Agnelli says European reform is good for smaller clubs, but not all agree

Valletta (AFP) –


Juventus president Andrea Agnelli has defended the European Club Association's controversial plans to reform the Champions League as an attempt to save smaller clubs from "the protectionism of the big five leagues."

ECA has proposed competition made up of 128 teams in three divisions. The top division would be made up of four groups of eight teams, with the top six in each qualifying for the following edition regardless of where they finish in their domestic leagues.

Representatives of 156 clubs discussed the proposals at a two-day congress in Malta, and while the ECA leadership presented a unified face, there were grumblings of discontent from many clubs.

"We have to stop the current plans," the chairman of Italian club Lazio, Claudio Lotito, told AFP.

At the final press conference on Friday, Aki Riihilahti, an ECA vice-chairman and president of Finnish club HJK Helsinki, spoke first in defence of the plans.

"What we have today does not work in a large majority of countries," said Riihilahti, a former Crystal Palace player. "If we continue as we are, professional football in countries like ours will become irrelevant and slowly die."

Agnelli said ECA, European football's governing body UEFA and the European League would discuss the plan on September 11.

"All the clubs have understood that, really, this is only the beginning of the process. Nothing is written in stone and much remains to be discussed", said Agnelli.

He insisted the ECA proposal was for the greater good.

"If we do it right, we can have economic progress without any damage to the (national) championships," Agnelli said.

"If we want to find a solution that works for everyone, we must put ourselves in other people's shoes," he said.

"For Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, the question of access to European competitions will make little difference."

The day before the Italian had told representatives of clubs from 48 different countries that opposition was being led by the richest leagues.

"What has been really disappointing so far has been the whole conversation has been driven by representatives of the big five leagues," he said.

"I see it as a protectionism of the big five leagues vis-a-vis the rest of European football."

Edwin van der Sar, another ECA vice-president and the chief executive of Ajax, told Friday's press conference that the reform had "a better and broader basis" than the current system.

"It is a European competition. It must be played in as many as countries as possible," Van der Sar said. "How would it be good to allow the number five team in Spain and England to qualify before the champions of Turkey, Austria and Scotland?"

"In general, the idea is to play more European matches," the former Manchester United goalkeeper said. "That's what clubs, big and small, are asking for. We can look at the size of the leagues, the national cups, but also the UEFA and FIFA calendars."

Sources close to the congress said Agnelli has suggested "reducing the number of clubs" in national championships as "a way to maintain their value and competitiveness".

Agnelli acknowledged that clubs had expressed their reservations at the congress.

"Everyone could have their say and now we can move on," he said

But many opponents seem reluctant to give in.

- 'Interest of a few' -

Earlier in the week, the English Premier League, which has just placed all four teams in the Champions League and Europa League finals, again expressed its opposition and seven Spanish clubs, but not Real Madrid or Barcelona, also challenged the plan.

On Friday, the heads of many other clubs joined the chorus.

"Any coherent reform can't protect the interest of a few at the expense of the majority," said Bordeaux president Frederic Longuepee.

Another executive of a club in the French league, Nicolas Holveck, the deputy CEO of Monaco, talked of spreading European competition revenues to clubs that did not qualify.

"It is important to implement a fairer distribution model among participating and non-participating clubs so to guarantee the proper competitive balance," he said

Roland Heri, the CEO of Swiss club Basel, said he was concerned that fans' opinions be kept in mind.

"Fans are our most important stakeholders," he said. "The passion of our fans is mainly driven by the domestic games in Switzerland. We feel the obligation to listen to their opinion."