August 29 – Ahead of today’s draw Ajax Amsterdam, Club Brugge and Slavia Prague have completed the 32-team playing field of the Champions League, a competition whose future format will decide the direction of European football.
Last season Ajax reached the last four of Europe’s prime club competition the hard way, defeating Austria’s Sturm Graz 5-1 on aggregate in the second round of qualifying in June before progressing from the group stages and taking Europe by storm. The Dutch eliminated heavyweights Real Madrid and Juventus before exiting amid dramatic scenes against Tottenham, but their youthful side gained plaudits across Europe.
On Wednesday the Amsterdam outfit defeated Apoel Nicosia 2-0, enough to regain entry to the Champions League. In Monaco they will join Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Shakhtar Donetsk, Tottenham and Benfica in Pot 2. Pot 1 contains the three other English clubs – Manchester City, Chelsea and defending champions Liverpool.
England dominated last season’s European club competitions with two all-English finals in UEFA’s club competitions. Jurgen Klopp’s team defeated Tottenham 2-0 in Madrid to win the Champions League. Three days earlier, Chelsea and a departing Eden Hazard had ran riot against London rivals Arsenal 4-1 in Baku, a venue that proved unpalatable for English fans.
This year’s Champions League participants can count on a prize pot of €1.95 billion. The European governing body generates €3.25 billion in revenue from broadcasting and commercial sales across its two club competitions. This year’s final will be staged in Istanbul where Liverpool won one of the most-dramatic European club finals in history against AC Milan and where Klopp’s eleven kicked off the current season with a European Super Cup win over Chelsea. Whoever triumphs in the Turkish capital should receive at least €100 million in prize money. All 32 participants will get around €15.25 million from playing in the competition.
As the draw looms and the Champions League kicks into another gear, the future of the flagship competition and its commercial implications however remain in doubt. From 2024 onwards the Champions League format is set to be changed, but the concern among the wider European football family is that 24 teams would automatically retain their place in the competition, regardless of their results in the domestic league, in effect almost transforming the Champions League into a closed competition, excluding smaller clubs, like Ajax or this season’s debutants Atlanta Bergamo, from participating in the prime competition and sharing in the prize pot.
Earlier this month UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin postponed talks with the European Clubs Association, the ECA, and the European Leagues body scheduled for September 11. He said that “a new discussion now would be premature as we are analyzing feedback and proposals coming from different parties.”
For now fairy tales, like Ajax making the semi-finals, remain a possibility, but, irrespective of which club wins the biggest prize in club football next spring in Turkey, European football finds itself at a crossroads.
Pot 1: Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit St. Petersburg.
Pot 2: Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Shakhtar Donetsk, Tottenham, Ajax, Benfica.
Pot 3: Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, Salzburg, Olympiakos, Club Brugge, Valencia, Inter Milan, Dinamo Zagreb.
Pot 4: Lokomotiv Moscow, Genk, Galatasaray, Leipzig, Slavia Prague, Red Star Belgrade, Atalanta, Lille.
Nota bene: Russian and Ukrainian teams will be kept apart due to political tensions, meaning that Zenit St Petersburg and Lokomotiv Moscow can’t be paired with Donetsk. in 2014 UEFA imposed that rule following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1580062064labto1580062064ofdlr1580062064owedi1580062064sni@o1580062064fni1580062064