There were cautious grounds for optimism when G14 broke up last year. The threat of a break-away European Super League had been put to bed. Everybody within UEFA was around the same table and hopefully pulling in the same direction under the watchful eye of Michel Platini, who had sent a warning shot across the bows of the biggest clubs by awarding the right to hold Euro 2012 to Poland and Ukraine. The plan to try and host a major tournament was a brave one in Eastern Europe and appears likely to back-fire, with Ukraine facing a crisis over developing the infrastructure required to hold such a tournament, and serious questions are being asked now over whether they can be ready in time. Various other European countries are now on standby, awaiting a second round of bidding for the rights to hold the competition. Meanwhile, Euro 2008 was a great success, with outstanding television audiences across Europe watching a tournament that most have rated as one of the best in recent times. The cracks, however, are starting to show in Platini’s utopian vision of European football being run on a more egalitarian basis. Flushed by the success of the tournament, UEFA have all but rubber-stamped an ill-thought out plan to expand the competition to twenty-four clubs from the current sixteen, and now public grumblings are coming from the ECA – the UEFA-endorsed successor to G14.
On the surface, the announcement seems to be benign enough. The ECA chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, has confirmed that UEFA is to be balloted on whether to change the name of the UEFA Cup to the “UEFA Europa League”. In a convoluted sense, it may stand to reason. The Champions League has severed its ties with the old European Cup in all respects apart from the trophy that is awarded to the winners at the end of it. Why not go ahead and modernise the other major European tournament? After all, in a rare fit of common sense, they’re evening abandoning the Intertoto Cup to the dustbin of history after this season’s competition is over. The flip-side to this argument, however, is that this is proof that absolutely none of the leopards at the top tables of these shadowy clubs’ associations have changed their spots in any way whatsoever, with the intention being to “modernise” the game for the sake of those dread words of our times, the purposes of “branding”. The ECA’s thinking behind the move is as fuzzy as one would expect from the sort of people that, not so long ago, were funding smaller clubs to take the authorities of the world game to court. In his role as chairman, Rummenigge had this to say on the matter:
The hope is that a refreshment of the name and brand can help achieve better results than we’ve seen in the UEFA Cup in the past. There has been a general impression that it has become a second-class competition and that we should get back to how it was ten or 15 years ago.
The irony contained that short sound-bite is striking. The biggest clubs must surely know fully well that the name has nothing to do with the comparative fall in status of the UEFA Cup. If Karl-Heinz wants us to run off a list of the factors that have had an effect on the status of the UEFA Cup, I suppose it’s only fair that we should try. Firstly, there was the moving of its fixtures to Thursday nights, so that the bothersome cup didn’t didn’t get in the way of the altogether more important business of Champions League matches on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. After all, they wouldn’t want the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Fiorentina and Zenit St Petersberg taking a handful of viewers off the figures for Manchester United sticking seven goals past Anderlecht or whoever else of the Champions League’s runts they’ve been lined up against, would they? They also don’t appear to have stopped and considered that awarding a place in the UEFA Cup to the teams that finish in third place in the Champions League groups might have devalued the public perception of the UEFA Cup, either. Presumably, the ECA believe that no-one considers the UEFA Cup to be a dumping ground for Champions League rejects. Then there’s the vast and unwieldly group sections, in which teams had to play eight matches to get through to the knock-out stages. This is being trimmed down from the 2009/10 season, but the incorporation of the Intertoto Cup intothe UEFA Cup at the preliminary stage will still mean that a small club from a small country will face a mountain to climb should it wish to get to the latter stages of the competition. Finally, there’s that old chestnut, the number of teams entering into the Champions League – do the ECA not think that it just might devalue the status of the UEFA Cup that no-one that has finished above fifth place in the domestic powerhouse leagues of European club football (England, Spain and Italy) will take part in it unless they get humiliatingly dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages?
No. It’s all about the name, and this is, of course, encapsulates more or less everything that is absolutely wrong with the modern game. The ECA has studiously chosen to ignore the real problems that the UEFA Cup faces – the biggest of which is its diminished status in the public eye when compared to the Champions League – in favour of something simple, which will ensure that the same faces appear at the Champions League trough in perpetuity. They could change its name to the Intergalactic Hyper Mega-League for all the difference it will make. This particular “innovation” isn’t even within the realms of papering over the cracks. It’s so transparent that it’s the equivalent of sticking the cracks together with sellotape.