The Champions League could feature five English clubs on a regular basis from 2024 – and up to seven in exceptional circumstances – after a major overhaul of the competition was agreed on Tuesday.
More than a year of intense debate about the best way forward for Europe’s premier club competition following the collapse of the Super League has concluded, with UEFA deciding to award two places in a new, expanded 36-team league system to clubs from the two countries who collectively performed best in Europe’s club competitions in the previous season.
England would have gained an extra place in four of the last five seasons had this system been in use.
In theory seven English teams could qualify in a single season in this new model – the top four in the Premier League, a fifth-placed team via the country coefficient and the winners of the Champions League and the Europa League, if these were all different clubs.
A senior UEFA official described this scenario as being “as likely as a meteorite hitting this room” but it is nevertheless a possibility.
UEFA ditched an original proposal to award places based on an individual club’s performance in Europe over the past five seasons, which critics said created a safety net for big clubs who performed poorly domestically and had echoes of the Super League.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin lauded the agreement as proof that European football was “more united than ever”, but there remain some questions about just how open the new competition will be.
The current coefficient scoring system awards bonus points for Champions League group-stage qualification, which means those countries which already benefit from four places are at an advantage from the start. Senior UEFA sources said there are no plans as it stands to review that system.
Domestic leagues will also have questions about how these plans will impact their competitions, both in terms of arguably reducing interest by widening the Champions League race and the more pragmatic concerns around match scheduling.
Last year UEFA’s executive committee approved an increase in matches from six in the current format to 10, but that has been cut to eight amid pressure from domestic leagues and fans’ groups.
Teams will face eight different opponents, playing four home games and four away games on a seeded basis in the new 36-team league.
But even that more moderate increase still means Champions League matches in January for the first time, a period which has traditionally been reserved for domestic football in England. A senior Premier League source said the conversations around the new format were “not over yet”.
UEFA has ruled out the ‘week of football’ concept which had been reported, saying it will stick with two-leg semi-finals in its new plan, hot on the heels of the classic second-leg clash between Real Madrid and Manchester City at the Bernabeu.
Clubs from the same country will be able to meet sooner in the new format – now they can clash in the newly-introduced play-off round which will decide the final eight places in the last 16, rather than the quarter-finals currently.
In all, the new format means 64 extra matches, from the current 125 to 189.
The country coefficient proposal was put to the European Club Association’s board in Madrid on Monday, and the initial indications were that it would not be possible to make a final decision in Vienna.
However, progress was made on Tuesday morning, with the crucial UEFA club competitions committee meeting put back by an hour to allow time for further negotiation.
Ceferin added: “UEFA has clearly shown today that we are fully committed to respecting the fundamental values of sport and to defending the key principle of open competitions, with qualification based on sporting merit, fully in line with the values and solidarity-based European sports model.
“Today’s decisions conclude an extensive consultation process during which we listened to the ideas of fans, players, coaches, national associations, clubs and leagues to name but a few, with the aim to find the best solution for the development and success of European football, both domestically and on the international club stage.
“We are convinced that the format chosen strikes the right balance and that it will improve the competitive balance and generate solid revenues that can be distributed to clubs, leagues and into grassroots football across our continent while increasing the appeal and popularity of our club competitions.”
Revenue for the new competitions is projected to increase by almost 40 per cent, but discussions on the financial distribution model for the 2024-27 cycle – and how much goes to support clubs outside European competition – will now begin in earnest.
The two additional extra places in the group stage will go to a third club from the fifth-ranked association – currently France – and to a further domestic league winner qualifying via the ‘champions path’.