An excellent article in the Times about the proposals for the Champions League post 2024 - behind a paywall (I had to wait for more 1 free article a week to view it) so transposed in full - There is one on there about the Bolton situation I would love to read if anyone can transpose it
Champions League: proposals that ignore what sport is - Oliver Kay, Chief Football Correspondent
It gets crowded in the Billy Wright Stand on match nights at Molineux. On the first-floor landing, outside the executive boxes, fans are drawn to the cabinets that show off memorabilia from Wolverhampton Wanderers’ illustrious past. As well as the shirts and medals, there are front pages of the Sporting Star on the evenings of the club’s FA Cup triumphs in 1949 (“It’s ours!”) and 1960 (“Ours again”). On Tuesday night, in the week that Wolves bid to reach their first final since 1960, those exhibits were attracting quite a crowd.
Other fans found themselves drawn to the artefacts from Wolves’ ventures into Europe in the 1950s — the historic friendly match against Ferenc Puskás’s Honved team in December 1954, which Stan Cullis’s team won 3-2 to be declared unofficial “champions of the world”. A rare dissenting voice at Molineux that evening was the French football writer Gabriel Hanot, who, feeling Wolves’s football to be inferior to that of Real Madrid, proposed in L’Équipe that “a European championship be organised between clubs. Then Wolves really could prove they are the best.”
That was the catalyst for the European Cup, which was launched the following season, with invitations extended to a representative of Europe’s 16 leading nations. The English invitation went to Chelsea, who beat Wolves to the league title in 1954-55, but their involvement was blocked by the FA and the Football League, who, depressingly and not untypically, saw no future in a concept dreamt up by Johnny Foreigner. (Manchester United, under Matt Busby, would defy that veto a year later.) The entrants included Real, AC Milan, PSV Eindhoven and Sporting Lisbon but also, reflecting the era, names that resonate less loudly across Europe these days: Aarhus, Djurgardens, Gwardia Warsaw, Voros Lobogo (now MTK Budapest) and, closer to home, Hibernian.
West Germany were represented by Rot-Weiss Essen (though Saarland, then under French occupation, were represented by Saarbrücken). Bayern Munich? They had just been relegated from the Oberliga Sud and would not even be among the 16 clubs selected to join the Bundesliga in 1963. Paris Saint-Germain? They were not even founded until a merger in 1970 and had only won two French league titles until the transformation that came upon being acquired as a soft-power asset for the Qatari state in 2011.
As Nuno Espírito Santo says several times in every press conference, this is football. Empires rise and empires fall. Wolves fell into financial difficulties in the mid-1980s and were relegated from the old First Division to the Fourth Division in consecutive seasons. They briefly found their way back to the top flight under Sir Jack Hayward’s ownership in 2003 and six years later under Steve Morgan, and now, finally, seventh in the Premier League and looking forward to an FA Cup semi-final tomorrow, they seem genuinely resurgent. The manner of this resurgence — built on the calibre of coach and players they have been able to sign with considerable help from the Gestifute agency, which is part-owned by Wolves’s Chinese owners Fosun International — sits uncomfortably with many of us, but then again so does much else about the modern game. This is football, the 21st-century way.
Whatever the rest of the season has in store, Wolves should be setting their long-term ambitions higher and higher. This season, the Premier League. Next season, the Europa League? Beyond that . . . the Champions League?
The obvious riposte is to say that the Champions League is already a closed shop — that it is the same clubs who qualify every season, that the later stages are always dominated by the biggest clubs from England, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Germany, Italy and France, even if Ajax’s resurgence this year carries distant echoes of a more meritocratic age — but, if the ECA has its way, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Do not bet on it. Even if they or Everton or Leicester City or West Ham United or anyone else can break the mighty stranglehold of the Premier League’s “big six”, never mind force their way into the top four, there are plans afoot to tighten the admissions policy for the Champions League. As detailed in The Times yesterday, the European Club Association (ECA) is lobbying for a revamp that would effectively see the Champions League operate as a closed shop from 2024-25 onwards.
The three-tier structure proposed by the ECA would result in an elite competition open to 32 clubs, 24 of whom would be retained for the following season regardless of league performance. There would be the threat of relegation to a second tier, but even then there are plans to retain wild-card places, on the basis of past European performance, for big clubs who may not qualify. Great if you are AC Milan or another of the sleeping giants from the Champions League era. Dreadful if you are Celtic or Red Star Belgrade or another of those great clubs who, through no fault of their own, have been left behind by the inequalities of the modern game, or if you are Wolves or any other club hoping to challenge the Champions League elite in their own country.
It was heartening to see the Premier League clubs, as a collective, condemn these proposals yesterday. In a statement, the 20 clubs expressed “significant concerns” about the ECA’s plans and “unanimously agreed it is inappropriate for European football bodies” to threaten such upheaval. Yet there is certainly a feeling at board level among some of the richest Premier League clubs that a new Champions League format, which will guarantee more matches between the most commercially successful teams, is inevitable in the long term. Some feel it desirable.
The European football landscape has been changed dramatically by the elitism that the Champions League has brought, causing vast inequalities between leagues and within leagues. It seems almost impossibly romantic in 2019 that Ajax, four-times European champions, have reached a Champions League quarter-final for the first time in 16 years. The priority for the ECA’s 230 members should be to try to restore some modicum of competitive balance, but no, of course the agenda is dictated by the biggest clubs, who dominate the organisation’s executive structure. They want the supremacy of their elite to be ringfenced, not challenged.
These clubs want guaranteed Champions League qualification, guaranteed matches against each other, guaranteed broadcast, commercial and matchday revenue of a level far beyond that which comes when they have to play against clubs such as Celtic and PSV Eindhoven, never mind AEK Athens and Red Star Belgrade. In the minds of the self-perpetuating elite, those are second-class or third-class clubs, not worthy of the biggest stage or the biggest revenue streams. They can have their own competition, a sideshow, away from the main event.
It is just as well, for the likes of PSG and indeed Chelsea, Manchester City and Atletico Madrid, that the European football landscape was not redrawn like this a decade or two earlier. In fact, it is just as well for Liverpool, Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus and others that it was not a closed shop from the start. Throughout its history, football’s appeal has been increased by the possibility of upward mobility. Access to the biggest competitions and biggest prizes has never been more exclusive than now. To go even further in that direction would be an affront to competition.
Let us not forget what European competition’s appeal is based on: not just excellence but a taste of the exotic. That is what made those floodlit friendlies at Molineux and elsewhere in the 1950s so enthralling, leading to the European Cup as we knew it and then, ultimately, to a Champions League which has brought more games between the biggest clubs, raising the standard of the competition like never before.
But these latest proposals? They stink of entitlement and greed and a total ignorance of what the sport is and what it should be. They are an outrage, particularly to those who know their football history and those, like the fans gathered on that landing at Molineux on Tuesday, who dream of recapturing past glories.