The news that broke today about how Celtic are making common ground with Ajax and others over proposed reforms to the Champions League are both welcome and overdue. I have written before about how we risk this issue getting away from us unless we’re engaging with it.
It seems as if we have been, and I hope sincerely that it comes to something.
Recent changes in the Champions League format have been unrelentingly negative as far as we are concerned. It is grotesque that our club, a former competition winner, should have to play eight matches just to reach the Groups. Ajax’s plan, that club’s entire European history form part of their co-efficient score is sensible and proportional. Sides, like ours, and like theirs, with previous wins would get a helping hand in such a scheme.
But it’s about more than that, of course. The Champions League is not quite a closed-shop but it’s on the way to being one, with the Groups now dominated by sides which qualify automatically because they happen to be in the rich kid’s club. This is not football as we know it.
You could be forgiven for saying that the fix is in.
Making it permanent will destroy our game.
The big leagues and their top clubs want changes to the structure again; they want less groups with more teams, eight team groups, effectively turning the whole tournament into a sort of quasi European league. It is clearly an idea whose time has come, but their version of it is anathema to those of us who believe in greater access for the clubs from nations outside the big ones.
Under their plans there would still be 32 teams in the Group Stages, they would still be chosen in the current fashion. It’s just that there would be four groups instead of eight. They are concerned only with maximising their income, not with the greater good of the sport.
You could keep eight groups quite easily, and increase the qualification pool to 64. Do that and you could eliminate as many as three qualifying rounds, and you’d have to as each side would need to play 14 games in the group stages, more than twice what we have now.
But there is, and there has always been, a better way than either of those suggestions and it’s this; eight groups of six. Ten games instead of six over the course, two less qualifying rounds and instead of having 32 teams going into the group stages you’d have 48. I have yet to hear a single coherent objection to that system other than the one from the massive teams about “meaningless matches” and how it wouldn’t make them the kind of money they want.
Those objections should not shift focus away from what’s important; giving as many teams from the “lesser nations” as possible the best chance of reaching that lucrative stage of the competition. It would be an incredibly effective means of distributing wealth throughout the game, and a six team group system would not play quite so much havoc with the domestic football calendar. In Scotland, we would have to shift the League Cup dates back to having the final in March, but it was a travesty of a decision ever to move that game in the first place and slap it into a European football schedule. It was a piece of nonsense that nobody should have allowed.
We have teamed up with a good side here in Ajax. Their anger at the way the competition is run, and their fears about where it is going, have nothing to do with being outgunned. Their side produces a great side every few years which is capable of going all the way in the tournament.
Their concerns are about the rich getting richer, yes, and they want a piece of the action … but there’s an altruism about Ajax too which convinces me that they are thinking about the sport.
Celtic has to really push hard here, and not just alongside the Dutch masters but with a cross-section of other clubs all dedicated to the same goal. The future of the European game is going to influence our own future, for better or worse.
This is the off-field fight, above all others, in which we badly need to secure the proper outcome.
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