Champions League: Are European giants forcing smaller rivals out?

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Smaller clubs consider forming new league

Concerns over new Champions League format

CNN  — 

Europe’s top football clubs wanted more – and they got it.

Now the smaller leagues are fighting back as they seek a bigger piece of the action.

Since governing body UEFA announced it will revamp the elite Champions League in 2018, clubs from Scandinavia, Belgium, Netherlands and Scotland have begun making moves to counteract what has been interpreted as a power grab by the so-called “big four” – England, Spain, Germany and Italy.

They’re considering a football revolution by setting up a new European “Atlantic League” in a bid to boost the profiles and revenues of the top clubs from their respective countries.

That’s because UEFA announced in August that the top four clubs from the top four leagues would be given 50% of the 32 places on offer – and leave the champions of other countries scrambling around for the other 16.

And that has left teams like Finland’s most successful club HJK Helsinki wondering whether it’s time to break away from their domestic leagues and join a breakaway competition.

Smaller clubs will have less chance of taking on top teams such as Barcelona.


“A lot of all this uncertainty we see now is down to UEFA having poor processes and not listening to clubs,” HJK Helsinki chief executive Aki Riihilahti told CNN.

“The hope is that newly-elected president Aleksander Ceferin takes a strong role filling the power vacuum which exists in UEFA so there will be better foundations to improve European club football.”

Aki Riihilahti played in the English Premier League with Crystal Palace.

Riihilahti, a former Finland international, is just one chief executive who has voiced concern over UEFA’s plans to revamp the Champions League format in 2018, which came after talks between leading clubs wanting to form their own breakaway competition.

According to UEFA’s coefficient rankings, top-four teams in the Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, English Premier League and Italian Serie A will no longer have to worry about participating in a qualifying round playoff.

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Non-English clubs are worried about the increasing financial muscle of the Premier League, which negotiated an $8 billion television rights deal in February 2015.

The EPL’s bottom team will receive a reported $97 million compared to the $81 million received by last season’s Champions League winner Real Madrid.

But while Europe’s big clubs are feeling threatened by the EPL, the smaller leagues feel they will be frozen out by the Champions League changes.

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Each club involved in the group stage of the Champions League gets a base payment of €12.7 million ($13.95 million).

A win in the group stage is worth €1.5 million ($1.64 million) and a draw (tie) brings in €500,000 ($550,000)

FC Copenhagen came through the playoff stage to qualify this season.

“If we do not act now, we will see the biggest clubs grow larger and stronger while it will be increasingly difficult for clubs like us,” FC Copenhagen director Anders Horsholt told Danish media last week.

“We must therefore look at alternative international opportunities for FC Copenhagen in the future.

“Here it is still too early to talk about specific models, but the discussion of leagues across European borders is a theme that we look at and actively participate in.

“We understand that the biggest clubs act as they do. But it also means that we must look at the market it leaves and seek alliances with teams from other countries in the same situation.”


CNN contacted 14 clubs linked to the breakaway league by Danish media, and received responses from just three.

“It will be tougher to get into the Champions League and, as it looks, it may be even impossible later on,” Niclas Carlnen, CEO of Swedish team Malmo, told CNN.

“Of course we still want the possibility to get into the Champions League in the future in which we have played the last years.”

Swedish club Malmo faced Real Madrid in last season's Champions League.

A spokesman for former European champion PSV Eindhoven told CNN that the Dutch club was “talking on several stages about the future off European football. For now it’s just talks and no negotiations.”

While no official talks have taken place over the creation of a new league, UEFA says the issue would be discussed if any “concrete” plans did arise.

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“Domestic competitions are the foundation of football in Europe. Though transnational competitions have been mentioned in some cases, there are currently no concrete proposals on the table,” UEFA said in a statement.

“Any such idea or proposal would only be discussed by UEFA if submitted by its national associations, with their clubs and leagues, as this could be a strategic development in some European regions.”

Game time

For now, FC Copenhagen must concentrate on the immediate future and Tuesday’s Group G clash with English champion Leicester.

The Danish champion is unbeaten since May 22 – a run which has lasted 23 matches.

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A 1-1 draw in Porto and a 4-0 win over Club Brugge means Copenhagen is second behind Leicester – which has won both matches – and with a chance of making the last-16 knockout stage.

Thomas Delaney was on target during Copengaen's 4-0 win over Club Brugge.

“Many of our players have had the chance to go to better clubs but they want to be able to play in the Champions League,” Copenhagen captain Thomas Delaney told the competition’s official website.

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“To do that, we have to win the Superliga, which is always the goal, but the Champions League makes it special to play for FCK.

“There is no other place in Scandinavia where you can get this experience.”