clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

UEFA's plans to scrap the Europa League and expand the Champions League are worth considering

UEFA's plans for reform to the Europa League and Champions League might actually be a good idea.

Alex Grimm

UEFA's suggestion that they may be doing away with the Europa League and expanding the Champions League to 64 teams has been met with largely the same response everywhere: Well, yes, the Europa League is a terrible tournament, but expanding the Champions League to more teams is a bad idea. On this we have reached an instant consensus, much like the general response to everything UEFA suggest seems to be a universal "You what? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

There's been an idea popularised in recent years that the Europa League could instead be instantly saved with one change: by giving a Champions League place to the winner. Yep, that's it. This, apparently, will revolutionise a flaccid tournament into an epic continental struggle, replete with spectacle, amazement, and larks. It's an idea so stupid that it barely warrants a response, but nonetheless, here goes.

The problem with the Europa League is not, in fact, that big teams are uninterested in it. That's the exact opposite of its problem. The problem is that there is a huge gulf around Europe between the top three or four clubs in every country and everyone else - in other words, between the Champions League and the Europa League. This is a problem because a few of these higher-tier teams invariably find themselves in the Europa League sometimes, therefore ensuring that the competition always has a handful of teams in it that don't need to try in order to coast to the latter stages.

In the past twenty years, these are the teams that have won the Europa League: Ajax. Juventus. Inter, twice. Parma, twice. Bayern. Schalke. Galatasaray. Liverpool. Feyenoord. Porto, twice. Valencia. CSKA Moscow. Sevilla, twice. Zenit. Shakhtar. Atletico Madrid, twice. These are big clubs, folks. Not teams that are going to find it worthwhile slogging through a huge tournament to get a Champions League place they'll probably get in the league anyway - for the top teams in the Europa League are invariably only there by accident, having had a calamitous group stage or a particularly disastrous season, and will soon be back in the Champions League where they belong.

So, saving the Europa League is not as simple as that. Getting rid of the rule that lets Champions League teams that finish 3rd in their group join in would be a start. So would making the whole thing a knockout tournament. Both of these ideas, however, are never going to be sanctioned by UEFA, who know that games mean money, so scrapping it altogether is the most likely solution we're going to get, and it's not a completely awful one.

Another objection is that increasing the Champions League to 64 teams is the first step to a fabled European Super League, the terrible behemoth that will inevitably swallow football's pure and innocent soul and - the horror! - leave us with a game in which money talks, and all clubs aren't run by fan collectives, as they apparently are now.

Again, nonsense - the only other people talking about a European New World Order are the Alex Joneses and David Ickes of this world, and it's in this company that these people belong. A European Superleague is not profitable and never will be, and has been laughed off at every occasion it's been mentioned to people who have the clout to make it happen. The only people who ever talk about it are people from small clubs who wouldn't even get in it anyway - idiots like Charles Green of Rangers, pushing the delusion that Barcelona and Real Madrid are desperate to be going to Glasgow of a weekend rather than La Coruna, much in the same way that the man who pushed the idea of abolishing promotion and relegation from the Premier League was Bolton Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside, apparently under the belief his club's application would not be greeted with mirth and disdain.

Mostly, the idea is ridiculous because the reason people hate the idea of a European Superleague is that it entrenches football's wealth among the top clubs. Expanding the Champions League does the opposite of that - it opens up a lucrative revenue stream to a much broader group of clubs. Think of the introduction of the playoffs to the English Championship - before, there were only a handful of teams who could hope to keep the requisite consistency over a season to earn promotion. But if you only have to finish 7th, rather than 3rd, then suddenly just having a decent season and going on a good run at the right time is enough to get you promoted. The result is that most teams in the Championship know they are in with an outside shout of promotion, and the results have been excellent: Premier League riches expanded to a wider group of clubs, and a far more exciting and unpredictable league in the 2nd tier.

Replicating this in Europe is not a bad idea by any stretch of the imagination. It will make for a few more dull games, of course, but the wider picture is better. You might point out that Roy Hodgson's Fulham and Alan Pardew's Newcastle don't have a realistic hope of winning the Champions League, but it misses the point - they get rewarded for their fine work in the Premier League, thus allowing them to keep hold of their players and progress as a club. It stops leagues from becoming the two-tiered monstrosities they are now, where nobody outside perennial Champions League qualifiers is permitted to keep a team together for long enough to actually improve and change the football landscape.

The future for lesser teams may not be in the Europa League anyway. There was some excitement two months ago when it was revealed that the former states of Yugoslavia were considering putting aside their differences and coming together to bring back their old league - unfortunately, an error in translation had given people a false impression - in reality, they just wanted to create a sort of mini-tournament for Eastern European teams. But after the initial disappointment, it's still probably a good idea - regional multinational club tournaments are going to be a lot more competitive and interesting than seeing Widzew Lodz lose 8-0 to Porto reserves on a Thursday night.

Perhaps we're just so used to UEFA coming out with the most horrible stuff every single week that people are just dismissing the idea out of hand, but there are few arguments to suggest that this would be a bad idea in the greater scheme of things. We may, for once, be moving in the right direction. Now, if we could have a look at bringing back the Anglo-Italian cup...