MICHEL PLATINI, the UEFA president, caused excited chatter in football circles all across Europe yesterday when he admitted the governing body is considering scrapping the Europa League in favour of extending the Champions League from 32 to 64 teams.
With broadcasting and sponsorship in place around the existing format for the next two years, the earliest any changes could take place would be the summer of 2015.
"We're discussing it," Platini told French newspaper Ouest-France. "We will make a decision in 2014. But nothing is decided yet. There is an ongoing debate to determine what form the European competitions will have between 2015 and 2018."
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Like so often in these instances, there is more hearsay and speculation on the subject than concrete fact, but here is Herald Sport's attempt to get to the bottom of the idea.
Haven't we been here before?
Ever since its inception in 1992, debates have raged about the best format for the Champions League. From its initial outing of two groups of four, when Rangers almost reached the final, to the laborious double group stages which held sway for most of the mid noughties, and then onto its current compromise, the governing body has wrestled with finding a format which keeps the top clubs happy and the rest interested. Europe's governing body currently earns about £1bn annually from the Champions League, compared to £225m from the Europa League.
Why change now?
Despite numerous attempts to revive interest, the Europa League is unloved by managers, fans and administrators alike. Other than the prestige of winning a European competition, clubs rarely prosper from their participation, with last year's winners Atletico Madrid earning just £8.5m while Manchester United, eliminated from the Champions League at the group stages, pocketed £28m. The Champions League has become predictable at the top end – Porto in 2004 were the last club outwith Europe's real elite to win – and opening up the riches to champions of other countries is consistent with the direction of travel since Platini's arrival as president.
What would the changes mean for Scottish football?
Details are sketchy at best. Indeed, a European Club Association source said last night "there is nothing on the table currently for a 64-team Champions League", let alone details of how many qualifying rounds there would be, or numbers of teams in groups etc. But the most obvious way to administer it would be 16 groups of four, with 16 matches every Tuesday and Wednesday, feeding into knockout stages for the 32 qualifiers.
Should the plan come to fruition it would mean there should at least be a guaranteed place in the group stages for the champions of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League for the foreseeable future. On the assumption there is no cut in the amount of qualifying places, it could also mean up to five Scottish teams having a chance of Champions League football and up to seven from leagues such as England, although on current form for many of them it will simply mean a different competition they have failed to qualify for. For those who do make it through, the riches on offer will almost certainly reduce with more mouths to feed from the central pot.
What are its chances of success?
Moves are clearly afoot, but reaching agreement amongst the continent's clubs will be difficult to achieve. If the plans received a cautious welcome in Scotland, Europe's biggest guns – such as comprising Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich – will be well aware that any format without their blessing is destined to fail thanks to their voting power.
Put simply, it is hard to see how expanding Europe's premier club competitions does anything for them. Although Sandro Rosell, the Barcelona president, said earlier this month he would like to cut the number of teams competing in the top tier of domestic leagues and increase the number of clubs in the Champions League, there are omnipresent rumblings about breakaway leagues and it was telling last night that the influential Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chief executive of the Bavarian club and president of the European Club Association (ECA) issued a statement that "quality, rather than quantity" is more important. Like the NFL in America, where each team plays just 16 regular season games, there is an argument that scarcity of product maximises the media value of matches.
Any other business?
The ECA represents 207 clubs in 53 European countries and still has representation from Celtic, Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers (a further announcement on the Ibrox club's ongoing involvement in such Europe-wide decision making is expected in the next few days). As Peter Lawwell mentioned at Celtic's regent agm, there have been some initial discussions in this forum about like-minded clubs marooned in smaller markets joining together for cross-border leagues, such as a Benelux or Balkan league.
Where this would leave Scottish clubs, whose ideal partner, England, has no desire for such a development, is unclear but further discussions are planned in the next six to 10 months to see if any concrete proposals are forthcoming. Celtic and Rangers may never reach the Barclays Premier League but just maybe an expanded, regionalised Champions League could be the next best thing.