This new series of articles entitled ‘Ways to Change the Game’ aims to challenge the structure of the beautiful game. Whilst Sepp Blatter muddles his way through his FIFA presidency like Boris Johnson on a bad day and Michel Platini continues his one-man crusade against the Premier League, COS will be doing their dirty work for them and offerings innovative ways to change the game. First on the hit list is the slowly decaying UEFA Cup.
The UEFA Cup just doesn’t matter anymore. Come the quarterfinal stage teams from the major leagues start to become interested, but before that the competition holds no more allure than the League Cup.
In England teams prioritise the Premiership because of money, field weakened teams and see poor attendances. In 05/06 more Middlesbrough fans saw their team lose to Charlton and Blackburn at home in the Premiership than watched them beat Italian giants Roma. Last season Bolton Wanderers had a genuine chance of making the UEFA Cup quarterfinals after drawing 1-1 with Sporting Lisbon at the Reebok Stadium, but left seven regulars at home for the second leg and lost 0-1. Manager Gary Megson admitted, “We certainly didn’t come here to get beat, but our priority has to be the Premier League,” and then watched his team lose to Wigan the following weekend.
In Italy, Livorno chairman Aldo Spinelli went public in 2006 with his wish that the club would be out of the UEFA Cup sooner rather than later. And in Spain last year, Atlético Madrid’s attendances were typically 10,000 down from La Liga games. The top European leagues, generally, do not care.
And why should they? The prize money is dwarfed by that from the Champions League; AC Milan received €39.6m for winning the 06/07 Champions League, whilst Sevilla received just €6.2m for winning the UEFA Cup in the same season.
What has been done already?
Like a bad itch, UEFA just can’t leave this one alone. The latest attempt at revitalising the competition sees it renamed as the ‘Europa League’ and given a format similar to the Champions League. The current format (including playing some group opponents at home and some away) is hopeless so we must applaud that change, but copying the blueprint for an existing competition is more regurgitation than re-branding.
The format of the competition is tidier and it has a sexy new name, but does that make it any more attractive to win? Of course not, money does. But prize money is directly linked to television revenues, which only start to flow freely when there is true appeal from all the competing nations, as with the Champions League.
How to change the game
Give the winners of the UEFA Cup a Champions League place for the next season. Give them access to the most sought-after pot of money in the game. Give them a reason to compete.
By its nature the UEFA Cup will always have middle-tier European clubs competing, but as a spectacle it would be enhanced seeing such teams grasping for their dream ticket. The original qualifiers would relish the opportunity and the Champions League dropouts would be given a motivation to compete.
The standard of the new teams would not discredit the Champions League; the past five UEFA Cup winners were Zenit St Petersburg, Sevilla, CSKA Moscow, Valencia and Porto, all teams that have played in the Champions League previously.
The attraction of the competition would be restored for teams from the top European leagues, giving them incentive to use their top players. Take one of this year’s qualifiers, Aston Villa: the gulf in the Premier League finances means they still can’t quite break into the top four, but in trying they may view the UEFA Cup as a distraction. With a Champions League place on offer Martin O’Neill would surely be willing to consistently use the likes of Gareth Barry, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young for the competition.
Though the opposition may be unfamiliar, crowds would naturally be more interested in a game of true significance to their club. Fratton Park will be sold out for Portsmouth’s tie with AC Milan, but this would give the fans more reason to cough up for the Heerenveen tie. They thought an FA Cup win was good, but Champions League football would be stupefying.
Frequenters of busy London bars will be familiar with the phrase ‘one-in-one-out’ and that equally applies here. UEFA use a complicated coefficient system to determine how many Champions League places each country receives, but space would be needed to accommodate an extra team (though there are 77 entrants, so this would even up the numbers). Participants from UEFA’s 53 member nations cannot be compromised, so the earlier they enter the competition, the lesser the impact on existing teams.
Villa, Spurs, Man City and Portsmouth fans, would you be more interested in a UEFA Cup with Champions League qualification as a prize? Fans of the big four, could you stomach teams of this calibre in the competition? In the 90s teams savoured the opportunity to travel Europe competing in the European Cup, UEFA Cup or Cup Winners’ Cup, so what more can we do to bring back the prestige?