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UEFA approve new Champions League format

The new format will start in 2024, expand to 36 teams, create two non-merit-based spots, and feature a 10-match league format instead of the group stage.

UEFA Champions League Draw Photo by UEFA - Handout/UEFA via Getty Images

UEFA has formally approved significant changes to the structure of the Champions League at their ExCo meeting today. The vote was more a formality than anything else — the changes had been proposed and agreed to for a while, and the meeting has been on the calendar for months. The gathering takes on added significance in light of the Super League announcement, and I’m sure that those involved have used the meeting to discuss the topics of the day.

The changes look (unsurprisingly) similar to much of what The Super League would create. The new Champions League format, which would begin in 2024, would scrap the group stage as we know it and would add four additional clubs. Two of those clubs would qualify on merit: one spot would go to the third place finisher in the fifth-ranked league by UEFA’s calcuation (currently Ligue 1 in France), the other spot would go to a domestic champion i.e. one of the teams that gets thrown into the current summer playoff structure. The other two spots would go to the clubs with the highest UEFA club coefficient not otherwise qualified for the 36-team stage. That’s what the big clubs want — guaranteed access to European money independent from domestic finish.

Those 36 teams would participate in a league-like format where they would each play 10 of the other teams based on a yet-to-be-announced ranking / Swiss format (5 home, 5 away, which is up from 3 home, 3 away). The top 8 teams from the league format would qualify directly to the knockout stages. The 9th through 24th ranked clubs would be paired off for a two-legged tie to determine the other 8 spots in the knockout stages. Then, the knockout stages would proceed as they currently exist 16 -> 8 -> 4 -> 2 -> 1. Both the Europa League and the Conference League (the new, third tier league slated to start this summer) will see similar changes in format.

Not surprisingly, the news has gotten a bit lost in the churn of the day and because it’s a rubber-stamp on a proposed format that has been known for a while. It feels like part of the impetus behind the Super League is that these now-ratified changes don’t give the big clubs enough of what they wanted and don’t do it quickly enough. The Super League gives them guaranteed access to a much-larger pool of money immediately. The changes give them a better chance at a piece of a smaller pot. And when you look at it that way, it’s not hard to see why clubs like Arsenal have opted for the Super League. For what it’s worth, Arsenal would qualify for the Champions League in one of the club coefficient spots if the new format were to start next season.

My sense is that the breakaway clubs and UEFA / the Champions League will meet in the middle before the start of next season. The clubs will extract more out of UEFA but won’t get everything that they want, and UEFA will retain control of the premier continental competition. I think they’ll find an uneasy, fragile peace. How long that peace will last is anybody’s guess.