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ECA managing director says critics of Champions League reform ‘jumping to conclusions’

Charlie Marshall, the managing director of the European Club Association (ECA), says clubs and leagues have been too hasty to criticise Uefa’s plans to reformat its club competitions post-2024 and argues that any reforms would be designed to create a fairer European football ecosystem.

In recent weeks LaLiga, the English Premier League, and European Leagues, the body that represents European Leagues across Europe, have led opposition to plans to introduce a ‘hybrid’ qualification system for Uefa club competitions (UCC). The proposals would leave fewer opportunities for teams to qualify from their domestic leagues and European qualification would be determined to a greater degree by promotion and relegation between the three different Uefa competitions.

Leaked plans seen by the Associated Press include provisions for promotion and relegation between the Champions League, Europa League and Uefa’s third-tier club competition – currently called Europa League 2, launching in 2021. Controversially, they advocate that 24 of the 32 teams taking part in the group stages of the reformatted Champions League would retain their places the next year, regardless of their standings in their domestic leagues.

Marshall, who represents the central administration of the ECA, says he has been dismayed by the way the debate about the reforms is playing out in the public domain and the organisation has decided to take a more proactive communications approach to try to reframe the argument. He added that the leaked proposals were designed to provoke discussion about the best way to achieve a more equitable system and are not at a stage where members are expected to vote on them.

“The disappointing thing about it is everybody has leapt to a conclusion rather than try to understand why this is all happening and what might be the underlying reasons for considering to evolve the European club competitions further,” he told SportBusiness. “Everybody’s jumped to a conclusion that says, here’s a format, that’s what’s going to happen and therefore here are all of the negative effects that are going to arise.

“Outside of our own membership, there’s been absolutely zero constructive discussion about all of this, which is the disappointing thing because the reality is that there is no proposal or format being put forward for acceptance or rejection. There are a bunch of ideas, some of them have been articulated into straw men, future concepts. But those were done for the purposes of stimulating debate.”

The organisation is holding this year’s Champions League semi-finalist Ajax as an example of a club that would stand to benefit from promotion and relegation between European competitions, a point reinforced by Ajax chief executive and ECA vice-president Edwin van der Sar in a column in the Sunday Times at the weekend. In spite of its successes this year, the club will have to go through two qualifying rounds for next year’s Champions League, which van der Sar argues disrupts its financial planning. With promotion and relegation, the club would be guaranteed a Champions League place next year.

“Lots of the anti-rhetoric right now is that this is about the top clubs wanting to close themselves off,” said Marshall. “But right now, over 60 per cent of teams reappear from year to year in the Champions League. At the moment, the qualifying slots from the domestic leagues are indexed very heavily towards the big leagues and it does penalise clubs like Ajax and clubs who are good performers with strong fundamentals in their medium- to smaller-size leagues who struggle to get access, and they can’t build the fundamentals of their club because they can’t tell a continuous story.”

The European Club Association says it represents the interests of 232 professional clubs competing at European level. The organisation emerged after the G-14, a group representing the interests of 14 of the biggest clubs in Europe, was disbanded in 2008 following criticisms that it ignored the needs of smaller clubs in the football pyramid. But some critics argue that ECA continues to be dominated by the most powerful clubs.

Marshall argued that the launch of Uefa’s third-tier club competition was proof that Uefa and the ECA were acting in the interest of smaller teams.

“The focus in the media has been very much on the Champions League,” he said. “It’s important to remember that discussions on possible reform is about so much more that. It’s also about strengthening the Europa League but also the development of a new third tier competition which provides access to Europe to many top clubs from smaller countries. Let’s not forget this. ECA’s concern is for the overall health of club football across all of Europe not just individual leagues.”

The ECA has convened an additional meeting of its members in Malta on Thursday and Friday this week to discuss UCC reforms.

“This week is actually going to be the first time we will have got all of our members together – it’s normally something we only do twice a year, but we’ll be doing it as an extra general assembly in summer because this is such an important issue,” said Marshall.

Yesterday a group of seven LaLiga clubs, including Atlético Madrid but excluding Real Madrid and Barcelona, protested against the concept of a semi-closed Champions League and expressed concern over the lack of consultation about the plans. The Premier League also issued a statement opposing the proposals.

“The Premier League and our clubs today unanimously reaffirmed our strong opposition to the proposed reform of Uefa club competitions from 2024, which would alter the structure, calendar and competitiveness of league football,” the statement said.

“There was unanimous agreement that the domestic game should continue to be the priority for professional clubs, and any changes to the football calendar must respect the requirements of domestic competitions.

“Critically, qualification for the Champions League and the Europa League must continue to depend on current domestic performance.”