It was the rarest of feats in modern European soccer: Ajax Amsterdam, a proud club from the Dutch league, battling its way past giants like Real Madrid and Juventus to the cusp of a place in the Champions League final.
Ajax’s journey, which began in the summer qualifying rounds and was ended by an injury-time goal in the semifinals on Wednesday, was the kind of puncher’s chance that every small club dreams of in the Champions League. But it is unlikely to be repeated if concrete proposals for the future of European soccer drawn by the continent’s governing body and its richest clubs come to fruition.
While officials from the continent’s biggest clubs and UEFA, which governs the sport in Europe and organizes the Champions League, have suggested there is a suite of options on the table, documents obtained by The New York Times outline only one developed plan. If approved, it would calcify the Champions League into a competition dominated by a small group of elite clubs, and leave as few as four of its 32 places available for teams from Europe’s 55 national leagues.
Discussions over the proposed changes have proved controversial, pitting national leagues — led by England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and competitions in Germany and France — 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 to 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 21 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. 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 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 that is driving the campaign for an elite competition. UEFA belatedly met 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 present did not accept that description, pointing out that only one proposal was 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 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, perhaps including on weekend dates traditionally reserved for domestic league play.
Champions from lower-profile leagues like 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 already has 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 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.