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Fans oppose imminent Champions League reforms

March 12, 2021

European Club Association chairman Andrea Agnelli says agreement on a new Champions League format is imminent. But supporter groups oppose the reforms, saying they will only exacerbate existing inequalities in the game.

Borussia Dortmund v Sevilla FC
Image: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images

The banner on the deserted south stand at Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion during the Champions League game against Sevilla this week was placed out of the range of the television cameras.

"Stop UCL reforms!" read the demand from "Südtribüne Dortmund," the umbrella group representing the club's active fan groups, expressing supporter opposition to proposed reforms to Europe's elite football competition.

The reforms, championed by European Club Association (ECA) chairman Andrea Agnelli, propose increasing the number of Champions League participants from 32 to 36 and replacing the current group stage format with a single league table starting in 2024.

The so-called "Swiss model" would see teams play 10 "group games" before Christmas against opponents determined by a seeded draw, with the top 16 progressing to a standard knock-out phase.

'Ideal Champions League'

Speaking at a virtual ECA meeting this week, Agnelli said he believed the reforms were "maybe just a couple of weeks away," describing the Swiss model as "beautiful" and "very close to my ideal Champions League."

For Agnelli and his allies, a reformed Champions League would increase the number of games between top European sides and reduce domestic league matches to just two thirds of the overall football calendar.

Elite clubs are keen to guarantee more matches against each other in the hope of increasing the value of the Champions League's media rights. Agnelli had previously revealed that top clubs' agitations were intensified by estimated Europe-wide losses of over €8 billion ($10bn) caused by the pandemic.

Juventus president Andrea Agnelli with Bayern Munich boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Big plans: Juventus president Andrea Agnelli (right, with Bayern Munich boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge)Image: picture-alliance/KEYSTONE/S. Di Nolfi

Furthermore, the reforms also represent a compromise to placate elite European clubs - including Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona and the Premier League's so-called "Big Six" – who have threatened to break away from UEFA and form an exclusive 20-team Super League, potentially backed by American bank J.P. Morgan Chase.

"I think it will provide great opportunities for those teams participating in that competition," Agnelli said. "It will provide the knockouts that are the essence of any competition."

'Another step in the wrong direction'

Any structural changes will be confirmed by European football's governing body UEFA at its next executive committee meeting on April 20, but supporter groups from across Europe oppose the reforms.

"Current proposals to reform UEFA club competitions represent another step in the wrong direction, perhaps one from which there will be no return," said Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe (FSE), which represents organized fans across the continent.

"More games in the UEFA Champions League won’t solve any of the big problems that afflict European football. In fact, they have the potential to make them worse. Supporters don’t want more football; they want better football. And that means a more level playing field on both the domestic and continental stage."

In a 24-page position paper published on Thursday, the FSE argued that the proposed Swiss Model would only serve to "concentrate even more wealth and power in the hands of a dozen or so elite clubs from five or six Western European nations," undermining "football's true beauty" which "lies in its simplicity and unpredictability."

The unpredictably of European football has been severely reduced in recent years, with the likes of Juventus, Bayern Munich, PSG, Real Madrid and Barcelona dominating their respective national leagues. Their dominance is based on their effectively guaranteed qualification for the Champions League every season, exponentially increasing their financial advantage over domestic rivals year on year.

Not only does Agnelli's proposed Swiss Model look set to perpetuate that disparity, it is also reported to feature a safety net for top clubs who fail to qualify in any given year, with the additional four places being awarded to clubs based on historical performance.

Bayern Munich fans waving flags during a match
Bayern Munich would likely benefit from the proposed reforms, but their supporters don't want themImage: Reuters/M. Dalder

'Absurd reforms'

Were such a rule to exist this season, for example, one club which would potentially benefit would be Borussia Dortmund, currently sixth in the Bundesliga but whose supporters nevertheless oppose what they call "absurd" reforms.

"Many fans have never felt so disillusioned with professional football as in recent months," wrote the organized BVB supporters responsible for the "Stop UCL reforms!" banner against Sevilla. "A Club World Cup in Qatar, alternative locations for European Cup games, ignorant media appearances by club officials, it all confirms the perception of an industry which is increasingly out of touch with reality."

"An obscure 'Swiss model,' even more games in an already congested calendar and a safety net for 'big clubs' who fail to qualify will not lead to a fairer competition," they continued. "Ultimately, the negative developments of recent years will just be carried to extremes while the fans, who love football as a sport and not as a business, are left looking like idiots."

In a joint statement published with Club Nr. 12, an umbrella group representing rival Bayern Munich supporters, Dortmund fans also demanded a fairer distribution of Champions League money across domestic leagues to help restore the competitive balance, including increasing the proportion of money passed on to the rest of the league from four percent to 50%.

"The financial losses may be painful for our own clubs in the short term but, in the long term, fairer and more balanced competitions both nationally and internationally will be beneficial for all: for fans, for players, for small clubs and for big clubs."

Against Sevilla, the banner on the south stand was removed, as agreed with UEFA, after 15 minutes, as Dortmund survived a late scare to progress to the quarterfinals. Bayern Munich are well placed to beat Lazio after a 4-1 first-leg win.

Juventus, ironically, were knocked out by FC Porto – precisely the sort of unpredictable footballing twist which Andrea Agnelli seems so keen to avoid.