Pete's Pages

The Champions' League

How one man ruined the best club competition in the world

In the beginning

Many years ago, the nations of Europe joined together to create a union to further their collective bargaining within FIFA - the world governing body of football. Primarily this union, to be called UEFA, existed for the benefit of the national teams of its member states. However, its influence over affairs within the continent grew and it was charged by FIFA with the running of the new European Cup. While the inaugural competition was contested between arbitrarily selected teams, FIFA made it a requirement that, from the subsequent season, only the national club champions would be allowed to compete.

European Nights

The tournament proved to be a great success and established itself as arguably the premier club competition in the world. During the next 25 years or so the competition continued to grow in stature. British teams figured prominently in the competition, and several teams were to lift the cup between 1967 and 1985. Easily the most successful of these was Liverpool, which under Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan amassed no fewer than four cup wins between 1977 and 1984. The Heysel tragedy saw the exclusion of the English clubs for five years and during this time no other British club made much headway in the competition. The thirst of the English clubs was stoked and the first English winners of the trophy in 1968, the Manchester United of Best, Law and Charlton, was the one with the greatest desire of all.

Television money and the beginning of the end

After the Heysel stadium disaster, English clubs were banned from European club competition for five years, a period which coincided with the re-emergence of Manchester United as a force in the English game. Naturally, once this ban had been served, the top English clubs, United among them, eyed the big money which was by then being offered as European incentives with greed. The European pie had grown and United wanted a slice. Money was not the only concern, however. Optimism at Old Trafford had grown, and the current manager Alex Ferguson dearly wanted to win the European Cup to cement his achievements as the greatest in the club's history.

It was at this time that the true villain of the piece started to emerge from the shadows. His name is Lennart Johansson. Johansson's aims were twofold: to become president of FIFA, and to generate so much money for UEFA through the exploitation of their cup competitions that this appointment would surely follow. He carefully studied the structure of the European club competitions to decide how best to maximise profit from them at all costs.

It became clear to Johansson that the best way to maximise the revenue from the European Cup was to ensure that the ``biggest'' clubs did well. The clubs with the largest fan bases could command more television money, and it just would not do to have them removed from the competition at an early stage. Johansson therefore set about a sequences of changes to the rules, eligibility and format of the competition which would maximise its earning potential, regardless of the harm that would be done to the reputation of the competition.

The first major change came about in 1991 and it was to prove the thin end of the wedge which Johansson drove between the most prestigious of the European club competitions and the essence of football. The idea was simple enough - more matches equates to more television exposure and hence more money; the clubs would also benefit by increased gate receipts and higher prize money funded by the television companies and the event sponsors. But the competition involved two-legged ties and there wasn't any simple way to increase the number of matches. So, UEFA did the only thing open to them and radically altered the format. In place of the third round, they introduced a league system. Two pools of four teams played each other home and away, thus providing twelve matches where ordinarily there would have been four. The top teams from each pool were to meet in the final.

Let me just say that again. There would be no quarter-finals in the traditional sense. Nor would there be any semi-finals. For the last eight teams, there would be no elimination until the two teams for the final were chosen by winning their respective leagues. A good plan from a business point of view, one might think, but the fans didn't much care for it. Nor, as it turned out, did many of the club chairmen as the plan had a fatal flaw: namely, that the ``big'' clubs still had to make it through to the third round on merit, and for some this proved to be too difficult.

Johansson didn't like having upstarts appearing in his glitzy new league either, but he had another idea which was to be acted upon first.

In 1993 the number of matches was extended again. Johansson guessed that he couldn't yet get away with expanding or increasing the league system, so he went one better and added another knockout round. The semi-final round was re-introduced with the winners of one pool playing against the runners-up in the other pool. This additional round was added with little fanfare, but the real impetus for change came in the earlier rounds of this year's competition.

In 1993 Manchester United returned to the European Cup, not having won the trophy since 1968. Fresh from the previous season's league success and having lifted the European Cup Winners' Cup the year before that, great things were expected of Alex Ferguson's side. Things did not go to plan. The dreams of the red half of Manchester were thwarted in the unlikely guise of the Turkish side Galatasaray. Having beaten Honvéd in the first round, United should have cruised past Galatasaray to enter what has since become known as the “group phase”. But Galatasaray hadn't read the script and they went through at United's expense on the away goal rule. Ferguson wasn't happy (I'm understating here) and Johansson had lost one of his biggest moneyspinners. Something had to be done.

Looking back on it now, it is barely conceivable that UEFA managed to get away with their next set of modifications to the tournament. However, it must be understood that the money involved in football at the time was skyrocketing and no-one wanted to kill the goose laying all those golden eggs. As it was, the mad plan was adopted with little fuss.

UEFA's changes were threefold:

  1. The structure was to be changed again. The two league groups would become four, each still containing four teams, which would now provide eight quater-finalists (the top two from each group). The quarter-finals, semi-finals and final would revert to knockout format.
  2. The sixteen teams in the group phase would consist of
    • The winners of the previous year's competition
    • The Champions of the seven top seeded countries in the UEFA ranking system
    • Eight teams surviving a preliminary knockout phase
  3. The preliminary knockout phase would be contested between the champions of the countries ranked 8 to 23 in UEFA's list.

The upshot of these major changes was nothing short of scandalous. Since the continent had watched Manchester United being eliminated by the minnows of Galatasaray, Johansson had now assured United of qualification for next year's group phase. The clear losers in this new scheme were the clubs and associations from countries ranked below number 23 in the UEFA list. From this point the most that the champions of these nations could hope for was inclusion into the inferior UEFA Cup, which at that time included several high-flyers from the major leagues (typically three or four from Spain, Germany and Italy, for example). Nothing could now stop the dreams of Ferguson and Johansson, and who cared if half of the football associations of Europe were sidelined in the process?

But the 1994-5 season was not all that it should have been for Manchester United. Not only did they fail to progress beyond the group stage in the European Cup, but Blackburn Rovers, bolstered by the financial muscle of Jack Walker and possessing the free-scoring talents of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton beat United to the Premier League title on the very last day of the season. This was a new stumbling block for the dreams of the red half of Manchester, and they would have to wait another year to mount a challenge for their most coveted prize.

Things needed to change, and change they surely did. Stung by critisism of his exclusionist policy towards the lesser-ranked nations, and worried by the potential absence of Manchester United from his premier competition, Johansson again changed the competition in a major way in time for the 1997-8 season. Now, the 30 lowest nations' champions in UEFA's ranking system would play off in the first preliminary round. There would then be a second preliminary round where the winners would be joined by the runners-up from the eight highest-ranked nations. Yes, you read that correctly. For their greed and not for the benefit of the game, UEFA had decided that it would allow some teams into the European Cup who had not won anything. Furthermore, any teams knocked out in this second round would be consoled by a place in the first round of the UEFA Cup, while the losers in the first round would get nothing. To allow for these extra competitors, the group phase was expanded to six pools of four, with the six winners and two best-placed runners-up progressing to the quarter-finals.

This mad scheme did indeed benefit Manchester United as they topped their group to move into a quarter-final encounter with Monaco. They lost. The signs were promising, however, and Johansson saw to it that the competition retained this format for the following season.

Finally, to the delight of Lennart Johansson, Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United supporters, and to the dismay of pretty much everyone else who admires football as a sport and enjoys the pure thrill of cup competition, Manchester United won the European Cup in 1999. It was a hollow victory. Not only was the competition biased and league-based, but it had moved so far from its roots that even the name adopted in 1994 - “The Champions' League” - was inaccurate as the competition now involved many teams who were patently not champions. United rejoiced, but the continent was not singing along.

The travesty, and what can be done

For the 1999-2000 season the competition changed again. More places were available to non-champions, extra fail-safes were given to clubs failing to make the grade by allowing them to enter the UEFA Cup at various stages, and there were to be two entirely separate league stages - eight pools of four followed by four pools of four. In order to accommodate all of these extra matches in the television schedules a high price was paid. It is perhaps only too ironic that the last true pan-European knockout competition, the much-loved Cup Winners' Cup was axed in order to make way for this shambles.

The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources of factual data used in this article.