National League suffers in UEFA revamp

 

The peace deal between UEFA and Europe's most powerful clubs, signalled in Geneva last Friday and due to be finalised in Israel early next month, is sure to prove another major blow to the game in this country.

The one positive upshot of UEFA's retaining control of the main club competitions in this part of the world is that everyone in Merrion Square will still have their contact numbers. However, what precisely they might ever get to use them for again is something of a mystery.

For the FAI itself, the fact that the club competitions have merely been overhauled while retaining their footing in UEFA's well-established structures pretty much kills off all of the vague talk of the past few months about the association here gaining control of a super-league franchise for this country.

In reality Wimbledon's proposed move was probably the best shot - and it was an outside one - that Dublin had of having a team competing at this level. Missing out on the opportunity is simply the price that Bernard O'Byrne and Co. will have to pay for scuppering, or at least delaying, that move.

Not that missing out on a place amongst Europe's elite clubs would matter all that much to the FAI if it weren't for the fact that the possibility of big European club games being played here had been used as a central argument in favour of building a major football stadium in the capital.

The announcement a couple of weeks ago of Bertie's wacky national stadium plan must have already left the FAI's officers with a sinking feeling, but the fact that, with virtually no capital in place to fund the development themselves and with their hopes for the required government support fading, the news that around half the games that the stadium would have been required for each year are not now actually going to happen must be a bit of a blow.

Like the announcement of the new Champions League, the National League clubs have been dealt the same sort of blow by UEFA's initiative. Under the proposals, which will come into effect next season, 73 clubs will take part in the continent's main club competition, with 32 thrashing it out in a spectacularly drawn-out second phase.

Half the teams in the group stages of the competition will qualify automatically, with six countries taking two places apiece, three taking one and the holders filling the remaining slot. But under the proposals Italy, Germany and Spain - the three leading performers in European competition in recent years - will have another two clubs apiece in with a chance of qualifying for the league groups while England, France and the Netherlands will have a chance of gaining a third spot.

For the Irish, qualification for European football's gravy train will become an ever more remote possibility.

Next summer the Irish champions will have to play a first-round game against opponents from one of the other countries ranked between 27 and 48 on UEFA's ranking list (trips to the Faroe Islands, Armenia and Azerbaijan await), with the winners likely to face opposition from the middle-ranking nations - these include Russia, Croatia and Turkey.

Up to now that's where it would have finished, with Derry, for instance, needing to beat Slovenia's champions and Turkey's runners-up last season in order to make the big time. (As it happens they lost to the Slovenians).

Now, however, there will no longer be the safety net of a place in the UEFA Cup for losers and winners will have to play a third qualifying round against teams who could have finished either third or fourth in one of the leading leagues.

For Irish clubs, the qualification process, as it will be in the new UEFA Cup too, is likely to start in - and end in, unless things dramatically improve - early July, which should please proponents of summer football but will be disastrous in the context of our current calendar.

Nor will the revenue opportunities improve significantly for players intent on bagging all of the cash for themselves.

After Friday's meeting UEFA President Lennart Johansson was slapping himself on the back for pulling off such a fine balancing act "In the new proposal nobody will lose anything. We are in a position to give more to the top associations and to open the door to the smaller associations."

In reality, though, the less important participants are being sacrificed, not to the same extent that they would have been under the Media Partners plan but sacrificed nonetheless, in order to maximise earnings for the main players.

One UEFA official, quoted over the weekend in an English newspaper, admitted as much when he said: "In the past UEFA took from the rich countries and clubs and gave to the poorer ones. We are now going to ditch that sort of brutal socialism and go for a more free-market approach."

The sort of money involved is expected to be enormous, with a revenue of more than £400 million being set for the Champions League, of which the eventual winners will receive up to 10 per cent.

The rest will be divided up much as it is at present, with cash being awarded in proportion to the points achieved. This is likely to remain the basis for distribution, although there will now be two different league stages, with eight groups of four being reduced to four groups of four before the knockout stages begin.

That is going to mean that the number of games played almost doubles - from 49 to 85 - in the latter stages of the competition and a large portion of these games will have to be shown on pay-per-view television in order to achieve the financial targets. All of which is likely to mean more televised games clashing with National League games and more Irish footballer supporters' money going to overseas clubs and media organisations.