Uefa locked in battle to appease Big Football

Allocating Euro places on the basis of coefficient moves an unofficial elite away from rest of the game

Sam WallaceTelegraph Media Group Limited

A moment of truth awaits for Aleksander Ceferin, the Uefa president, this week when he must stand up to European football’s most powerful clubs at the Uefa Congress on Tuesday in Vienna and reject the proposal for their back-door, anti-competitive, historical-performance-based coefficient places in the Champions League.

A big week for big football, where the scars of last year’s Super League rebellion are still fresh. At stake is the future of the new Champions League from 2024, the super-sized 36-team Swiss model with the proposal to grant admission for two sides via the dreaded Uefa coefficient.

In other words, if Manchester United or Barcelona miss the four places offered by meritocratic league places, they might just secure them via another route — a fifth-place finish or a cup win.

The European Club Association board meets tomorrow under chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, also the president of Paris St-Germain. If the ECA refuses to budge on the two coefficient places then Ceferin faces the mother of all battles.

For the English clubs involved, the Football Association and the British Government, which has aligned itself to Uefa, this has the potential to become very awkward. While the “Big Six”, who invited all this government oversight with their Super League rebellion, seek to earn ever more from Uefa, it is a different story for the rest. Having endorsed the fan-led review of football by Tracey Crouch MP, the British Government is now demanding the Premier League hands over 25 per cent of its annual revenue to the English Football League at the behest of its chairman, Rick Parry.

No doubt there needs to be some smoothing of the Championship relegation cliff edge but, as ever in football, for every action an unintended consequence. Who will take the greatest hit for Crouch’s redistribution? And who among them can see new, greater revenue streams ahead that will compensate them for the loss?

In a speech to the ECA in February, Al-Khelaifi forecast a rise in revenue of 40 per cent for the post-2024 remodelled Champions League. That would certainly soften the impact of the government-enforced wealth redistribution for Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. They can live with this deal: lose their share of a further eight per cent of Premier League revenue but gain 40 per cent in a European competition that might even come with a qualification safety net.

Sound familiar? It is a version of the Project Big Picture proposal of October 2020 under which the Big Six proposed giving away a little to appease government and the EFL in return for a lot more down the line. Then they wanted an 18-team Premier League, greater voting power and more space in the fixture calendar to play in Europe. They proposed giving away a bit of their domestic revenue — and that of their less wealthy Premier League peers — in return for more money elsewhere — and a lot more power. They lost out when a tide of public anger washed them off their feet. But the idea never went away. Here it is now, barely 18 months on, watered down, repackaged but essentially the same.

Who will feel the greatest effect from the 25 per cent redistribution to the EFL? Primarily the 14 outside the Big Six, and any other lesser lights who seek to join them. The Big Six are already looking at major leaps forward in Champions League earnings and tomorrow will gather to test Ceferin’s authority on the viability of the two coefficient places.

Yet even without the coefficient places, there is the potential in English football alone to create six super-clubs whose power will be such that there will be no more surprises in the Premier League. No more wins for Crystal Place at the Etihad or the unfancied sides who have gone to Old Trafford in recent years and prevailed.

A huge part of Uefa revenue is already distributed to clubs according to their coefficient. In short, if West Ham United had qualified for next season’s Champions League they would have earned a fraction of the pot due to Chelsea or Liverpool because they had no history in the competition.

The Crouch review proposes supporting Uefa competitions — an alliance between government and Uefa that grew out of the Super League rebellion.

But the usefulness of that alliance depends on Uefa standing up to the clubs that led the Super League.

At stake is the heart of the Premier League’s success: its competitiveness on match day. The big teams usually prevail at the end of the season, but not without a fight and some memorable defeats along the way. As with PBP, there was an assumption that the big clubs could have more influence, more earning power — and ultimately greater dominance on the pitch — and broadcast revenues would continue to rise.

It was the greatest miscalculation of all. All leagues in Europe have famous, historic, successful clubs. What makes the Premier League the most compelling is the jeopardy they face and the drama created by a strong league.

“Earn it on the pitch” is the battle-cry of those fans’ groups opposed to Uefa’s changes, and the European Leagues confederation of domestic leagues that seeks to preserve the meritocratic in-season qualification for Uefa competitions. At Uefa Congress this week, Ceferin will have to listen. For English football, the stakes could not be higher. The ghost of PBP and the Super League is there in the confluence of these two new phenomena: the cutting of Premier League revenues and the increase in Champions League earnings for those who already belong to the elite.

The Uefa coefficient places must not be allowed to stand. They represent the drift of an unofficial elite away from the rest of the game. In Europe that means disadvantaging former European Cup winners such as Hamburg SV, Feyenoord, or Celtic — all of whom have one more star on their shirt than PSG. In England, it could put a block on the European ambition of a club such as Nottingham Forest, newly resurgent in the Championship play-offs and with a rich history. Forest and Aston Villa have a greater combined total of European Cups than Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and City.

The Government is ramping up the pressure on Premier League clubs to give away their wealth, emboldened by the popularity of its stance against the Super League. But it should take care to note what Uefa, its old ally, is up to, and how rapidly unpopular ideas are recycled.

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