against some of their own members. But the documents reviewed by The Times, the product of a project that appears to have been in the works for more than a year, present a more formidable threat to domestic leagues and most clubs than previously known.
If approved, they would result in a Champions League that could render national competitions nearly irrelevant, impose significant barriers to entry for teams outside the game’s current elite and deepen the divide between the two dozen richest clubs and the hundreds of others that make up the bulk of the European game.
Officials from the domestic leagues were shown the proposal for restructured European competitions this week. The new tournaments would, starting in 2024, allow the top 24 teams in a 32-team Champions League to qualify automatically for the next season’s event, effectively guaranteeing them annual participation and tens of millions of dollars more in broadcasting revenue than their domestic rivals would receive. Those rivals would most likely be unable to match the rich clubs’ spending power and would find it prohibitively difficult to play their way into the Champions League on the field.
The biggest clubs, notably those from Spain and Italy, are pushing the proposals the hardest, according to people familiar with the discussions. They argue that the changes are needed to provide more fiscal certainty year after year.
UEFA has been in talks about proposals for months with the European Club Association, a group that is led by Juventus’s chairman, Andrea Agnelli, and is driving the campaign for an elite competition. UEFA belatedly met with representatives of Europe’s leagues on Wednesday. After the meeting, Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA president, said, “At the moment we have only ideas and opinions.”
Some leaders of European leagues who were present did not accept that description, pointing out that only one proposal had been presented — a formal one with charts and graphics that was created without input from the leagues. The Spanish league president Javier Tebas, a vocal critic of the plans, said after the meeting that the plans were so developed that there appeared to be little room for negotiation.
“We cannot accept that these are just plans and proposals for an open discussion with stakeholders about the future of professional football,” Tebas told The Times. “In reality, we were presented with a concrete project developed by UEFA in full cooperation with a small group of rich and powerful European clubs to reform European club competitions after 2024 in a format that could destroy domestic competitions and the sporting and financial sustainability of the vast majority of clubs in Europe.
“We are open for a constructive dialogue to reform European football together with other stakeholders, but if this is the project on the table, then the margins for negotiations are very limited.”
While the Champions League’s main competition will continue to be the 32-team event it is today, UEFA envisages substantial changes to its format to ensure a longer group stage in which teams would play in four groups of eight, with the top four teams qualifying for the knockout stages. Such a setup would create dozens more matchups of elite clubs to sell to broadcasters, with some perhaps on weekend dates that are traditionally reserved for domestic league play.
Champions from lower-profile leagues like those in the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and most of Eastern Europe, as well as elite-league clubs outside the top four or five spots in their domestic competitions, would be relegated to a 32-team second-tier competition and to a third division with 64 teams. Teams would be eligible to be promoted and relegated among the three divisions, but the financial resources available to those at the top could create a competitive advantage that might secure their places in the Champions League for the foreseeable future. Only four of the 32 places would be reserved for incoming clubs each season.
Leaders of Europe’s domestic leagues fear the changes could reduce their competitions to fourth-tier afterthoughts behind the three European competitions, while small and medium-size clubs have expressed concern that their fans would no longer have the chance to dream of even competing against the continent’s biggest clubs for Europe’s biggest prizes.
“The objective of football is to give happiness to fans, and to give happiness is to have a chance of winning,” said Bernard Caiazzo, the owner of the French team St.-Étienne.
The uncertainty has already prevented some teams from securing outside investment, according to Caiazzo. His club, once a power in European competition, had been in talks with minority investors who have now cooled on buying a minority stake, he said.
St.-Étienne has a storied past, having won 10 French championships during a heyday that ended with its last league title in 1981. In recent years, it has found itself among the also-rans in France’s Ligue 1, as first Lyon and now Paris St.-Germain — a club whose rise has been financed by seemingly endless infusions of cash from its Qatari owners — have dominated French soccer.
He said he worried that the proposed Champions League overhaul would leave new owners with no reason to invest.
“Of course, these investors, new investors, will consider if we close the system that of course they could suddenly be outside,” Caiazzo said.
An earlier version of this article misstated how many of the top teams would qualify automatically for the next season’s event, starting in 2024, under the new proposal. It is 24 teams, not 21.
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