Your eyes aren’t deceiving you, European football as we know it is changing.
The plan for a new format for the UEFA Champions League was proposed and made public back in April 2021. After a year of deliberations and consultations with many of Europe’s biggest clubs and leagues, the all-new structure - due to begin in the 2024/25 season - was approved in May 2022.
We are now under a year away from the debut of the new model, which has brought the topic right back into trending territory.
It will without a doubt mark a new era for European clubs, but for many football fans around the world, it will be the end of what they feel has been working seamlessly for the last 20 years.
For the decision-makers and men in footballing power, though, the entirely new format has been welcomed in open arms for a number of reasons.
In the 23rd edition of the Plei newsletter, I explain exactly what will be changing about the UEFA Champions League, as well as what will remain the same. I also provide some background, analysis and context on the subject as we approach a dramatic shift in the beautiful game’s most prestigious club tournament. 👇
There are three main components of the competition that will be completely different when the 2024/25 season comes around:
Let’s start at the top. As we know, the current model of the UCL accommodates exactly 32 teams. Well, the decision was made to add 4 other participants into the mix, making it a 36-team tournament. I’ll talk about how those 4 extra clubs will be decided later in this section, because it’s somewhat complicated.
What we’re used to is a group stage consisting of 8 groups, with 4 teams in each group. Top two teams move onto the Round of 16, the eight 3rd place teams drop down to the Europa League, and the 4th place team is completely eliminated.
With the addition of 4 new clubs, you would think they would just create a Group I and get on with things. Nope, no more group stage! That has been completely scrapped for an entirely new tournament.
Commonly referred to as the Swiss model, this particular style of tournament is actually derived from the Swiss-system tournament used in chess. All teams are placed into one large league table, but each team does not play all of the others. Instead, a draw will take place to decide everyone’s opponents.
Each club will play 8 matches in this league stage, up from the usual 6, and down from an originally proposed (and outright ridiculous) 10 matches. Half will be played at home, half away from home.
In this mammoth 36-team league table, the top 8 sides will automatically move onto the next round of the tournament. For those that place from 9th to 24th, they will have to compete in a sort of two-legged playoff to determine who will fill out the remaining 8 spots for the next round.
For those that weren’t previously familiar with this new UCL format and are reading about this for the very first time with this newsletter, you are probably wondering “what’s going to happen to the knockout stage?”
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We hope your sigh of relief was as big as ours was.
The knockout stage will remain identical to how it has been for decades: a 16-team bracket tournament with two-legged fixtures on weekdays and a one-off final on Saturday.
In short, the group stage has been swapped out for a Swiss-style league phase, which isn’t nearly as heartbreaking as it could’ve been.
Thankfully, qualification for the initial 32 teams hasn’t been tweaked. However, the way the 4 new spots get allocated do have a different process.
1: The first spot will go to the third-placed team of the league ranked 5th by UEFA prior to the beginning of the competition. At the time of writing, the Eredivisie currently holds that status, but historically, it has been Ligue 1 that finishes in 5th place after each season. Portugal’s Primeira Liga is also a close contender.
2: A second spot would be filled by a domestic champion outside of the top 10 European leagues. Typically, this sort of qualification route sees four different teams qualify to the group stage, but it will now be five teams that make it through.
3 & 4: The last two new slots belong to clubs with the highest UEFA coefficient who failed to qualify for the Champions League via domestic league position, but have at least managed to qualify for the Europa or Conference League. For example, last season, it would have been Liverpool and Atalanta. It essentially gives a sort of lifeline to top clubs that performed well the season prior but endured a poor domestic season the next, one of the most controversial aspects of all the new changes.
As you might expect with such prominent changes, people aren’t happy about it, players and fans alike.
Around the world, many have made their voices heard ever since UEFA announced the plans to ditch the current UCL model back in 2021. Protests that have merged all held a similar stance; that the new model will further disrupt the balance of power in the Champions League.
Many have pointed out that the number of games increasing as a result of more teams competing is nothing more than a cash grab. More matches means more revenue and, according to those against the changes, less high-quality football. Fans have accused both UEFA and clubs that agree with the new model of being greedy, claiming that they are trying to squeeze as much money out of the system as possible.
These fans make it clear: they prefer quality, not quantity. More matches also means that an already congested European football calendar will be forced to squeeze extra matchdays in. This has a huge impact on not only fans who will now have to pay to attend more matches - or take more time to watch them from home - but it will also take a toll on the players.
Fatigue is already a major issue across Europe’s top clubs, and the last thing they want is to be forced to play more high-stake matches when they already have to deal with extremely compact schedules.
Take it from İlkay Gündoğan, who did not hide his disinterest in the new UCL format, days after it was first announced back in 2021.
Since the Champions League was founded way back in 1955, it has seen numerous changes.
UEFA has made that clear when it came time to respond to criticisms, and it actually isn’t that bad of an argument. Football is an ever-changing sport. One of the main reasons why it has stayed relevant and culturally impactful since the very first time in history that someone decided to kick a round-shaped ball - aside from the obvious reason of it being the beautiful game - is because it adapts to the times.
It’s hard to name a sporting competition that hasn’t seen modifications in its structure or qualifying process throughout its entire history. The World Cup of today isn’t the same World Cup it was in 1930. The European Championship isn’t the same tournament it was in 1960. Football federations around the world are constantly shifting the way their domestic leagues and cups work.
New competitions are also being introduced, like the Nations League or the Conference League.
Whether it’s a revision or a fresh tournament, world football is constantly changing as the needs of football fans, players and society as a whole also change.
The Champions League is no different. Originally known as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup up until the early 1990s, there have been over 10 revisions to the overall structure and qualification process of the tournament.
This new model will be just another change to add to the bunch, albeit the most dramatic shift of them all.
All this being said, it’s time to give my own opinion.
To put it straight, I’m going to have a hard time getting used to this new format. It seems like too grand of a modification for my liking, and I personally enjoy the appeal to a group stage.
On a deeper level, I don’t necessarily mind change; I try to stay as open-minded as possible when it comes to the way football works, but I’ll call out an issue if I see one.
Unfortunately, I do see a number of issues with this change. Firstly, I personally empathize with players like Gündoğan who aren’t happy with having to prepare for and play more high-level matches. The European schedule is already broken as it is, so even if it’s just two more matches in the books per club, it can still have a huge impact on the overall fatigue level of a squad in the early stages of the season.
Let’s not forget about international ‘breaks’ either.
It almost seems like a punishment for being good, and I won’t be surprised to see certain clubs fielding significantly weaker squads on more than one matchday in this league phase so that it doesn’t compromise their domestic efforts.
It already happens now with the current group stage; big clubs like Bayern, Real Madrid or Manchester City may opt to throw in the reserves for the last couple matchdays if they’ve already managed to guarantee themselves 1st place.
Playing 8 matches in a whole new setup that sees the best 8 clubs automatically qualify - and the next 16 clubs have to play even more matches to have a chance of qualifying - introduces even more reasons for clubs to rest their best players.
So from a footballers aspect, I don’t agree with the new format.
From a fan’s perspective, I also am not too fond of it, but I am willing to let it play out at least for one season before coming to a full conclusion. The only reason I say this is because many of the complaints fired at UEFA were actually heard. The original proposal was 10 matches guaranteed per team in the league phase, but the final decision ended up being 8 games.
They also decided that two of the four slots will be allocated on the basis of past performance. It doesn't make much difference, but for all we know, it could’ve been all four.
But like I said, I’m willing to give it a try. My only hope is that it doesn’t take much of a toll on player fitness and. of course, the overall quality of our beautiful game.