DAVID SHONFIELD: Rich get richer in European football's ‘evolution not revolution’

There is a carve-up taking place at the top of European football and you don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to see who is behind it.

Changes to the qualifying arrangements for the Champions League and the distribution of the revenue are being presented as a logical step forward. “This is an evolution not a revolution,” says Uefa. In fact it’s more like the announcement of a forthcoming coup d’etat, with the existing regime preparing to cohabit with the plotters.

As presented by Uefa the reforms sound reasonable. From 2018 the top four clubs from the top four leagues will automatically go into the Champions League group stage. The coefficients that determine seeding will be based on club performance and clubs will also be seeded according to their past history in the competition. There will be more money for clubs and leagues, with TV revenues distributed more fairly.

Says Uefa: “The new revenue distribution model guarantees an increase in payments to leagues and clubs who are knocked out in the qualifying phase. In addition, the reduction of the market pool contribution to payments means that all clubs will receive more money for sporting success and less for just being in a large television market.”

In reality, the changes are largely to the benefit of one country, namely Italy, and to the heavyweights who dominate the European Clubs Association: Bayern Munich, Milan, Inter, Juventus, Read Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, Lyon, and the big hitters of the Premier League.

Revenues will indeed be redistributed, but as Uefa coefficients will determine how the cake is sliced up, it will again be the big clubs who receive the lion’s share.

Behind them are the new Chinese investors in European football, led by the Dalian Wanda group, the company which led off the current takeover boom back in January 2015 when it bought a 20% share of Atletico Madrid.

It seemed a modest outlay, just €45m, but as this column noted at the time, Dalian Wanda is no ordinary investor and its chairman and founder Wang Jianlin is no common or garden multi-billionaire.

Less than a month after the Atletico deal, the company announced the purchase of the Infront Sports and Media agency for a rather more substantial €1.2bn, and since then Infront has been engaged in a series of talks with the major clubs and leagues about setting up a new European tournament, replacing both the existing Uefa competitions.

Such a competition could not have started until 2021 at the earliest, but was sufficiently attractive to the Spanish for La Liga president Javier Tebas, to declare his support.

“We’ve become more interested,” said Tebas last week, “since Uefa announced they will be reforming [the Champions League] without seriously consulting — in detail — about their broader reform plans with the other national leagues.”

In reality, it is the pressure for a superleague from within the ECA that is behind the Uefa reforms and either way the big Chinese investors will win out, even if they may have to put their plans for worldwide broadcasting rights on hold.

Both Milan clubs are now owned by Chinese companies, and they are likely to be the main beneficiaries of the deal giving Serie A four guaranteed slots from 2018.

The reaction from most of the European leagues — with the notable exception of Serie A — has been shock and outrage. They were taken by surprise at the speed of the decision, especially in the run-up to the election for the Uefa presidency.

Didier Quillot, director general of the French Premier League, claims he only learned of the changes because he was in Monaco for the Champions League draw. This seems odd since Lyon chairman Jean-Michel Aulas is on the board of the ECA.

Aulas claims he was bound by a confidentiality clause, but this did not prevent Gazzetta dello Sport from revealing the basics of the deal three weeks earlier.

The 2018 arrangements may not be set in stone.

New Uefa president, Aleksander Ceferin, is pledged to oppose them and the smaller European football associations backed him on this basis.

But his room for manoeuvre is extremely limited. For the time being it seems that the coup has been successful.

In reality, it is the pressure for a superleague from within the ECA that is behind the Uefa reforms and either way, the big Chinese investors will win out


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