Financial, Soccer Ideals Collide in Champions League

FILE - In this file photo dated Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, French soccer player Kylian Mbappe poses with his Paris Saint-Germain team shirt following a press conference in Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, FILE)

ROB HARRIS, AP Global Soccer Writer

LONDON (AP) — UEFA is putting itself in a quandary by combing through Paris Saint-Germain’s finances, investigating whether the French capital club has flouted spending rules to sign Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.

On one hand UEFA doesn’t want out-of-control spending by the clubs. On the other it wants more clubs to be competitive.

No team is better placed than PSG to give the Champions League something missing for 13 years: A team in the final from outside England, Germany, Italy and Spain.

And yet the overzealous spending that could allow PSG to break up that Champions League monopoly, by winning its first title, could also see the club blocked from entry next year by the organizers of European soccer’s flagship club competition.

It’s where the need for fiscal diligence collides with mission statements by UEFA leaders desiring more open, exciting competitions.

Enhancing the competitive balance within the Champions League is the thorny issue UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin is trying to resolve while grappling with the spending rules inherited from disgraced predecessor Michel Platini amid constant threats of a breakaway by the gilded elite.

Although UEFA is trying to drum up excitement around the start of the Champions League proper this week, rarely does the group stage deliver a shock once the standings are complete in December. Leading teams are unlikely to be squeezed out of the top two places in each group to progress to the knockout phase.

And from next season the competition will prove even tougher if you aren’t from one of Europe’s top four football nations. England, Germany, Italy and Spain are to enjoy the luxury of four automatic spots in the group stage, removing the need for any teams to negotiate the August playoffs, and entrenching the status of the privileged.

Less well-off clubs, though, have gained an unlikely champion in Javier Tebas, the president of the Spanish league which has been represented in the past four Champions League finals. Tebas, irritated that Neymar left Barcelona for PSG, has led calls for the Qatari-owned club to be punished by UEFA for paying for his world-record transfer. Tebas also wants to dilute the concentration of wealth in the game.

“As more and more money is given to these clubs it’ll be taken away from the smaller leagues and smaller clubs,” Tebas told The Associated Press. “Football will lose its structure and clubs will either be much richer or much poorer and it’ll affect the competitions.”

But there are dangers, too, for domestic competitions if UEFA simply doles out the Champions League revenue more equitably; fattening the prize money for entrants from smaller countries is worsening the imbalance.

Competition in smaller leagues has already been distorted — wiped out in several cases — due to the economic advantage that strengthens each year for teams sealing return tickets to the Champions League.

In UEFA’s Swiss homeland, Basel has won eight league titles in a row. Around 35 million euros ($42 million) has been banked by Basel from the Champions League and Europa League in the last three seasons — the same amount clubs in Switzerland’s top two divisions are expected to share this season from television and marketing revenue.

It’s a similar story in Greece where Olympiakos has won seven titles in a row. Celtic has cruised to the last six titles in Scotland, as has Juventus in Italy. Bayern Munich (Germany) and APOEL (Cyprus) are both five-time defending champions. And in Portugal, Benfica and Porto have shared the top domestic trophy for the last 15 years.

Copenhagen, winner of the last two Danish titles, will not feature in the Champions League group stage this year after being beaten in the playoff round by Azerbaijani newcomer Qarabag. Dropping into the Europa League, though, will be healthier for Danish football.

“Somebody at Copenhagen might kill me for saying this,” Danish league chief executive Claus Thomsen told the AP. “But it’s a bigger problem for the Danish competitive balance if we have one team participating in the Champions League each year and no participants in the Europa League, than if we had two teams in the Europa league every year.

“There’s already a distortion where if one club for a number of years qualifies for the Champions League it will eventually distort the competitive balance.”

Rarely are the cream of European clubs so blunt to air the view publicly, but they really do not want to be playing smaller teams like Copenhagen anyway.

Head-to-heads like Barcelona-Juventus in the group stage on Tuesday are the fixtures desired by the elite more often; they are more attractive to broadcasters in an era of declining television ratings.

Just the type of matches you would get in a Super League.

The four guaranteed group-stage slots for the English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and Serie A from 2018-19 were handed down only to placate clubs threatening once again to launch a breakaway competition.

So while UEFA looks to punish teams like PSG for spending too heavily, and talks about spreading the wealth, those objectives run head first into conflict with the desires of the clubs with the financial might and the stars of the game.

FIFA is preparing the ground for a larger slice of the club game. The global body is exploring expanding its little-regarded annual Club World Cup into a 24-team extravaganza every four years, with the bulk of slots for the European teams featuring the stars of the game.

“We are in the middle of a transformation where we will shift to new competition models,” Dutch league chief executive Jacco Swart said. “What is very important I think is we have to stand open for new models because it’s not always that the current competition models are the best.”

Swart, a member of the board of the European Professional Leagues organization, raises the prospect of an international club competition. The International Champions Trophy, an American-backed privately operated, invite-only preseason competition, is gaining traction and could be laying the foundations for an eventual Super League one day.

“Not only do the governing bodies have the monopoly anymore of organizing competitions,” Swart said.

UEFA has been put on notice as the Champions League groups get underway.

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AP Global Soccer Writer Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports