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March 9, 2021

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New UCL plan targets global fans

European clubs were urged yesterday to support a UEFA Champions League expansion plan and help please a new generation of global fans who have different supporting habits.

A UEFA-led proposal to change its clubs competitions in 2024 — abolishing traditional four-team groups and adding 100 UCL games in a 36-team format — was being presented to more than 200 European Club Association members.

The deal could be finalized within two weeks, said Andrea Agnelli, the ECA chairman and Juventus president, in opening the online meeting.

“I really ask you that today we endorse this system going forward and mandate the (ECA) board to execute the last details that we will be missing,” Agnelli said, singling out the unresolved issue of access for clubs to the revamped UCL.

ECA leaders want two of the four extra UCL places given to clubs which do not qualify on merit but are ranked highly by UEFA based on past results in Europe.

Critics see that as a safety net for clubs with global brands rather than rewarding champions from mid-ranking leagues such as Austria and Scotland.

If the historic ranking system applied this season, it would likely reward storied teams such as Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund having a relatively poor domestic campaign.

Agnelli stated his vision of European soccer appealing to fans worldwide because “traditional assumptions” about fans’ loyalties had to change.

One third of fans globally follow at least two clubs and 10 percent of fans follow players instead of clubs, said the Italian executive whose club signed Cristiano Ronaldo three years ago.

Agnelli cautioned that the so-called “Gen Z” demographic of 16-to-24-year-olds “have no interest in football whatsoever.”

“The current system most likely is not delivering for the modern fan,” he said, claiming too many games “are simply uncompetitive.”

The UCL proposal would ensure 10 games for each of the 36 teams. Currently, only six group-stage games are guaranteed for 32 teams that share about 2 billion euros (US$2.4 billion) in UEFA prize money. A single league table in the new format would send the top eight into the last-16 round. Teams ranked Nos. 9 to 24 would enter playoffs to complete the knockout bracket.

“The beauty of the system has now been recognized by all,” Agnelli said.

The UEFA-led talks took place amid leaks that financiers are ready to back a European Super League project outside of UEFA’s control.

Agnelli said he had “arguments and almost fights” with UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin last year, and suggested interest from global banks meant European soccer was “highly palatable for richer investments.”

“That means if we change ourselves we can look forward to those richer investments ourselves,” he said, rather than financial institutions getting a return on their money.

Before Agnelli spoke, UEFA deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti said the competitions plan offered “renewed strength and unprecedented excitement going forward.”

The UEFA executive committee, which includes Agnelli representing clubs, could approve the changes ahead of an April 20 congress of European soccer’s 55 national federations.


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