European clubs 'united' in tackling FIFA, UEFA politics

A busy period for international football politics was kicked off by the European Club Association's first meeting since the turmoil in April that threatened the status of the UEFA-run Champions League.

Nasser Al-Khelaifi

Paris Saint-Germain president and European Club Association chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi.   -  AP

After the Super League crisis and ongoing legal fight by three of its creators, top European football clubs were praised on Tuesday as a united family by their new Qatari leader.

A busy period for international football politics was kicked off by the European Club Association's first meeting since the turmoil in April that threatened the status of the UEFA-run Champions League.

Persistent FIFA vs. UEFA and clubs vs. national teams power struggles are expected in the months ahead. Qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is being decided during the COVID-19 pandemic while FIFA pushes plans to play the tournament every two years against resistance from Europe.

Clubs want to be heard and the ECA formally welcomed back nine of 12 founders of the ill-fated Super League as members. Three even got places on the decision-making executive board.

“They were sorry and apologised for what they did,” said Nasser al-Khelaifi, who became ECA chairman in April amid the failed breakaway to rival the Champions League.

Al-Khelaifi, the president of Paris Saint-Germain, helped doom the Super League with his club refusing to sign up to the project.

He also leads Qatar-owned BeIN Media Group, a key UEFA broadcasting customer, which has Champions League rights in France and across Asia and North Africa.

“It’s really important to be united here,” Al-Khelaifi said at a news conference after a two-day meeting of 160 ECA members, their first since April. “To show the unity, that we are one family.”

Delegates reported little debate and dissent at the mostly closed-doors sessions. Here are some of the issues in play:

Biennial World Cup

FIFA is seeking support for plans to stage World Cups every two years instead of four.

European clubs, who employ most of the players that global viewers want to see, have not been shown formal proposals shaped by Arsene Wenger, now FIFA’s director of global development.

“We didn’t get approached by FIFA,” said al-Khelaifi, though adding he met with its president Gianni Infantino three days ago. Infantino was in Qatar to visit a World Cup project in the 2022 host nation.

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They discussed the tricky issue of FIFA’s schedule of games when clubs must release their players to national-team duty, though not the biennial World Cup which would summon more than 1,100 players to the finals tournament.

At the news conference, Bayern Munich lawyer Michael Gerlinger said Wenger’s aim for a December decision was “challenging.”

Leverage for the clubs could be in future talks over renewing the ECA-FIFA working agreement. It expires at the 2022 World Cup.

Super League rebels

The ECA board now has three officials from Super League clubs who were forgiven after renouncing it: chief executives Alessandro Antonello from Inter Milan and Miguel Angel Gil from Atletico Madrid, plus Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy.

Super League rebels Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus are excluded from the ECA while they pursue a case against UEFA at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

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They will, however, play in the Champions League next week and Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar welcomed their “European history and pedigree."

“If we want to play and compete in a strong competition, you need those clubs,” said Van der Sar, who played for Juventus. “You want to beat the best.”

Champions League reforms

Before the Super League was revealed, those clubs were deeply involved in UEFA talks to reform the Champions League from 2024 and get more control of its commercial strategy.

Key changes include 10 guaranteed games — in the “Swiss model” of a single standings table replacing the group stage — and two entries in the expanded 36-team lineup based on recent European records of teams who failed to qualify on merit.

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Those changes are likely to stay despite being unpopular with the European Leagues group and fan representatives, who helped UEFA resist the Super League.

“We are aware that these two ‘coefficient spots’ … have created discussion,” ECA chief executive Charlie Marshall said. “But there is logic and rationale behind them.”

Van der Sar suggested the new single-standings format also coming to the Europa League and Europa Conference League in 2024 will raise revenues and quality of play.

Financial Fair Play

UEFA’s system of monitoring clubs’ income and spending since 2009 seemed flawed even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a deeper review.

An amended system based on a luxury tax is now being worked on.

“The landscape must be open for investments,” Anderlecht official Michael Verschueren said.

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A luxury tax system would seem to benefit state-backed clubs like Qatar’s PSG and Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City — two clubs in the crosshairs of financial fair play, yet who beat UEFA’s lawyers in appeals at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Since April, PSG signed star players like Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos as free agents when Super League clubs did not, or could not, match their salary demands.

“Everything we do, we have done within Financial Fair Play as a club,” Al-Khelaifi said when pressed on how PSG could reject a 180 million euros ($213 million) bid last week from Madrid for Kylian Mbappe.

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