yesSomething of the ridiculousness of modern elite football could be found on the streets of central Vienna on Monday night as hundreds of the game’s power-brokers were escorted across the city to make sure they didn’t miss their dinner. Oliver Kahn was a hugger-mugger with Michael Ballack, Uefa president Alexander Ceferin was being pursued by the Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani, and Ajax’s Edwin van der Sar was trying to find out whether Roman Abramovich had been poisoned. They were all part of a cohort that resembled a bunch of exchange students as they followed a big sign saying “ECA” to a grand restaurant where the food was later described as “disappointing”.
The European Club Association is, depending on who you listen to, the secretive power broker at the heart of the continental game or a collaborative collective that seeks to make clubs’ voices heard amid the grinding bureaucracies of football’s governing bodies, Uefa in particular. This week they were holding their general congress in Sigmund Freud’s home town, a year on from apparently embracing their own death drive.
From the heart of the ECA had come the idea of the European Super League, a prospect that sought to offer “significantly greater… support for European football” by placing its biggest clubs in a competition specifically closed to the rest. That idea never quite became reality and this year the ECA, according to its new leader, Paris Saint-Germain’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi, was able to declare that the Super League, in fact, “does not exist”.
Ongoing legal proceedings in the European court of justice may suggest otherwise, but the point Khelaifi was really making was that he felt confident enough that his organization would not be split should such an idea return in the imminent future. A suggestion that was easy to believe in Vienna.
Not only was the mood entirely convivial (something easier to achieve with the remaining ESL members Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus having had their memberships revoked), but there was lots to celebrate. Thanks to the efforts of the club competitions committee working group, a body which feeds into Uefa’s executive committee and whose membership is not exactly easy to identify, the ECA had agreed to a new set of reforms for the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League, that would see more matches, more security and – everyone dearly hopes – more money for its 249 members.
Amongst those reforms, which will begin in 2024, are the controversial plans to allow two clubs to enter the Champions League each year based on part of their historic performance. It’s a decision that would have benefited Manchester United this year, for example, should they fail to make the Premier League top four. Then there’s the prospect of 10 games per season for the 36 teams who qualify for the Champions League group stage, an idea that has so far resisted attempts by other parties – such as the Premier League – to take the number down to eight.
Finally there’s the new joint venture which allows clubs to sit at the table with Uefa as they negotiate commercial deals for the three European club competitions, something Khelaifi says has led to a 39% increase in forecasted revenues for the three years after 2024.
So happy days then, and a reminder that the situation the Super League clubs were desperate to escape just a year ago was actually pretty cushy. At the same time, however, the ECA also agreed to new financial control regulations which were actually tougher than had been expected. Clubs who compete in Europe will have to commit to spending no more than 70% of their income on transfers, wages and agents fees (!) combined. They’ll also have to agree to pay money owed on transfers and other payments on time, and if they don’t they’ll be fined European points or even banned from competition altogether.
The mood in Vienna suggested all these measures had been accepted by the ECA’s 249 members, with barely a note of dissent. The big clubs will continue to get richer, but other clubs see opportunities too. Aki Riihilahti is a vice-chair of the ECA, the former Crystal Palace midfielder now turned chief executive of his home town club HJK Helsinki. He points to an increase of £40m each season in solidarity from clubs in the top five European Leagues to those outside as a sign of a more co-operative direction. He says the increase in group stage matches, plus the introduction of the Europa Conference League, is strengthening the competitive environment for smaller nations, and helping to develop their players. He also admits to being in the CCC working group.
“I was there and we talked more about football than ever before,” Riihilahti says. “From a broader perspective we are united in what we want. There will be more countries represented in the group stages, which is amazing because that is something that gives a lot of countries relevance and keeps them alive from a professional football perspective. We have five domestic leagues where the TV money is so huge, and that is the reason for the competitive imbalance, but you can use Uefa competitions to give the other 50 at least part of it. That’s why the discussions have really been fantastic: it has given us a view going forward that there is room for all countries.”
Riihilahti acknowledges that challenges remain, not least keeping local clubs alive while the global televised game continues to grow. “I think it’s good when there’s the local and the global, for me that makes sense,” he adds. “So you can support two teams, that’s fine, but if you only have the global brand I don’t think football will have the same fanbase, you don’t have the same initial attachment, it will be only entertainment. But I think people understand that and, as a champion of a smaller country, I really must welcome the discussions and initiatives we have had with Uefa. It’s so much more fair than it’s ever been before. We have to give Uefa and ECA credit for that.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism