The land of make believe

SOMETIMES, it feels as though football is on the road to self-destruction, that the ideas, formats and decisions being formulated are not necessarily made in the interests of the game as a whole, its future or sustainability.

Notwithstanding the madcap decisions made around hosting World Cups, or the bloated and low quality concept of a 48-team competition, club football seems hell-bent on marginalising large segments of the European game.

The European Club Association (ECA) has just hosted its general assembly in Amsterdam and some of the news coming out of that event should concern anyone who cares about the future of football across the continent.

Just consider FIFA’s plans for a 24-team Club World Cup, which currently has little support from the ECA or its chairman, Andrea Agnelli, who is also the president of Juventus.

The ECA members have openly said they will not support FIFA’s plan, all except Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, who are enthused by the idea of a lucrative global competition.

Agnelli pointed out that he couldn’t commit on the subject as there were scant details around access to the competition – in other words, how would clubs gain admission to the Club World Cup? FIFA’s draft proposal is eight teams from Europe, six from South America and the rest spread across the othger confederations. Eight from Europe – it’s not difficult to imagine that there is going to be an almighty bunfight over who gets into the pool. It’s equally clear that Europe’s big guns will kick and scream in a bid to get eight increased to 10 or 12. That’s why Europe, essentially, is currently cold on the subject – that and perhaps the fact that another summer tournament will compromise their ability to go on money-spinning global tours to “expand the franchise”.

How FIFA will determine how it fills its competition will be interesting. Because of its likely frequency, it will be difficult to use one season’s UEFA Champions League performance to select the entrants. And then, undoubtedly, there will be the sense of entitlement that some clubs will feel should give them automatic qualification.

FIFA and UEFA are surely nervous right now, just a few months after the Football Leaks exposure of clandestine European Super League discussions. Conspiracy theorists might believe that these negotiations were merely aimed at finessing changes to the UEFA Champions League that benefitted the European elite.

Change is coming to the UEFA Champions League in the next five years but the most worrying aspect of the few details available is talk of eventually making the Champions League a weekend event with domestic leagues going midweek to clear the decks on Saturdays and Sundays. The initial phase is said to be shifting the latter stages to a weekend, quarter-finals onwards but ultimately, there is pressure to move the entire competition to weekends.

This is a clear indication of where football’s top clubs feel their priorities are, but it also shows little regard for the bigger picture. Why do it when the Champions League sells itself and has good attendances, high-level marketing and valuable TV deals locked-in. Admittedly, prime-time TV on a Saturday would command even more money, but this could literally destroy domestic football in many mid-range European countries. Attendances will be lower and leagues will be in danger of losing the Pavlov’s dog aspect of football support. How can this possible improve competitive balances?

It could be that the authorities and the bigger clubs may just feel that it is not much of a risk decimating football in, for example, Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria and Belgium, to name but four countries. But if you consider that football is an eco-system, a giant food-chain, then the health of the supply chain and even the smallest minnows should be of great concern. Compare it, if you will, to the potential of having no insects to pollenate plants that contribute to the food chain. We are only just realising that you ignore the microbe at your peril!

It has been said, though, that football’s elite will, regardless of the longer-term effect, defend their own interests, even if their objectives do not coincide with those of the majority, although they might need the consent of the masses to get their own way.

 

Let’s be clear, the UEFA Champions League is a compelling event, representing the highest quality football on the planet. But it should not eradicate the game’s great gifts – aspiration, unpredictability and romance. Creating closed shops, monopolies and protected species will, ultimately, turn people away from football – and where will we be without that?

Photo: PA

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