The prospect of top-flight Scottish games being staged on the same nights as Champions League fixtures, possibly as early as next season, has moved a significant step forward in what would be the biggest shake-up of European club football for years.
Europe’s top leagues, including the SPFL, voted overwhelmingly on Friday to hand UEFA a six-month deadline to unpick controversial changes to the Champions League that will increase the financial gap between the haves and have-nots.
Under the three-season deal struck between UEFA and Europe’s biggest clubs starting in 2018, more group stage places will be set aside for teams from the top four leagues and fewer for clubs from smaller leagues, partly to stave off the threat of a closed-door super league. Additionally, a club’s coefficient in terms of how it has performed historically in European competition will determine how much money it receives.
Until now, under an agreement between UEFA and the leagues, domestic top-flight fixtures have been outlawed whenever Champions League fixtures take place.
But the so-called Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) will be ripped up if UEFA continues to bend to the demands of the continent’s elite clubs and refuses to amend the changes by mid-March next year, allowing individual leagues to schedule games as they see fit.
Last night, SPFL chief Neil Doncaster repeated previous warnings that the move was no idle threat. “There are a number of big clubs who are clearly looking to force through a European super league. It’s very serious and the whole thing is in the melting pot,” Doncaster, left, told Scotland on Sunday. “There is now a very clear deadline by which a new MoU needs to be put together.
“At a time when the principles that underpin European football – ie, access to European competition being based on sporting merit – appear to be taken less seriously by a number of key stakeholders, it’s vital that the leagues stand together. The Scottish league, like the vast majority of other leagues in Europe, would be seriously damaged by the creation of a European super league which appears to be the agenda of a small number of very big clubs.”
The pressure being put on UEFA by the leagues, under the umbrella of the 25-strong European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL), should not be under-estimated. UEFA’s ability to do exclusive broadcasting deals – with BT Sport in the case of the UK – could be seriously devalued if rival broadcasters such as Sky were to show domestic league games at the same time.
Broadcasting rights to the Champions League and Europa League for the 2018-21 period have not yet been sold and Doncaster added: “In territories where leagues do decide to schedule up against Champions League matches, that will clearly be of serious concern for broadcasters who own Champions League rights.”
Doncaster would not comment on the prospect of losing the likes of Celtic and Rangers to a new Atlantic League featuring clubs from Scotland, the Benelux countries and Scandinavia. It is being widely predicted that such a league, first mooted almost 20 years ago, would almost certainly involve the Old Firm, who would have to quit Scottish football. Hence Doncaster’s refusal to be drawn on the issue.
But former Scottish FA chief executive Gordon Smith said the Old Firm would be at the heart of any Atlantic League discussions. “The money coming into Scottish football is very low compared to England and that is not going to change and the gap is going to grow,” Smith told the BBC World Service. “The two major clubs, Rangers and Celtic, because of the fan base, will be looking at this to think ‘is there another way we can be involved in European football? If we don’t get into the Champions League then it is a big loss’.”
Danish league boss Claus Thomsen believes an Atlantic League would present a viable revenue-gathering alternative if the Champions League revamp goes ahead. “It is not an option – it is a necessity that somebody does something else,” Thomsen said.
“This whole pyramid structure of European football is unique in professional sport and we should be very careful to preserve that value. The consideration we will have in the Danish League will be what provides the most value to Danish football. If UEFA doesn’t change its decision, it may very well be the Atlantic League that provides the most value. A breakaway tournament is a serious option.
“I think it is basically a bad idea, but it is an absolutely necessary idea if UEFA leaves behind the principle of sporting merit being the basic value of European football.”
Last night, EPFL chairman Lars-Christer Olsson said he hoped a compromise could still be reached. “But we cannot allow one party [the richest clubs] to cannibalise another,” Olsson said. “If the clubs get their way and form a super league, it would be the end of the competitive lifeblood of football as we know it. It’s only the leagues who are trying to protect the game’s core values. The clubs are playing poker with European club competitions.”