By Andrew Warshaw
May 8 – A “vast majority” of European clubs are against the idea of overhauling the Champions League and introducing a system of promotion and relegation.
That was the view expressed Tuesday by the man running the umbrella body representing Europe’s leagues as the war of words over changes to the format of Europe’s most prestigious club competition intensified.
Despite a plea by their own body, the European Clubs Association (ECA), to boycott a meeting in Madrid hosted by the European Leagues, almost 250 clubs from across 38 countries turned up in the Spanish capital for talks on the controversial proposals that have caused fierce disagreement and resentment.
The ECA, via its president Andrea Agnelli, have long argued that its members support discussions with UEFA about radically changing the format of European competitions beyond 2024, with more matches between elite clubs in what would be the most widescale shake-up for a generation.
Not so, countered European Leagues president Lars-Christer Olsson.
The leagues want to make sure more domestic winners can have direct access to the Champions League instead of having to go through more qualifying rounds with fewer chances to reach the lucrative group stage. This stance, Olsson said, was backed by most clubs across the Continent.
“I can say with a lot of confidence that the vast majority of the clubs at this meeting today were saying they are not in favour of a development outlined by the ECA president,” Olsson said. “They don’t want to see promotion and relegation, they don’t want a pyramidal system and they don’t want a closed league in Europe.”
“A lot of clubs made their position very clear, including clubs and representatives from ECA,” Olsson, a former CEO of UEFA, told a news conference. “The outcome of the meeting is that we were strengthened in our idea that we are representing almost 1,000 clubs in Europe. We share the same views over the future of club competitions.”
Agnelli, who sits with Olsson on the UEFA executive committee, attended Tuesday’s meeting in his role as Juventus boss even though he was the one who had asked the clubs not to show up. ECA members are due to gather separately on June 6-7 in Malta to discuss the proposals.
Agnelli wrote to ECA officials last month criticizing the European Leagues for trying to preserve the “status quo.”
“We are not against change,” Olsson insisted, “but we have significant concerns if that change should be based on what is released by Agnelli in his letter to the clubs. We think we are now in a critical position when it comes to the development of European club football. We have to negotiate and find solutions.”
“The domestic competitions have to be the basis for international competitions. You should qualify for UEFA competitions via domestic leagues. If you don’t do that, it’s impossible to retain interest among fans. Domestic competitions are the backbone of fans’ interest.”
ECA vice chairman Edwin van der Sar, representing Ajax at Tuesday’s meeting, told reporters that speculation about a closed league or playing weekend games in European competitions were wide of the mark but added: “To develop European football, it’s important to play more interesting and meaningful games and sometimes that doesn’t happen in the leagues.”
“All things evolve and European football needs to evolve also,” said the former Ajax, Juventus and Manchester United goalkeeper, citing a third-tier UEFA competition that kicks off in 2021. “The process is open but there must be some guidelines. You can’t have 60 different voices talking about one competition. You can’t please everybody.”
The ECA has already met with UEFA leadership to discuss the proposed changes and Olsson was leading a European Leagues delegation to UEFA’s offices in Switzerland today.
The Madrid summit was organised by the Spanish league whose outspoken president Javier Tebas said the proposed overhaul would affect “the entire football industry.”
“It is not possible to make reforms without the agreement of the leagues,” he said. “It is imperative that leagues and clubs, small and large, engage and do not let anyone take decisions for them.”
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