Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion a big­ger task than ever for Dun­dalk

New struc­tures and an ex­tra qual­i­fy­ing round ham­per sides from weaker leagues

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Em­met Malone Soc­cer cor­re­spon­dent

Dun­dalk will get the tro­phy that comes with the club’s 13th league ti­tle in a cou­ple of weeks’ time but they will have to wait a while longer for their real prize: an­other crack at the sub­stan­tial money on of­fer from the Cham­pi­ons League next sum­mer.

The rules have changed and the po­ten­tial re­wards have been re­vised up­wards since Stephen Kenny’s men earned about ¤6.5 mil­lion in 2016. On that oc­ca­sion they made it to the play-off round of the Cham­pi­ons League where they lost and so went into the group stage of the Europa League where they won one game and drew an­other.

Three years on, they would re­ceive al­most pre­cisely half as much again, ¤9.82 mil­lion, if they could re­peat the trick.

But do­ing that has been made much more dif­fi­cult by the ad­di­tion of an ex­tra Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fy­ing round and the ear­lier en­try of clubs from much wealth­ier leagues.

Kenny’s side made it to the fi­nal round of qual­i­fy­ing that sum­mer be­fore they came up against Le­gia War­saw whereas Cork City got the Pol­ish cham­pi­ons first time out this year.

Le­gia were them­selves beaten by Slo­vakia’s Spar­tak Tr­nava who were, in turn, beaten by Red Star Bel­grade whose away goals de­feat in this sea­son’s play-off round pre­vented the ti­tle win­ners from the leagues ranked 12, 13, 14 and 15 mak­ing it safely through as they had been seeded to.

Be­ing from the low­est ranked league, Salzburg might be con­sid­ered to have been the soft­est tar­get but the club’s turnover in 2016/17 is re­ported to have been ¤107 mil­lion.

Dun­dalk’s worst case sce­nario is the more or less the fate suf­fered by Cork City this year with John Caulfield’s side ex­it­ing first the Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fiers and then the ones for the Europa League with­out man­ag­ing so much as a goal while the club still picked up ¤820,000 in prize money.

The bye City re­ceived in the sec­ond qual­i­fy­ing round of the Europa League gifted them the ¤20,000 over the ¤800,000 min­i­mum the cham­pi­ons of Ire­land are now guar­an­teed each sum­mer but de­prived them of a po­ten­tially more winnable game that would have been worth an ad­di­tion ¤240,000.

That is surely the least Dun­dalk will be tar­get­ing although, know­ing their man­ager, he will be aim­ing rather higher than that.

The new struc­tures have made Cham­pi­ons League group stage qual­i­fi­ca­tion al­most a pipedream with the num­ber of places avail­able to qual­i­fiers re­duced from 10 to six, four of them re­served for the cham­pi­ons of “smaller” leagues.

Rich get richer

All of this was done so as to ac­com­mo­date a de­mand from the Euro­pean Clubs’ As­so­ci­a­tion that the top four sides from each of the con­ti­nents’ four rich­est leagues go straight into the group stage of the com­pe­ti­tion.

Amongst the many ways in which the 32 clubs who com­pete at that stage of the com­pe­ti­tion are re­warded is a fund worth ¤585 mil­lion which is al­lo­cated ac­cord­ing to club rank­ing with the low­est ranked get­ting .108 mil­lion and the top ranked, 32 times that. The rule is specif­i­cally in­tended to en­sure that the rich get richer.

All of this was pro­posed be­fore the elec­tion to the Uefa pres­i­dency of Alek­sander Ce­ferin who said that he would re­view the pro­pos­als if elected. If he ever did, it made no dif­fer­ence for they were im­ple­mented as orig­i­nally en­vis­aged.

By the stan­dards of the Ir­ish game, of course, even the crumbs from the Euro­pean table are huge. Dun­dalk’s win­nings in 2016 com­pletely dis­torted the rev­enue table for the en­tire league but get through that one round and the mil­lion or so euro se­cured will, by it­self, be just about equiv­a­lent to the av­er­age turnover of a Premier Di­vi­sion club.

Dun­dalk’s is sig­nif­i­cantly higher but the mea­gre ¤100,000 it will re­ceive in of­fi­cial prize money for win­ning the ti­tle does not make much of an im­pact and nei­ther ad­e­quately re­wards the club for the added value it has brought to the league over the past years. Nor does it do any­thing re­motely sig­nif­i­cant in terms of help­ing the club to bet­ter equip it­self for Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion.

That though, is more than 20 per cent of the en­tire prize fund avail­able to league clubs which, they queue up to point out, is partly off­set by the com­mer­cial rev­enues the as­so­ci­a­tion keeps, fines and other charges.

Uefa also pro­vides the bulk of the fund­ing for the league’s new un­der­age struc­tures with the FAI adding ¤250,000 to its ¤825,000 to give ¤1.15 mil­lion to clubs who, the as­so­ci­a­tion says, es­ti­mate that the leagues cost them ¤1.4 mil­lion.

In terms of Europe, of course, the Ir­ish clubs can have few com­plaints about how many rounds they have to get through to reach Europe’s top table af­ter a year in which the league’s four par­tic­i­pat­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives man­aged to get through just one be­tween them. If Dun­dalk do im­prove sig­nif­i­cantly on that next sum­mer, though, ex­pect Ab­bot­stown to be claim­ing a good deal of the credit again.

The re­al­ity, though, is that if the as­so­ci­a­tion’s fi­nances were half as rosy as FAI chief ex­ec­u­tive John Delaney likes to say they are, then Ir­ish foot­ball’s prob­lem child is still suf­fer­ing from the ne­glect of its dis­tracted par­ent.

By the stan­dards of the Ir­ish game, of course, even the crumbs from the Euro­pean table are huge

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MORGAN TREACY/INPHO

Dun­dalk’s Pat Hoban scores the equal­is­ing goal against St Pa­trick’s Ath­letic to seal the SSE Air­tric­ity League Premier Di­vi­sion ti­tle at Oriel Park, Co Louth.

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