Football/Soccer

Kenny Archer: Uefa's tinkermen are having a laugh

Real Madrid players celebrate their Champions League victory at the San Siro in Milan earlier this year  

A LIVERPOOL fan might be expected to welcome changes which allow history to provide a helping hand in the Champions League and Europa League.

However, the alterations to the formats for those European club competitions from 2018/19 onwards are further steps on the road to ruin for the concept of sporting merit.

The big guns will be helped even more in the Champions League, with four guaranteed group stage places each for Spain, England, Germany and Italy.

You may think those first three already have that but, at present, the fourth-placed teams from those nations have to at least win a qualifier tie to reach the group stages.

Italy is the biggest beneficiary, effectively doubling its number of guaranteed group stage participants, given that only its third placed side went into the qualifiers.

That is hard to justify in sporting terms, given that Italy has only got a team past the quarter-final stage once in the six seasons since Inter won the trophy in 2010, when Juventus reached the final last year. Indeed, last season and in the 2013-14, there wasn’t even an Italian side in the last-eight.

The changes mean that exactly half the group stage participants will be from four countries and possibly more if a side from those nations wins the Europa League or wins the Champions League but doesn’t finish in its domestic top-four.

One positive change is the removal of the country coefficient in calculating club rankings, something that will be welcomed by Celtic anyway. The Bhoys’ argument has been they have suffered because Scottish football in general has been weak.

Certainly, there should always be scope for a club to prove its own worth, no matter where it comes from, as Romania’s Steaua Bucharest did back in the 1980s, reaching two finals, winning one.

Uefa claims clubs will be judged on their own records - but this will be adversely counteracted by the fact "historical success in the competition will also be acknowledged in coefficient calculation" (with points awarded for previous European titles as part of determining a team’s ranking in the competition).

Again, those same aforementioned four countries will be helped the most, having by far the most previous triumphs collectively, 47 out of 61.
Spain has provided 16 winners, England and Italy 12 apiece and Germany seven. They’ve also had 43 losing finalists - Italy 15, Spain 11, Germany 10 and England seven.

No-one could seriously argue with the top beneficiary of the ‘historical success’ stat, Real Madrid, given the 11-time winners are the holders and also won the trophy two years previously.

However, next up is Milan, who will this season clock up a decade without an appearance in the decider, since their seventh triumph in 2007.
There are three five-time champions and there’s no disputing the claims of two of those, namely Barcelona and Bayern Munich, both recent winners (2015 and '13 respectively) and regular competitors in the last-four in recent times.

Then there’s Liverpool. Their last final was that 2007 loss to Milan - their last win? You may have heard it mentioned once or twice, but it was back in 2005.

Perhaps more pertinently, although the Reds usually make a good fist of their involvement in the Champions League, their two most recent performances, in 2009-10 and 2014-15, were pretty pitiful.

On the upside, this change might make the competition’s name more accurate, with a slight tweak - call it the Past Champions’ League. There isn’t all that much wrong with the current system of ranking teams/clubs on their performances over the previous five-year period, rather than taking into account what they did 10, 20, 30, or even 60 years ago.

At least so far, this boost is limited to helping teams when they actually qualify for the competitions, so it may not be a boon for Liverpool after all. However, the fear is it’s simply another step towards a European ‘Super League’.

One of the greatest sporting stories of recent decades has been Leicester City’s English title triumph. Yet, if European football’s top event became a closed shop, with participation limited to certain clubs, then the Foxes’ fairytale wouldn’t have the happy extra chapter of continental competition.

These changes have clearly come because of pressure placed on Uefa by the powerful European Club Association, which will be able to exert great influence.

Indeed, Uefa revealed that "a subsidiary company will be created that will play a strategic role in determining the future and the management of club competitions: UEFA Club Competitions SA, where half of the managing directors will be appointed by Uefa and the other half by the ECA".

Although the ECA has 220 member clubs, voting rights only apply to just over 100 of those, the so-called ordinary members. Interestingly, Liverpool currently only remain in that category because of their past as "ECA ordinary membership is also offered to clubs in recognition of their sporting merit if they have won at least five Uefa club competition trophies".

That’s a different definition of ‘sporting merit’ to mine. No matter how far they were to fall, the Reds would only lose that privileged status if they were to be relegated.

Cavan would be the Ulster county to benefit the most from a restructured Championship that took past performance into account  

To put all this into a more local perspective, imagine similar ‘principles’ being applied to the GAA. There’d be no disputing the top-two in any All-Ireland football ranking, with Kerry and Dublin well clear of the rest on the roll of honour.

But the next three on the list of all-time winners are Galway (nine), then Cork and Meath (seven each). Yet, only the Rebels have been serious contenders out of that trio in recent times, winning in 2010 and reaching the '07 and '09 finals. The Tribes men and the Royals last contested a final fully 15 years ago and Meath’s last victory was two years before that.

Next on the All-Ireland list are five-time winners Cavan, Down and Wexford. Although the Mourne men reached the 2010 All-Ireland final, Cavan haven’t reached that stage since 1952, while it’s almost a century since the Model county did so. Kildare and Tipperary are on four football All-Irelands apiece, but their last wins came in 1928 and '20 respectively.

Tyrone would be outside the top-10 on three titles - along with Louth, Mayo and Offaly. Yet, Mayo and the Red Hands should rank much higher on recent sporting merit.

If this idea were applied in Ulster, the biggest beneficiaries would be the Breffni Blues, despite Cavan having gone the longest without a provincial final appearance.

Fermanagh would constantly be the lowest-ranked in Ulster, even though they’ve reached an All-Ireland quarter-final more recently than more than half of their provincial rivals.

Sporting history’s place is in the past, not helping to decide the future.

Football/Soccer

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