Once a giant of European football, AC Milan have struggled in the past few seasons and as a result do not feature in this year’s Champions League. Given their absence and the loss of revenue they would have received having participated; AC Milan Director Umberto Gandini has called for changes to be made to the qualification process for the Champions League with the introduction of a wildcard or other access routes to be established. He believes that the tournament is weaker for not including a team of the size and prestige of AC Milan. Whilst one of the most successful teams in European football over the past 50 years, Gandini’s suggestions are absurd along with the notion that Milan should be given access based not on result but on who they are. Currently Italy has three places for Europe’s top club tournament, two automatically placed into the group stages and the third going into the play offs. Milan finished last season in 8th place, 21 points off of the Champions league places so to suggest they should gain entry into the tournament would make a mockery of the system as a whole. However the underlining notion posed by Gandini is correct, that the Champions League tournament can be improved.
Like the European Championships, UEFA President Michel Platini has desires to alter and improve on the existing Champions League format although it’s not clear how he intends to do this. In 2012 amidst concerns that Europe’s top clubs would form a breakaway tournament to compete with the Champions League, UEFA under Platini’s instructions started to look at ways to improve both UEFA run tournaments, the Champions League and Europa league. His initial idea was to scrap the poorer of the two, the Europa League in favour of a new look 64 team Champions Cup. Whilst this idea was never put into practice, it has still not been dismissed and could be executed at any time. The existing format is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world, drawing huge viewing figures globally as well as large advertiser dollars. For this reason Platini is conflicted, wanting only to make adjustments that he thinks will see increases in both viewers and revenues.
So what changes could be made? The name itself needs to be changed as ironically the new format bares more resemblance to a European Cup than a competition for Champions. The original idea was for a tournament to exist for the champions of each country but soon it became apparent that the advertisers and viewers wanted to watch two runners up such as Barcelona and Liverpool more than actual champions like Ludogorets Razgrad and APOEL. This led to the opening up of the tournament to include not only Champions but the runners up in Europe’s big five leagues – England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. Arguably the change made the tournament more exciting to watch but to the same effect it has made it harder for sides outside of the top five leagues to qualify and compete. Take the example of Slovenia champions Maribor who find themselves in this year’s Champions League group stage with three tricky sides – Chelsea, Sporting Lisbon and Schalke all of whom were runners up in their respective leagues. So far they have held their own however qualifying from the group looks unlikely given the strength of the other three. Added into this, Maribor had to qualify for the group stages via the play offs where as the other three gain automatic entry.
This favoritism towards what is seen as the money makers of European football is driving a wedge between those in the top five (plus a handful of other teams like Benfica, Ajax and Sporting) and the rest of Europe. UEFA is hoping to correct the balance by giving Champions of individual countries higher seeding during the drawing process as of next season. Previously teams were ranked on their European performances over the last five years which given the above mentioned problem was a flawed way of ranking teams. This may go some way to narrow the gap but in truth the damage has already been done with former European powerhouses like Steaua Bucharest, Celtic and Red Star Belgrade further away from challenging for honours than ever before. Platini has been vocal about helping smaller countries qualify for major international tournaments but has yet to come out in support of the same principles for club sides. Money talks and unfortunately it also controls how the Champions League will look going forward. Platini can ill afford to annoy advertisers who are investing in Europe’s biggest club tournament but at the same time he can’t afford to isolate the clubs that are making it so successful. Any changes that are made will need to be done with the blessing of both to maintain the status quo. What this means for the viewers however and what they will be watching is anyone’s guess.