The expanding centre of European football has just made room for another bulge. A spooked UEFA, still wondering how it can quell plans for a European Super League, announced this week that 'Europa League 2' will start in 2021, a third club competition that will ostensibly democratise continental football.
UEFA President Aleksandr Ceferin, like most administrators, is making the case that introduction of the new competition, whose name is yet to be finalised, is an attempt to spread the riches. "The new UEFA club competition makes UEFA's club competitions more inclusive than ever before. There will be more matches for more clubs, with more associations represented in the group stages. This competition was borne out of ongoing dialogue with clubs through the European Club Association. There was a widespread demand by all clubs to increase their chances of participating more regularly in European competition," argued Ceferin in a statement.
Inclusive is the favourite buzzword of football honchos. The advent of Europa League 2 means that 34 countries, as opposed to the current figure of 26, will feature in the group stage of one of the three continental competitions from 2021, while the winner of the new tournament gets to play in the Europa League as we know it now. A separate timeslot for the competition has been agreed on Thursday afternoon (CET) and it will also feature teams from all the top domestic leagues.
UEFA's confidence is high after its two recent ploys, the Nations League and expansion of the men's European Championship to 24 teams, were received well. But they arose from pathologies of a different. The Nations League replaced the hugely underwhelming international friendlies cycle, while the enlarged Euros offered a variety of flavour from the continent; previously, the teams that represented Europe at the World Cup were almost the same that played in the continental championship.
UEFA's club competitions certainly need to be reformed but that would mean changes far-reaching than mere alterations to the format. The growing difference, in financial terms, between the top 30 clubs in Europe and the rest means that a new tournament is a scant consolation for those on the periphery.
As part of its statement that announced the launch of EL2, UEFA was more than pleased to note that the Champions League will continue unaffected. And if we were to note the recent trend, it becomes apparent that for teams outside the top 10 in Europe it has become increasingly difficult to reach the premier continental tournament. To play the likes of Barcelona in the group stage, some teams already have to negotiate no less than four rounds of playoffs. Once Europa League 2 becomes a reality, the door will be firmly shut for clubs that are not national champions.
Ever since the European Cup was expanded in 1992 to accommodate all of the richest clubs, their interests have been considered paramount. Of course, there was a time when three continental competitions were a reality. That changed when the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup, which ran from 1960 to '99, was merged into the UEFA Cup, the tournament later rebranded as the Europa League. But the last decade has brought murmurs of discontent from continental giants who do not seem very pleased by the proposition of competing against marginal forces in the two tournaments.
Their objection is twofold. First, defeat to a relative minnow can have disastrous consequences for your revenue streams. Just ask Liverpool whose humbling at the hands of Red Star Belgrade has left the English club on the brink of elimination from the group stage, six months after they played the Champions League final. Secondly, the TV ratings for marquee clashes are significantly higher. Of course, if they were to become more frequent"as envisaged in the proposal for a European Super League"we may see a drop in interest. But the escalating value of television rights has given the elite clubs room for hope.
The new competition addresses their concerns to an extent by ensuring that the Europa League, which inevitably sees participation from three or four major European clubs every season, becomes more like the Champions League. From 2021, it will open the door to only the champions from countries outside the top 15 in the UEFA coefficient table. Couple this with the near-reserved spots for the continental elite in the Champions League and you have a scenario where the riff-raff don't even appear when the big boys play.
The 32 teams that will feature in the Europa League 2 group stage will be a mix of those who finish mid-table in top domestic competitions like the Premier League and clubs which participate currently in the Europa League qualifiers or group stage. For example, a club like MOL Vidi FC from Hungary is likely to meet Everton or Leicester City from 2021 instead of Chelsea as is the case in the Europa League this season. The gentrification of European football would be closer to completion then.
Over the years, clubs which are not worth billions of Euros found that the alley that led to the shiny boulevard was closed by the people who claimed to protected them. The Champions League resembles the G-20 more than ever before. The status of the rich is secured, while bread crumbs are handed out to the ones loitering on the edges of European football.
However, the UEFA should recognise the price it may have to pay for facilitating the greed of its biggest clubs. An introduction of new tournaments is only going to whet their appetite. The threat of the European Super League will not disappear; in fact, it is prominent as ever. UEFA, caught between playing the good democrat and also a fixer for its rich friends, could find itself obsolete in the years to come, the way many centrist governments have gone across the continent. In an attempt to speak for everyone, while in reality only deepening the status quo, the UEFA is only fomenting divisions. Its own voice is lost amidst the cacophony of money and inclusivity. When the citadel falls, UEFA may find that nobody would be willing to speak for those who remained silently obsequious.
Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.