UEFA aren’t fooling anyone – it’s time they stood up to the bullies

Toby Bowles

UEFA aren’t kidding anyone – they need to find their backbone, before it’s too late…


“Disgraceful”, was how UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin described it. “Disgraceful”, “self-serving”, and “a spit in the face” of football.

Ceferin, of course, was referring to the European Super League. Created on Sunday as the brainchild of 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs, the competition – now effectively defunct – revolved around one key principle: the elimination of jeopardy. No relegation, little opportunity for promotion, and absolute control over media rights.

The goal, the founding members said, was to improve “the quality and intensity of European competition”. It’s fair to say the football world disagreed. Under acute pressure from fans, governments, and pundits, by Tuesday evening the competition had all but collapsed.

After Chelsea went Manchester City, and after Ed Woodward went Manchester United. Several defections later, the project was declared untenable by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli. UEFA could breathe once more.

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Stripped of the assets that draw such huge audiences to their flagship competition – the UEFA Champions League – the governing body had been pulling out all the stops to ensure the breakaway proposals didn’t go through. From expelling the clubs from their domestic leagues to banning the players from international football, the so-called ‘Dirty Dozen’ had been rifled with every threat under the sun. Eventually, Ceferin’s crew got their way.

And yet, amidst this resounding victory, what exactly UEFA will be toasting remains unclear. The handing of football back to the fans, as they claim? Or the restoration of the status quo?

You see, you never quite know with UEFA, the supposed custodian of European football that appears all too comfortable in its seat on the gravy train.

For all its pledges to ensure the competitive, sustainable running of football on the continent, very little change has been implemented to achieve that goal.

Bayern Munich, winners of the last eight Bundesliga titles, Juventus, Serie A champions since 2012, and PSG, table-toppers in eight of the last nine Ligue 1 seasons, are making a mockery of their respective divisions.

In the last decade, we have seen: the first 100-point seasons in Spain, Italy, and England, the first ‘invincible’ seasons in Italy, Portugal, and Scotland, and the first domestic trebles in England, Germany, and Italy. Critics of the ESL claimed the venture would distort competitive balance across Europe but the question is, what balance is there to be distorted?

Leagues are already being monopolised, and UEFA – quite content with their booming revenues – have only sought to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots in recent years.

In 2018, they introduced the historic “coefficient” ranking system that weights UCL revenue distribution in favour of the decade’s best performing clubs, a clear example of the governing body handing advantages to the elite. The new Champions League format, announced on Monday, is another.

From the 2024/25 season onwards, the number of teams participating in the competition will rise from 32 to 36, with a league table replacing the group stages of old. This, UEFA claims, is the way forward for European football.

With a league table, though, the big clubs have added protection. Suppose Atletico Madrid were to lose to Club Brugge; in the old format, their chances of qualifying for the knockout rounds would take an almighty hit. The new reforms, however, guarantee four more games before the knockouts, meaning there are plenty of opportunities for any potential slip-ups to be atoned for (and plenty more money to be made by UEFA).

The jeopardy for the better sides, therefore, is minimised. Sound familiar?

UEFA, it must be said, are not solely responsible for the gaping chasm between the rich and poor. On many occasions, they’ve bowed to pressure from the big clubs, who have threatened to start their own league should the governing body fail to meet their demands.

One of those requests was the new “wildcard” slots. As of 2024, two Champions League places will be awarded to the sides with the highest coefficient rankings that failed to qualify automatically. If Borussia Dortmund or Liverpool missed out on the top four (both genuine possibilities this season), they would still be able to qualify in three years’ time on account of their past achievements.

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Ceferin condemned the ESL’s disregard of “sporting merit” in his press conference on Tuesday but it appears his organisation are not averse to handing a few leg-ups out themselves. As long as it keeps the big clubs happy, of course.

For if they were to walk away, UEFA’s status – and profits – may never recover.

This dynamic is behind almost all of what European football has become, and it appears UEFA have little appetite to change. Over the past few days, Ceferin may have found his voice, but it is markedly easier to speak up when the future of your organisation as a footballing power is on the line.

UEFA needs to back up the rhetoric of the past week and put the big clubs in their places. Not just the clubs who signed up to the Super League, but the clubs who continue to strive for larger slices of the revenue pie, fuelling football’s imbalance. UEFA have heeded the commands of the elite for too long; it’s time they found their backbone.

Toby Bowles is on Twitter