In the press conference that followed a two-day special general assembly in Malta, European Clubs’ Association (ECA) chairman Andrea Agnelli was asked if he could say something, anything, that would give clarity to the intended revamp of European club football.
A few minutes earlier, a couple of Agnelli’s colleagues on the ECA board had said professional football in some smaller nations “could die” if the situation did not change.
Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar had spoken of the impossibility of constructing a squad given that between the middle of July and the end of August his budget from European football could fluctuate from anything between £50m and nothing.
Yet, away from the room in Malta’s Intercontinental Hotel where Agnelli and Van der Sar were speaking, others were telling a different story. These included Bernard Caiazzo, president of French side St-Etienne. “The meeting in Malta was a step forward for the efforts to block the reform,” he said.
Among the Premier League delegation, including senior representatives of the top six clubs who flew in together from their own meeting in Yorkshire on Wednesday, different assessments were also being offered.
One said clearly, “Change is coming whether we like it or not”, another argued there was nothing wrong with the status quo and any alterations would have a negative impact on the domestic competition.
Agnelli, who between now and the end of the year has to try and deliver something tangible, steered a neutral course.
“I adore the fact you want clarity but you will have to be patient,” he answered.
What’s the problem?
Many of Europe’s clubs are unhappy. It has been established that 90% of the total domestic broadcasting revenue across all leagues goes to clubs in the big five countries – England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. For overseas broadcasting revenue, the figure rises to 95%.
Beyond that, in the big five leagues, around 50% of overall income comes through TV deals, with 10% coming from various areas of distribution from Europe’s governing body, Uefa. Lower down the scale, almost all income comes through Uefa. In countries like Finland and Poland for instance, qualification for any European competition is a big deal.
Yet even then, there is a negative. If, for instance, a Polish team reaches the group phase of the Champions League, the finances it generates distort their domestic market. Legia Warsaw’s appearance in the 2016-17 group stage was an achievement no other Polish club had managed for 20 years. It coincided with Legia winning five Ekstraklasa titles in six, something that has not happened in living memory.
ECA vice-chairman Aki Riihilahti, a former Crystal Palace player and current HJK Helsinki president, made a bleak prediction: “If we continue as we are, professional football in countries like ours will slowly die.”
Uefa and the ECA want to address the imbalance.
Over 200 clubs, from all levels of the professional game, came together in Malta to begin the process of trying to find a solution. Evidently, the TV deals of individual leagues cannot be touched, so the idea is to create a new formula for European football that generates more income and provides more opportunity to play.
The working idea is, from 2024, to have three tiers of competition, all of which contain four groups of eight teams. There would be promotion and relegation between each tier, with the lowest tier providing additional opportunity for clubs outside the richest leagues to play in meaningful European competition beyond a couple of qualifying rounds, as is the case at the moment.
What do the Premier League think of this plan?
Not a lot. On Wednesday, the league released a statement saying it was united in its opposition to the proposed reforms.
It said the changes would be “detrimental to domestic leagues across the continent”.
This does not tell the whole story.
Premier League clubs do not see why they should be penalised for being popular. In addition, they are keen to protect their status as the world’s richest league. Within the organisation, the widespread feeling is that a finite amount of global TV income exists. The aim of an expanded European competition would be to generate more TV cash. Premier League clubs feel if that happened, they would be the ones to lose out.
There is also confusion about how many clubs England would have in each competition. A country cap is bound to be applied but if this was set at four, as is the case currently, and teams who reach the Europa League semi-finals were promoted, it would be massively complicated should the results of this season be repeated when, in theory, Chelsea and Arsenal would expect to be promoted to the Champions League in place of England’s lowest performing clubs. This season that was Manchester City and Manchester United, both of whom reached the quarter-finals, with City winning the Premier League with a huge number of points for a second successive season.
In addition, there is scepticism about where the additional eight matchdays required for a 14-game group phase would come from. One idea is to play European matches on weekends but that is something the Premier League would not agree to.
An alternative would be to scrap the EFL Cup, changing the face of England’s domestic season.
Reducing the number of international breaks but incorporating more matches in the ones that remain is also being discussed by world governing body FIFA, which would alter the present international calendar from 2024.
What happens now?
A number of sources from all different areas of the game said the workshops that took place over the two days in Malta were beneficial, especially so on Friday when representatives of the bigger clubs mixed with their counterparts at the smaller ones.
One said “forthright views” were expressed, which at least brought issues out into the open.
In the short term, a number of member forums will be set up before an executive board meeting, probably in Liverpool around the start of the Premier League season, to try and come up with some solutions or changes to get everyone on board. The next key date is 11 September, when the ECA will meet with representatives of Uefa and the European Leagues.
By that point, it is anticipated an outline plan will exist that can be tweaked before it goes back to Uefa on 20-21 November, potentially for ratification.
If the last two days is anything to go by, a lot of work lies ahead.
Agnelli knew what he was doing when he asked for patience.