Dilution of Champions League can revive domestic football

Last week, UEFA confirmed they were looking at the possibility of scrapping the Europa League and merging into a 64 team Champions League.

Sports writer Henry Winter wrote an article in The Telegraph bemoaning the idea, claiming it would be “madness”.

Here, we explain why Winter is wrong, and how merging the two would be a step forward for football across Europe and especially in Leagues, like the Premier League and La Liga, where dominance has become the norm.

Winter’s article shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic changes in European football over the last two decades.

Winter’s simplistic opening claim that those who don’t qualify should raise their game is almost laughable. It’s a bit difficult when Champions League is the direct root cause of those teams being unable to do so.

The Champions League has created the ultimate demonstration of the “rich get rich and the poor get poorer” — the rich part in particular.

Prior to the creation of the Champions League, domestic Leagues across Europe were regularly won by a myriad of teams; now, you can list two or three from each of the major Leagues who will be contenders for the next five years, let alone the next season.

It’s difficult to see anyone other than Barcelona or Real Madrid winning La Liga anytime soon. It’s difficult to see anyone other than Man United, City or Chelsea winning the Premier League any time soon.

In the last 17 years, there had been three different winners of the Premier League – until Man City spent almost £1bn in order to add their name to United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

Domestically too the impact has been seen. The FA Cup winners in the 20 years before Champions League included West Brom, Southampton, Coventry, Stoke, Newcastle, Everton, Ipswich, West Ham and Sunderland. Post-1995, that list features Chelsea, Arsenal, Man United, Liverpool, Man City – and Portsmouth, who went into administration and are now in the third tier of English football because of it.

Admittedly, the introduction of the Premier League has also played a part here; but the Champions League has created an environment where the ‘top’ players only wish to sign for CL participants, and when players sign for non-CL teams, they see it as a stepping stone to get a move to a CL entrant. Will Luis Suarez stick around at Anfield without CL football for his whole career? Same with Fellaini, and Baines, at Everton. They’ll move to get CL football soon, and Everton are back a step again.

Huge institutions like Everton, Villa, Newcastle now have slim (arguably zero) chance of ever winning the League ever again unless Champions League is diluted. Arguably too Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal.

Back in Spain – Barca and Real finish more than 40 points ahead of fifth (non CL) placed team. Hardly fair to suggest they should simply “raise their game” is it.

Anyone who has read Paul Tomkins’ ‘Pay as you Play’ will understand how clearly the correlation of money to success is. Champions League is where the money is and the division gets greater by the season. Liverpool are attempting to leverage their commercial revenues in order to make up some of the ground but it will never be enough. The only way to make up the ground is to do what City did and throw huge wages at top players in order to attract them before you can offer CL football.

Anyway, as we all know, it’s hardly a Champions League now anyway.

By levelling the playing field somewhat and diluting the CL, you’d have players who at the moment sign for a CL team but aren’t necessarily first-team players, they would actually sign for a slightly lower placed team where they would play more regular football. Thus teams then can bridge that gap. Domestic football would be revived and stronger competition across the board.

The Premier League is no longer competitive – despite what Sky may have you believe. You can count on one hand the potential League champions in your future lifetime. CL qualified teams are so strong they play reserve teams in the FA Cup and still dominate that competition.

The cycle of prize money > wages > transfer fees and the fact top players wont play outside CL have snowballed into crazily uncompetitive domestic competitions.

Telling teams to simply raise their game? Even if they were able, their best players would then just leave for a bigger, richer, CL club anyway. That’s not competitive, that’s a breeding ground for domestic dominance.

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  • Ross

    very well considered article, you should send it to Mr Winter

  • @LiverpoolWays

    This is spot on, at first when I heard about it I immediately dismissed it as another hair-brain idea from Platini, but after considering it further, it makes sense as clubs are dying. Not to mention how ridiculous the whole Europa league and format is. Excellent piece, and it has just cemented my own thoughts on the issue.

  • http://twitter.com/Sonix Johannes

    Disagree. Prize money obviously can produce nice profits for teams that go far in the competition, but for your examples its not that much money in relation to their other income sources. Even without any money from the UCL Liverpool is still in the Top 10 of european football clubs when looking at earnings. Real Madrid hat earnings of over 500mln € last season. Chelsea got around 55mln € from winning the Champions League. Sure, it’s a lot of money but nothing that will make you rich just by being able to play in that competition. Matchday income for Madrid was around 150mln € alone.

    The problem with the CL is more the problem of the Euro League which is financially unattractive and provides no safety net financially if a regular CL starter doesn’t qualify.

    If you want to know why league winners are so predictable look at their finances. You will see that for all these clubs (be it Real, Barca, United, City, Chelsea) competition prize money isn’t that big of a factor.

    Also: If you want to, take a look at germany where “new” teams regularily win the league, just by “stepping” up their game. Sure, it’s not just about playing “better” football, so you have to look at the distribution of money in general.

    • http://www.thisisanfield.com This Is Anfield

      German model is completely different due to the 50 plus 1 rule. Nul point.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Jonathan.Khan7 Jon Khan

    Its about time the game became level again. Slap teams like Chelsea, PSG, Manchester City, Anzhi, Zenit (to name a few) with european bans ranging from 5-10 years. Alongside a mandatory balancing of their books. And open up european competition to allow teams to compete again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sam.philpott.5 Sam Philpott

    Not sure i agree with everything in this article as surley adding more teams to the CL would result in CL teams buying even more fringe players to cater for the increased fixture list

    • http://www.thisisanfield.com This Is Anfield

      There wouldn’t be more fixtures!

  • lfc

    4 teams Blackburn have won it aswel if u do an article get all the facts and no I’m not just ranting coz I’m a Blackburn fan I am a red ynwa

    • @Liverpoolways

      He said in the last 17 years mate :-)

    • http://www.thisisanfield.com This Is Anfield

      17 years. So since Blackburn won it. Guessing maths isn’t your strong point.

  • L Shaw

    I do agree “leveling” the field can only help the game. The UEFA changes to CL and UL have pros and cons. Honestly the only way level the field is with a North American salary cap model used by the NFL NBA NHL MLB and NASCAR. And this is not likely to happen as revenue sharing is part and parcel to the salary cap.

  • Henrik

    As a German Liverpool fan, I have mixed feelings about all this talk about extending the CL format and also “dismissing” the Europa League because it’s not lucrative. If you look at the German league champions in the past few years, you will see it’s always been different ones in the gaps of Bayern dominance. Bayern is always up there and a club at the level of all other European “big” clubs, which includes financial power. The thing is that Bayern got to this stage not by getting themselves a nice billionaire who wanted a “play-toy” and therefore invested huge amounts of money into a club (e. g. Man City, Chelsea), but it was hard-earned under long-time manager and now club president Uli Hoeneß. Bayern had won one championship up until their second in 1969 (in 1932) and then suddenly, boom, by doing stuff right they got themselves to the top, never to be removed again. They’re the one and only constant among the contenders for the Bundesliga title. There’s been Borussia Dortmund emerging from the woodwork lately who reached that level through an excellent youth programme and by no means “bought” themselves up there. Aside from that, there are Schalke (no title), Leverkusen (no title), Werder Bremen (2004) and Hamburger SV (no title), Stuttgart (2007) who’ve knocked on the big door in the past ten seasons. Then there were teams like Wolfsburg (2009) who had one good year and then declined, such as various other clubs, who, however, still stick around and are essentially healthy, at least as long as they stay in the top flight. As you can see, it’s all pretty broad behind Bayern and recently Borussia Dortmund, who dominate the Bundesliga. Usually it’s also a really interesting competition, and definitely one of the financially healthiest in the world. That is because of the 50+1 rule that states that a club must maintain at least 51 % of their stakes and can only sell 49 % to an external investor. There are few examples of financially enforced clubs here. One is TSG Hoffenheim, who were “pushed” in the top-flight by patron Dietmar Hopp and had one outstanding half of a season (2008-09) before declining, they never made it to Europe and now battle relegation with dwindling fan interest. A second prominent one is Red Bull Leipzig, but that project is still stuck in the 4th division. There will, however, never be a Russian or Arabian billionaire in the Bundesliga as long as that rule is in place, because they usually want to have complete control of their “toy”. That is not possible in the Bundesliga. This has probably been the reason that the German top flight was not competitive in the last decade in Europe, but at least we’re clean and quite like it that way. In addition to that, in recent years, we’ve finally made it to CL final again in form of Bayern and now suddenly have another promising CL prospect, Borussia Dortmund. And all that while the Bundesliga stays competitive and interesting. Additionally, another contributing factor is that the Bundesliga attendence figures are significantly higher than in any other European football league. It is, in fact, the second highest domestic sports competition (by average visitors per game) in the world, behind the NFL. It got to where it is now during the decade of European uncometitiveness of German teams, so it was usually created by the Bundesliga as a healthy example of a football league. Fan interest, as you can see, is also a factor that “pays off”.

    To the case of the Europa League: In Germany, the EL has a fantastic reputation and every team competing in it strives for the title with the best team they can field. The financial aspect may be a problem, but to German clubs the European glory which has been denied to us in the past decade is a good enough reason to give their best. I cannot see that attitude in England, which, as you might be able to imagine, strikes me as quite ridiculous. The Europa League is a wonderfully competitive competition with a wider range of potential winners than the Champions League. Teams from Portugal, France, Turkey, Scandinavia, Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and so on have found themselves able to compete there – maybe not make it to the final – but far nonetheless. It’s a great competition and English clubs are just about the only ones who don’t take it seriously. Even Spanish and Italian clubs do so. The last two teams who made it to the Europa League/UEFA Cup final were Middlesbrough in 2006 and Fulham in 2010, both of which are small clubs for whom their European campaign was basically an “adventure”. They played into the fun that the Europa League can be and made it far. And aside from all my emotional blabberings, I see the Europa League as the key competition to bring Europe’s smaller nations back into the mixer. It’s really simple actually: Raise the prize and TV funds for the EL and maintain (or even lower) them for the CL. Of course the big clubs will bemoan it, but when more money is “fairly” (as in, not through an external investor) distributed among the smaller nations of Europe and their clubs, it is going to level the playing field slightly in the short term, and even more in the long term. Big investors destroy our game, so we need to share the “corporate” income with the smaller clubs who cannot compete anymore because the lobby of the big clubs is too powerful. TV revenue and other forms of commercialism are not a bad thing and help the sport a great deal, but don’t let the elite clubs have it all for themselves. That will also lower insanely high player wages (I think Samuel Eto’o will be able to make a decent living with less than half of his yearly income of 20 million €). They can earn their money through competitiveness and achievements. Because, after all, that is what football and professional sport in general should be all about.

    • http://www.thisisanfield.com This Is Anfield

      Great response. But the German 50 plus 1 ruling makes their situation completely different to Premier League and all other European leagues.

      • Henrik

        That’s completely true. I just meant to explain the German situation as an example of how it could work (maybe a little too lengthy). Chances are England will never get such a restrictive rule, since most clubs are already controlled by foreign owners. If my point didn’t come across, I would like the competitions to stay as they are, Champions League of 32 and Europa league of 48+8. But I would highly recommend the UEFA to raise the prize fund for the latter drastically, maybe even at the expense of the CL. Because otherwise the problem that was discussed in this article will never be solved. Extending the Champions League would make it way too big, with 16 groups and up to 7 participants of one nation. The CL is meant to be the elite and the EL the rest that still competes in Europe.
        Us Reds are proud of our UEFA Cups, too, aren’t we? I know I am. 2001 in Dortmund, for example, should be up there with Istanbul ’05 in the list of our greatest games. :P We need more of that, but the UEFA will have to finally get something right that is for the greater good and not just for the best.

  • sideshow_bob

    Well said. One thing I would say, though, is that despite constant calls for greater competition, I don’t think a situation were a different team won the EPL every year would be preferable to the current state of affairs. Domination in sport can be just as compelling so long as it is primarily based around sporting factors like Spain’s current domination of International football or Australian domination of cricket a few years ago. They have genuinely taken their sports to a different level. What is certain is that change is required because the CL, prior to the QF stage, is now no better than the Europa League and the entry of the losing CL teams into the Europa League makes a complete mockery of that competition. I think the best solution would be 8 groups of 8 teams that all play each other once with a draw for home or away advantage possibly wit h some kind of minimum quota of home games so nobody has to play 8 away. At least with a group of eight you’ll have more interesting games early on in the competition with four teams from pot one and hopefully more chance for the lesser clubs as these teams take points from one another.

  • Davor

    Problem is, EL winner can get less money than someone who is last in the group in CL. UEFA threw everything into marketing CL and put EL aside. To keep both competitions, something has to change with scheduling and reward money.