Top leagues from across European football last night moved closer to all-out war with Uefa over its plans to revamp the Champions League, with the campaign led by SPFL chief Neil Doncaster who described the proposed changes as “outrageous” and warned they could hit the Scottish game hard as well as cripple meaningful sporting competition.
Until now, as a result of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Uefa, no major domestic league games are played in the same time slots as European fixtures. Such an agreement has been sacrosanct but the European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL), representing 25 leagues including the SPFL, believes the MoU has been broken by Uefa’s lack of consultation. And Doncaster agrees.
He warned that Scottish top-flight games and other European domestic fixtures could go head to head with the Champions League and Europa League if Uefa refuses to unpick the new deal, struck with Europe’s elite clubs without consulting the leagues.
“The threat is very real and entirely feasible,” Doncaster said on the sidelines of the Leaders Sport Business conference in London. “We may only be talking at this stage about the cycle of 2018-21 but the direction Uefa have embarked upon is a dangerous route that threatens the top level of European football.
“We are in a situation at the moment where leagues are prevented from scheduling against Uefa club competitions but if the MoU ceases to exist because of Uefa’s action then leagues would be free to schedule matches as they see fit. I’m fairly confident a number of leagues would wish to exploit that freedom. Many leagues have a massively congested calendar … so to have this freedom would be very attractive.”
Urgent talks between the head of the EPFL, Sweden’s Lars-Christer Olsson, and new Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin are due to take place on Thursday to stave off the threat of such a potential free-for-all. But if Uefa refuses to budge, matters could come to a head at the EPFL’s general assembly later this month with the current agreement with Uefa being ripped up. “Being a domestic champion is partly about glory and partly about financial rewards,” said Doncaster. “But it’s also about access to the top tier of European football, playing with the other champions. Remove that opportunity and you fundamentally damage the value of being domestic champion.”
Guaranteeing more group-stage places for teams from the top four leagues and fewer for clubs from smaller leagues, in the process widening the financial gap, was always likely to cause division and disharmony. But Doncaster says it goes far further than that. Restricting access, he warns, will prove a recipe for disaster and that if there is no u-turn, European football will end up going only one way – towards the very closed shop Uefa are so keen to avoid.
“The fear is that we are sleepwalking into disaster and a closed league situation where you remove the romance and where it’s all about money,” he said. “That would fundamentally, and probably irreversibly, damage the value of domestic league football in all the second-tier leagues including Scotland.
“Scotland is fortunate enough to be the best supported league per head of population in Europe. But part of that is about where being domestic champions takes you to. I was fortunate enough to be at the Celtic-Manchester City game, one of the best examples of a Champions League group stage fixture I can ever remember. It was a fantastic spectacle enjoyed by fans across the world. Yet now we are talking about the prospect of the biggest and best clubs in, say, Scotland, Poland, Holland, etc, potentially being excluded from the top tier of European football. That would harm the very fabric of the game.”
“I’ve been in the game 20 years and I’ve never seen such unity against one single set of proposals,” added Doncaster. “We’ve got bigger, smaller and mid-sized leagues all on the same page. It’s outrageous that Uefa, which purports to be the governing body, can preside over this situation. It’s vital a line is drawn in the sand now and the EPFL takes a stand.”
Olsson hopes an agreement can be reached before the EPFL summit on 21 October but if his talks with Ceferin go badly, ripping up the current accord is no idle threat. “We have to come a conclusion fairly soon and that can only be done by changing this decision,” the Swede, himself a former Uefa CEO, said. “I’m hopeful of course but if we so decide to terminate the MoU, there would be no obli gation for clubs to avoid playing on Champions League and Europa League dates.
“It will always be the case that the wallet will decide who wins competitions. But that’s not the point. The smaller and medium-sized clubs have to know it is possible to play in the Champions League. You have to keep the door open for them.”