ECA claims 'scepticism and fear' overcome as clubs consider competition changes
By Simon Ward
The leaders of the European Club Association, the body pushing for the restructuring of the continent’s soccer competitions, believe a solution will be reached that will satisfy 80 per cent of the sport’s stakeholders, but stressed that it is still early in the process.
The ECA has hosted a special general assembly in Malta over the last two days which has addressed the contentious subject of the European competitions in the post-2024 cycle.
The ECA’s proposal to restructure the top-tier Uefa Champions League from eight groups of four teams to four groups of eight teams, with 24 of the 32 teams qualifying automatically, has met with a largely unfavourable reception from Europe’s top national leagues, which have concerns over the impact on their calendars and competitive balance.
However, Andrea Agnelli, the chairman of the ECA, said today that the gathering with 156 clubs from 48 countries on Thursday and Friday had been productive, and that the body was looking forward to engaging in further talks with Uefa and the European Leagues body to reach a consensus.
In a press conference following the general assembly, Agnelli, who is also the chairman of top Italian club Juventus, said: “Quite a few clubs have come to Malta with scepticism and fear that decisions had already been taken.
“My biggest satisfaction… is that all this scepticism and fear has been brushed off as they understood this is the start of the process.”
He added: “We don’t have all of the answers… and a lot of the features still have to be discussed. This is going to be a long process, maybe months, that will involve all of the stakeholders.”
Uefa is set to host a meeting with the ECA and European Leagues at its headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland on 11 August to discuss the post-2024 club competition landscape.
The ECA’s proposal would ensure a Champions League with more matches between Europe’s top clubs, but also perceived greater European competition involvement for lower-level teams, as part of a three-tier structure incorporating promotion and relegation to and from the second-tier Europa League and a new tournament Uefa is introducing below that.
England’s money-spinning Premier League has been one of the biggest critics of the plan, issuing a statement this week saying that it “would alter the structure and calendar and competitiveness of league football.”
However, Agnelli has accused the top national leagues of “protectionism,” adding that they need to consider the interests of others.
He said today: “In trying to address European football, one must take a step back and have a European view, be they come from England, the main market, or Iceland… We must put ourselves in the shoes of others.
“When we come to a solution, 80 per cent will be satisfied it is going to be a good result.”
Asked about the eventual structure, Agnelli was deliberately vague, saying: “It is difficult because we cannot [yet] put in place the framework, or put in place a focus. A lot has to be discussed so [this week] we were looking at the concerns and the principles of the clubs.
“What is important is that between yesterday and today, the clubs were presented with a framework. The number of clubs in each competition could be different. It was the starting point of a consultation.”
However, some clubs evidently still have to be won over to the merits of the proposed restructuring.
Reuters quoted Peter Peters, the chief executive of German Bundesliga club Schalke, saying that "nearly all European clubs are not convinced” and that discussions needed to start "with a blank page."
Meanwhile, Claudio Lotito, the president of Serie A team Lazio, said "most" Italian clubs were against the plan, adding: "We have to stop the current plans and we have to sit with all stakeholders and start the whole project from scratch."
Pressed on the anxiety, particularly among the top Premier League clubs, of fixture congestion, Edwin van der Sar, the vice-chairman of the ECA and the chief executive of Dutch outfit Ajax, said today: “European football is not only played in England, there are 55 countries. This is all about access and giving an opportunity for teams to succeed and take the next step to being a bigger club.
“We must look at the international match calendar and look at ideas and the way forward.”
The ECA said that, in addition to beginning discussions with its member clubs on the structure of European competitions in 2024 onwards, the organisation had this week organised a series of workshops to address and debate the following issues:
• The current context defining European football and why reform should be considered
• The principles guiding thinking around reform
• The key features of the initial concept and vision that has been presented
• The consultation timeline relating to the reform process
In addition, the ECA said members had voted overwhelmingly to approve changes to the governance structure, including the expansion of the executive board from 15 to 24 full members, with increased representation across all four subdivisions.
In a statement, the body said: “As the only independent body recognised by both Uefa and Fifa as representing and promoting the interests of football clubs in Europe, it is vital that ECA accurately represents all clubs who regularly qualify or aspire to qualify for European competitions regardless of their location, stature or wealth.”