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European football: Keeping the rich rich and Scotland poor . . .

A NOTHER midweek of Champions League and Europa League football awaits for three of Scotland's clubs so let's dust down that great, loaded phrase "unbroken history" and see if it applies to the tournaments themselves.

Steven MacLean and Dave Mackay share a hug after  St Johnstone beat Lucerne. Picture: SNS
Steven MacLean and Dave Mackay share a hug after St Johnstone beat Lucerne. Picture: SNS

Two instantly-recognisable trophies will be handed over at the end of this season, the same pair of great old jugs that have been presented for decades. This season's Champions League final in Berlin will see a club given the same big-eared cup that Billy McNeill lifted in 1967. Whoever reaches the other final in Warsaw will be trying to lift the distinctive silverware Dundee United, Celtic and Rangers almost won in 1987, 2003 and 2008 respectively.

That's only half the story. It is harder than ever to recognise the Champions League and the Europa League as the same tournaments - we were brought up knowing them as the European Cup and the UEFA Cup - in which Scottish clubs could be champions and finalists. Both have become bloated. As they have swollen it is smaller countries like Scotland who have had their entrants systematically disadvantaged and displaced. UEFA do not really want clubs from the likes of Scotland, Belarus, Denmark or Poland hanging around for any longer than is strictly necessary. The model is now obvious: get dozens and dozens in from all the outposts, given an impression of egalitarianism, cull the fodder as quickly as possible in summer, then let the major nations flood in when the tills start to light up for the group stages.

There were only 33 teams in the European Cup in 1966-67; this season it started with 77. The Europa League has seen an even bigger hyperinflation of its numbers. There were 64 entrants in the season Dundee United reached the final 27 years ago; this season there are 195.

The expansion is down to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, other geopolitical changes, and the gradual rise in the number of UEFA member countries (now at 54). But UEFA gets them all in then quickly weeds them all out. Its competitons are structured to involve, protect and give advantages to clubs from the biggest domestic leagues.

Spain, England, Germany, Portugal, Italy and France provide the forces which dominate the European club competitions these days. No wonder: their leagues have the biggest broadcasting deals and then UEFA load the dice in their favour. Hull City enter this season's Europa League with a UEFA co-efficient of 16.949, higher than the likes of Feyenoord, Monaco, Rosenborg and Dynamo Moscow.

The significance of that? Hull have never played a game in European football. Their ranking - their leg-up in the tournament - is based entirely on coming from one of Europe's strongest leagues. Hull qualified for Europe from losing the FA Cup final, which they reached having played only one Premier League club, Sunderland, in five rounds.

St Johnstone have had to come through one round, and Aberdeen two, to reach the same point of the Europa League that Hull City enter this Thursday. And, as has been highlighted on social media over the past few days, Hull will harvest the same co-efficient points for beating AS Trencin, those Slovakian giants, as Aberdeen will if they somehow deliver the minor miracle of beating Real Sociedad. And Aberdeen's "reward" if they somehow pull that off? They could be drawn against Inter Milan, Lyon, Tottenham or PSV Eindhoven. All of that just to reach the group stage - the group stage! - of the Europa League.

UEFA do not apply a merit system which awards more points for beating an opponent from a higher-ranked country. It's a flat one point for a win and half-a-point for a draw in the qualifying and play-off rounds. That helps to preserve the status quo. Scotland's clubs have helped write their own collective suicide note in recent years with some appalling results, especially in the Europa League, and that is why its UEFA country ranking is 23rd. In tournaments loaded to favour countries ranked one to six, 23rd is the dark side of the moon.

Ronny Deila quickly picked up on the injustice of a club with Celtic's recent European pedigree having to negotiate three qualifying rounds just to get into the group stage. Celtic are anchored by the inability of the other Scottish clubs to make any sort of impact, and those clubs are anchored by the self-perpetuating inequality of UEFA's co-efficient and seeding system. There will be some changes next season. No country will have more than three teams in the Europa League. The number of teams allowed direct qualification for the group stage will increase to 16 from the top 12 associations (at the moment it is six teams from the top six associations). What good will this do Scottish clubs? None.

Supporters have become so conditioned to embarrassments and early eliminations that the relief and surprise of last week's results were impossible to miss.

Three of the four going through - Motherwell's awful defeat was all too typical of recent Scottish campaigns - felt like something to savour. But when the immediate joy subsided even that reaction seemed revealing and a little depressing. Aberdeen's win in Groningen was one of the best results by any Scottish club in recent years and what fun they'll have against Real Sociedad, but some lumped that in with Celtic and St Johnstone's progress and dredged up the tired "Armageddon, what Armageddon?" line.

UEFA really has extinguished all our hope, if we're reduced to crowing about still having three clubs in Europe beyond July 24.

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