By now we've all seen the comments from Michel Platini which have indicated that UEFA may be willing to reconsider the rule which has seen Chelsea FC qualify for next season's Champions League at the expense of poor Tottenham Hotspur. After Chelsea reached the semifinal stage of the competition and were in real danger of missing the top four, many fans of other clubs were forced into a real dilema of who to cheer for in the Champions League. While some fans (certainly not all) would have supported Chelsea due to their domestic ties, many were now forced into cheering for clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona (ugh) as they attempted to preserve their own interests.
Tottenham were the unfortunate 4th place finishers who will now be demoted to the Europa League, and with that demotion they'll receive far less financial reward for their fairly solid season. That's potentially the most damaging part of this whole situation for them, as that extra income could be the key to that club adding a piece or two that solidifies them as a legitimate powerhouse in England. As it stands, they now have to worry about their two best players leaving for greener (and richer) pastures. With that in mind, I've decided I'd pass along my two cents on the matter at hand. It's a complicated matter, as there are not many ways to settle this type of issue without leaving somebody feeling shortchanged. That said, I have a very unorthodox idea that I feel would make just about everybody happy.
Since Platini took over, one of the goals of UEFA was to give more teams from the smaller leagues around Europe and opportunity to participate in the group stages of the Champions League. While they've been very successful in that regard, it's come at the expense of some clubs from Europe's middle tier leagues. The non-champions route of qualifying for the group stage eliminates some very good teams every year, and those teams then see no part of the Champions League money. This also results in some lower quality teams reaching the group stage, watering down the competition and increasing the likelihood that the biggest clubs in Europe advance. The rich get richer, and often times it helps to expand an already monumental gap at the top of many domestic leagues.
Those clubs who come up just short are further punished by being entered into the Europa League. They are treated to the same sort of fixture congestion that Champions League squads will face, but the monetary reward for actually winning this competition is so minimal that clubs are better off playing their reserves in the Europa League and concentrating on qualifying for the Champions League domestically. To top that all off, winning Europe's junior varsity showcase doesn't even earn clubs a spot in the qualifying rounds of the next season's real tournament, they are simply treated to an exhibition against the reigning champs with a relatively minimal prize involved.
So here's my thought for Michel Platini...just scrap the Europa League entirely. Many teams don't give a damn anyway, and it's television ratings pale in comparison to the Champions League. Instead of stretching UEFA's resources to run 2 tournaments at the same time, just expand the Champions League. As it stands, you have 64 teams participating in the group stages of European football. Instead of running 2 tournaments, combine them into 1. Simply make 16 groups of 4 in the Champions League with the top 2 teams from every group advancing to the knockout rounds. This would create 1 extra round in the Champions League knockout phase, but it would be exactly the same number of fixtures as the current Europa League format runs.
So who would this proposal help? That's not really hard to see at all. By doubling the number of teams that make the group stage while only slightly increasing the overall financial pot, you'd be distributing the wealth to a much larger group of clubs. Serial Europa-ists such as Tottenham and Everton would actually see a financial reward for their excellent work in building their squad, and just as many clubs from the smaller leagues throughout Europe would still see their cut of the Champions League pie. Sure it's a smaller chuck of change with double the number of teams, but sacrifices have to be made. With more teams qualifying for the group stage, more players would also get an opportunity to experience the competition without changing clubs. These types of clubs would now gain an edge in keeping their most talented and still mostly content players.
So who would this proposal hurt exactly? Well, big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Chelsea would likely be the biggest losers. These elite clubs regularly get to take a very large slice of a very large financial pie, that would not be likely to change. That slice would get smaller though, as more clubs would be allowed to put their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. The financial rewards of the Champions League would still exist, but they wouldn't be creating the same gap between the top teams in Europe and the next tier of clubs. That money would be distributed far more evenly, giving many smaller clubs like Aston Villa an actual belief that they could one day rise to the level of an Arsenal by simply making sound financial decisions. It's amazing to imagine what a well run club would be able to do with more money at their disposal. It would also be interesting to see teams' approach to domestic cups if winning them meant a spot in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.
There are clear problems with the current competitive balance in many clubs around Europe, and this alone won't completely change that. What it will do, however, is take a step towards reducing the financial gap between the top clubs in Europe and the next tier of clubs, increasing the amount of money available for the game overall. While clubs like PSG and Chelsea will still have rich owners who are likely to spend as they wish, clubs like Fulham and Atletico Madrid will have increased spending power as well. All this will cost UEFA is the elimination of a tournament that nobody watches anyway...