a UEFA fearing to see itself stripped of its authority and its treasure.
→ READ. Champions League: reform too much?
To avoid schism, UEFA will thus regularly reform its Champions League, in 2003, 2008, 2016, and always in the same direction, by favoring the big clubs. The 2024 reform was initially supposed to confirm the trend. At the start of 2019, the project increased the number of group matches from 96 to 224, and guaranteed 24 of the 32 teams the right to automatically participate in the competition the following year. In other words, almost a closed league.
An outcry from the national leagues, who feared for the interest of their championships, prompted UEFA to review its copy. But for the big clubs, it was about not letting the pressure drop. The pandemic in 2020 reinforced their determination. Faced with the losses recorded, the football giants must ensure their rear.
So here they are reactivating their Superleague. In the fall of 2020, their project “leaked” to the Anglo-Saxon press. A championship with 20 clubs, including 15 permanent and 5 guests, and a jackpot of 350 million euros guaranteed for the first six, 2.5 times more than what the Champions League offers today to its finalists.
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Faced with the threat, the football authorities take out the cannon. For the first time, the International Federation (Fifa) and its constituent confederations, including UEFA, react together “Following recent speculations relayed by the media”. In a press release published on January 21, 2021, they emphasize that any club or player playing in the Superleague “Would be refused the right to participate in any competition organized by Fifa or its confederation”.
The national championships also jostled
The stick on one side, but the carrot on the other. The revised formula of the reform of the Champions League (read below), by multiplying the matches (180 instead of 96 in the first phase) and by providing for the possibility for some clubs of a repechage according to their points UEFA accumulated and not thanks to their national ranking, undermines the traditional idea of equity and sporting meritocracy. The sidelining of the Superleague is well worth a few concessions.
How far ? This is one of the questions that remain. The multiplication of European matches will inevitably have repercussions on the national championships. No wonder then to see also emerging projects to reduce the number of clubs in national leagues and lighten the calendars.
With the cake of its television rights trimmed by the Mediapro affair, the French Ligue 1 is considering going from 20 to 18 or 16 clubs. In England, a project “Big Picture” a move from the Premier League to 18 clubs has recently come out of the woods. It is worn by the American Fenway Sports Group, owner of Liverpool, and supported by the wealthy Glazer family who own Manchester United.
The movement has also been encouraged for more than a year by Andrea Agnelli, the president of Juventus and the European Club Association (ECA), a fervent supporter of the Superleague. “We must offer young people exciting competitions”, he defended at the end of January. And that, of course, is a big business.
A “plus” formula
The new formula of the Champions League should concern more clubs: 36 against 32 today. They would no longer be divided into groups but united in a sort of incomplete championship, each team playing ten games against ten different teams (five at home, five away). This first phase therefore has more matches (180 against 96 today).
The first 8 in the standings are qualified in the round of 16 where they join the winners of the qualifiers organized between those finishing between the 9e and 24e square. This formula also ensures more French clubs, France winning a qualifier with three starting clubs automatically, plus one having to go through the preliminary round.