VIENNA (AP) — A scaled-back first phase to the expanded Champions League in 2024 was approved by UEFA on Tuesday to quell a backlash around Europe.
The reformatted group stage has been reduced from 10 rounds to eight, and backup places for teams based on historical performance have been replaced with a qualification method that rewards the most successful nations more recently in European football.
The stage will still grow from 32 to 36 teams based around a single standings rather than eight groups.
Weeks of talks involving domestic leagues and clubs went down to the wire on Tuesday to produce the revised format that will see two additional places in the expanded format awarded to the two countries with the highest UEFA ranking based on their teams’ results in European competitions the previous season.
If the system was already in place, it would mean the fifth-place team in England would qualify for the Champions League along with a second automatic place for the Netherlands. The team finishing third in the Dutch league would get a chance to enter the qualifying rounds.
The original plan that sparked criticism, particularly among middle-class clubs and fans, would have awarded the two places to teams with the strongest five-season record in Europe who failed to qualify through their domestic leagues.
The distribution of the other two expansion places will see an additional team qualify from the fifth-ranked country in Europe — regularly France — and a fifth slot for domestic champions who don't qualify automatically.
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin said the revisions agreed to at an executive committee meeting in Vienna ensure qualification is based on sporting performance.
An initial radical plan presented by UEFA in 2019 featured 24 of the 32 slots in the Champions League locked in without the need to qualify annually — a largely closed competition that Super League rebel clubs tried to then introduce with a failed breakaway last year.
The new format, that was tweaked on Tuesday, was initially ratified by UEFA in the turbulent days around the Super League launch in April 2021.
“We are convinced that the format chosen strikes the right balance," Čeferin said, “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.”
The first main stage to the new-look Champions League features teams playing eight different opponents, with the top eight qualifying automatically for the round of 16. But finishing up to 24th out of the 36 teams will secure entry into the 16-team playoff round.
The distribution of additional places means, based on the current status of England it could theoretically have seven teams in the Champions League. That would require English teams to win the Champions League and Europa League while not finishing in the top five in the Premier League.
There will be 10 weeks set aside for European games in the early league phase from 2024, but only eight will be used for the three UEFA competitions. They will each gain a week of exclusivity to particularly help the Europa League and Europa Conference League garner more of the spotlight as they also expand to 36 teams based around a single standings.
The current 32-team Champions League produces 96 games in the group stage. Dropping from 10 to eight games per team will make an extra 64 games rather than 100 before the round of 16. That would have an impact on UEFA's predictions of revenue rising about 40% from the current 3.5 billion euros ($3.8 billion) annually from its club competitions.
The Champions League was created in 1992 from the European Cup, which started in 1955 and was a knockout tournament for most of its existence.
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Rob Harris, The Associated Press