‘Intensely political’ Champions League final weekend to decide future of game

‘Intensely political’ Champions League final weekend to decide future of game
This weekend’s showpiece is a “victory lap” for Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin after the doomed Super League, but he must now decide over whether to pursue reforms

Aleksander Ceferin will sit down to a series of official meetings around the Champions League final this weekend, but it is the many “unofficial meetings” that might be far more influential. The Uefa president is going to have a lot of people coming up to him when he is at dinner or at a bar in Porto, all looking to whisper in his ear. Champions League final weekend is described by many involved as the most “intensely political” period in football in normal circumstances, akin to a Roman court.

These aren’t normal circumstances. All of that has been amplified by the Super League crisis, and its ongoing fallout.

The feeling going into this weekend is that it will be a “victory lap” for Ceferin. He is credited as having saved European football, and the return of supporters to the Champions League final – the fixture that was put under most direct threat by the Super League – will be seen as a crowning moment.

The questions should really start when it comes to crowning the winners. First of all, Ceferin is going to have to personally hand over that historic European Cup to one of the Super League conspirators. Added to that, both have been sanctioned for Financial Fair Play breaches in the last few years, while both have ownership models that many other figures in European football have expressed concerns about.

Manchester City would not even have been involved in the competition, of course, had their lawyers not succeeded in overturning some of the penalties for their last breach at the court of arbitration for sport. That entire episode prompted a public relations war, with the English champions’ hierarchy raging about perceived European agendas against them.

It is highly unlikely Ceferin is any way bitter about that, or the idea of handing City this symbolic trophy. His relationship with the club is said to have greatly improved over the past year – particularly after one meeting at the Etihad – to the point there is a real cordiality. Some of that could be seen in his message of gratitude when they became the first to formally withdraw from the Super League, after Chelsea declared their intention to do so.

His relationship with some of the other super clubs as institutions is as strong as ever.

Most are about to get what they want, after all.

They are about to get what many in European football are describing as a “Super Champions League” – merely an institutionalised Super League, with Uefa’s stamp of approval.

One of the conditions of the “super weak” punishments for the nine restored rebels was that they had to sign up to support the Champions League plans for after 2024. That is what many sources say is “effectively the Super League by the back door”, and what they wanted anyway.

Some at the top of the game have been stunned by how quickly Uefa have just charged ahead with all this, as if nothing has happened – and against the stated wishes of many supporters as well as players and coaches. The spirit of solidarity – so brilliantly articulated by Ceferin on that Monday – seems to have faded at the very top.

Aleksander Ceferin embraces Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the Europa League final in Gdansk

It is why this weekend shouldn’t so much be a victory lap, but a forum to again ask the road that European football is on.

The key question is whether a unique opportunity for true reform has already been squandered, to instead only strengthen the status quo, and actually institutionalise the problems that led to the Super League in the first place.

They haven’t gone away. It is why it is timely that one of those official meetings will be Thursday’s end-of-season Club Advisory Platform. Organised by the European Leagues body and hosted by La Liga, it will feature the heads of all the main competitions, from Richard Masters to Javier Tebas.

The issue also goes way beyond some of the more unpopular changes to the Champions League, such as the co-efficient-based qualifying spots, the nature of the group stage or even extra games.

Of far greater consequence is that, as it stands, 30% of the prize money from the Champions League will be based on previous performance. Clubs who have won it a certain number of times will get more just by being in it, in what is described as almost being like “royalties”. It means that the likes of Leicester City and Atalanta would greatly struggle to get as much as the Super League clubs, no matter how they do.

“It’s money just for showing up,” one source says. “It’s insane.”

Added to that is Uefa’s £5bn refinancing proposal from Centricus, which would allow clubs to borrow loans at low interest rates. While that will negate one of the main motivations for the Super League for some of the clubs – the need for short-term cash – it has simultaneously been likened to the JP Morgan fund at the core of the breakaway competition.

It is easy to see what would happen from all of this: more money to the biggest clubs, and institutionalisation of the financial disparity that is so disrupting.

That unequal distribution of resources remains the source of almost all of European football’s problems. That applies to everything from more predictable domestic leagues to outsized clubs looking to break away, as well as the game becoming attractive to interests – both financial and political – that aren’t primarily concerned with the welfare of the sport.

There are calls for Uefa to impose reforms amid the doomed Super League, which was pushed by Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez

It is no coincidence that a pandemic-stretched season has seen the two clubs who spent the most last summer – and who have such well-funded owners – reach the campaign’s showpiece finale.

Rather than attempting to reform such problems, Uefa are in danger of ratifying them.

Through that, the European governing body may go down an entirely different route to the domestic leagues, where the Super League has prompted a genuine spirit of change.

It raises even bigger questions.

Among them is why Uefa have remained so beholden to this “Super Champions League” plan, and why there is still such a strict alliance with the European Club Association [ECA]. Many figures in continental football believe there was also a missed opportunity to restructure the latter body as an organisation run by the small- and medium-sized clubs.

“There might be new names at the top of the ECA, but the nature doesn’t change,” one source says. “Clubs will always ultimately pursue their individual interests. They don’t have the same concern for the ecosystem – and they still have the power.

That still begs the question of why Ceferin isn’t pushing through reforms he is supposed to be in favour of.

Some feel it may be a hangover from his strategic approach to managing Uefa over the last few years, which was mainly to deal with Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli and five or six major clubs. That was despite many people imploring him to consult a wider base of people in football – which is why the unofficial meetings of this week may be so important – only for Ceferin to insist otherwise. The thinking was that he could control the big clubs, redistribute a good portion of the money and keep the rest happy – only for that to blow up in his face. It was just the Super League explosion was quickly followed by an implosion of similar scale. The whole situation ended up working to Ceferin’s advantage, seemingly strengthening his position, but many of the wider forces are still at play.

“He probably doesn’t want to have to do this,” one figure who knows Ceferin well says. “I’m sure he doesn’t want to have funds for the big clubs to bail them out, but he thinks he’s locked into this system.”

The Super League collapse should have offered the opportunity to break that very system. That is why there is such frustration among some key football figures.

The Super League and post-2024 discussions aren’t really watershed moments in themselves, but really reflect the inevitable tremors as the game transitions from the football of now to the football of the future, 10 to 15 years from now. That period will inevitably involve shifts in technology and viewing habits, in terms of how people consume the game. Some of this did come up in the Super League talks, even if figures like Andrea Agnelli and Florentino Perez wildly spun the information for their own purposes.

The key issue is that this is going to lead to another land grab, especially with the “immature” football markets where there is huge scope for growth, like the USA and parts of Asia. There are three major groups eyeing this for different reasons. They are the super clubs, Fifa and Uefa. There are different potential routes to that – a breakaway Super League; a reformed Champions League; an expanded Club World Cup.

The future of European football will be at stake surrounding Manchester City vs Chelsea in Porto

So much of the current politics, and principally those around Uefa’s premier competition, come from this.

It is why the schedule and calendar have been such topics of debate. The various groups are essentially fighting over the same spaces: the players and the calendar.

This is also where many in the game raise questions about the roles of Uefa and Fifa. They are governing bodies, but they are also competition organisers, that oddly put them in competition with some of their stakeholders as well as each other – while being able to set rules for the domestic competitions.

“That can lead to contradictions and conflicts,” in the words of one involved figure.

There is still suspicion about Fifa’s view on the Super League, with Tebas the most prominent to articulate the view they actually supported it. It is meanwhile definitively known that the global body see the amount of money the Champions League makes and want their own version in an expanded Club World Cup.

The European competition is responsible for most of Uefa’s revenues, which come in at roughly £3bn a year.

Uefa have creditably set up a ‘Convention on the Future of European Football’ that is set to bring the various stakeholders together to discuss all this. General Secretary Giorgio Marchetti has meanwhile said there is plenty of time to discuss the proposed post-2024 changes before they’re implemented. It would be a huge positive if fan groups can use this convention for tangible actions to be taken.

Others believe the exercise is also an attempt to outmanoeuvre Fifa on the issues of the calendar and the Club World Cup.

The big clubs meanwhile ideally want their domestic league as well as a guaranteed Champions League place – with as much money up front as possible – and also an additional summer competition. Fifa would want that to be a Club World Cup every year.

It is why many in the game see an eventual compromise that involves this expanded Champions League, as well as a watered-down Club World Cup that would almost be the “Champions League on tour” while replacing the International Champions Cup.

It’s easy to see how that would go, too, though. The major clubs would be earning so much money, on top of the Champions League itself, that it only further fosters the sense of a Super League by another name.

No one else would be able to keep up.

Surveying all of this with interest are a number of special-purpose acquisition funds specifically set up to look at opportunities in football. The space will open for private equity.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” one source says.

It is all why there is such a need for regulation, for reform.

The opportunity is there. Whether the will is there remains to be seen. People are going to be coming at Ceferin from all angles this weekend. Whatever happens will decide the direction of the future of European football.

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