The Sunday Telegraph - Sport
Agnelli determined to make Champions League a closed shop which only Europe’s elite will grace
Juventus chairman has spoken out against rise of Atalanta as he battles to ensure riches of top-level competition are shared only by the established ‘big clubs’
He was at it again this week, another stop on the endless carousel of talking shops carving up football’s future: the glib presumption of the branded stage – “the relentless development of the beautiful game” – and then Andrea Agnelli saying something absurd.
It would be best for all concerned if we could just ignore the pronouncements of this scion of the Agnelli family, as with so many dynasties, who one often suspects has been made chairman of Juventus to keep him away from the important stuff. In true Trumpian style, his tactic has been to say the unsayable and by so doing edge the debate a few more inches away from the sensible ground it had occupied before the storm was created.
This time it was Atalanta, one of the great Serie A success stories of recent years, who, having qualified for the Champions League by finishing third last season, are on the brink of a place in the last eight with a 4-1 first-leg win over Valencia in the round of 16. “I have great respect for what Atalanta is doing,” Agnelli said, duly signalling his intention to say something entirely disrespectful, “but without international history, and with a great sporting performance, they have had direct access to the highest European club competition. Is this right?”
To which the obvious answer is yes. But Agnelli’s willingness to say the more unhinged stuff is essential for these tinder-dry conferences. So he burbled on about how unfair it was Roma were not part of the Champions League this season having done their bit for Serie A’s Uefa coefficient over the years. Not that anyone really believes Agnelli cares about Roma, but they are not in the Champions League because they simply failed to finish in the top four last season of Serie A – a league ground down by Juventus’s perennial dominance.
It is coming. The Champions League reforms post-2024 are the spectre at the feast, still on the edge of the football public’s consciousness, which will be impossible to undo once they have been forced through by Uefa and the European Club Association. A great competition will have been ruined to appease men such as Agnelli who have gutted their own domestic competition and now want to do the same to the old European Cup – anything, in fact, to close the gap to the broadcast earnings wealth of the Premier League.
In his role as ECA chairman, one suspects that Agnelli has done his job as the organisation’s useful idiot. By attacking the core principle of meritocratic Champions League qualification from domestic leagues, the space has been created for widespread change. Now Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin finds himself championing radical change to the Champions League encompassing a single 32-team league group stage, involving 10 games.
Other highlights include the abolition of the home-and-away principle and an algorithm to determine one’s opposition. In other words, a bloody mess.
Ceferin’s key battle is with Fifa and its president Gianni Infantino, whose own pursuit of power in the club game, via a proposed summer Club World Cup to be held on an as-yet unspecified cycle, is the enemy Uefa must defeat above all. Which is why this week clubs across Europe received letters from the American promoters Relevent Sports suggesting that the series of glorified summer friendlies, numbingly self-styled as the International Champions Cup, may become a Uefa competition.
In defeating Fifa, Ceferin has been forced into these kind of compromises, in this case an alliance with Stephen Ross, the Miami Dolphins owner who, via Relevent, has funded the summer tournament in the hope of such an outcome. Held in the United States, it is conveniently transportable to any country willing to pay the price. Ceferin has promised a competition in which clubs field the strongest teams they can, which will of course be a delight to managers like Jurgen Klopp who already say the burden on players is too great. But what does a manager who has won the Champions League know?
For a man who claimed to be anti-establishment when he ran for election, Ceferin has been making a lot of new friends in the establishment. An agreement with the Conmebol region to lay the ground for South American clubs competing in Uefa competitions. He has even befriended the previously hostile Javier Tebas, La Liga president, for a quid pro quo that is likely to mean Uefa supports Spanish clubs playing games overseas.
The Premier League has a cautious confidence in the Uefa president too, but it is aware a 32-team Champions League group stage could easily morph into the dreaded closed European super league. Its clubs have voiced their opposition to that.
How reassuring that these seismic changes being inflicted on Europe’s premier football competition – and the knock-on effects upon its many domestic leagues – are the result of a power struggle between two lawyers at the top of football administration. The broadcast value for Ceferin v Infantino would come in at slightly less than the live rights for monkey tennis – yet it is these Uefa and Fifa proxies who define our game.
Cheering them on are the likes of Agnelli, a man of lamentable views, with one clear aim. The value of European clubs to investors has always been affected by the jeopardy of non-qualification for the major Uefa competition, and, for the lesser lights, relegation. In the US, where sport franchises face no such hazard, values in Major League Soccer can reach as high as eight to 10 times annual revenue as opposed to a more modest multiple of two to four times in Europe.
Some of those in the elite could be eliminated from the Champions League in the next two weeks. Potentially Real Madrid, Paris St-Germain, Liverpool. Perhaps even Juventus, a goal down from their first leg in Lyon. How upsetting that would be for Agnelli as he tries to shape the kind of game where defeat or even disappointment is minimised for his club. One he inherited from previous generations of his family who approached triumph and failure with rather more equanimity.
The Champions League is being bent out of shape for men like him, unnecessary new Uefa competitions added, by a president who sees no other option to see off the threat from a Fifa administration who seek to seize territory. For what? For the benefit of a tiny minority who think that the world needs fewer success stories like Atalanta, not more.
The value of clubs to investors is hit by risk of not reaching Champions League