At the Ritz Carlton in Vienna on Tuesday, the UEFA Executive Committee agreed to sign off on a new format for the Champions League from the start of the 2024-25 season after two years of intense debate.
It could see the Premier League earn a fifth qualifying spot — up from four — although there is a scenario where there could be seven English teams taking part in the competition.
Those changes are due to be announced by Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA’s president, at the governing body’s annual congress today, which will end several years of politicking between Europe’s biggest sides and should — for now — put an end to any threat of a Super League.
The meetings in Vienna followed on from a gathering in Madrid on Monday, where senior representatives from UEFA attended a meeting of the European Club Association’s (ECA) board.
In the end, the changes were unanimously agreed between the executive committee, with support from the ECA, European Leagues and national associations.
The result is a competition that could see teams from the same countries meeting far sooner, as well as fans cheering on their domestic rivals to aid their own hopes. The Athletic breaks down what’s changed and what it all means…
How will the Champions League look from 2024?
The number of competing teams in the competition will increase from 32 to 36, meaning there will now be 189 matches instead of 125, and the group stage will be replaced by a league phase — otherwise known as the “Swiss model”.
Each team will be guaranteed to play eight matches in the league phase, down from the proposed 10 after talks in Vienna, of which they will play half at home and half away.
The top eight sides in the league will automatically qualify for the knockout stage. Those finishing in ninth to 24th will compete in a two-legged play-off to determine who reaches the last-16 of the competition.
Two of the extra four slots will be awarded to nations whose clubs achieve the best collective performance in the season before. To work this out, the total points earned will be divided by the number of competing sides in European club competitions.
This is a notable move away from the much-maligned and heavily criticized five-year historical coefficients.
If the new rules had been applied to the 2021-22 season, the two extra places would go to clubs from England and the Netherlands. In four of the past five campaigns, a team in the Premier League would have received one of the additional slots.
In theory, the Premier League could end up with a total of seven teams in the Champions League due to the coefficient spot awarded on performance and the winners of Europe’s biggest club competition and the Europa League (should those clubs not otherwise qualify automatically.)
A senior UEFA source described this scenario “as likely as a meteorite hitting this room”.
In another change, clubs from the same country will now be able to play against each other in the early knockout stages. Domestic are currently blocked until the quarter-finals.
The eight league-style matches will be spread over 10 weeks, a decision that was made last year, and it will mean the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League will have an exclusive week dedicated to their tournament.
Discussions on how the finances will be distributed for the 2024-27 cycle are yet to be discussed, but those negotiations are now expected to begin.
How is that different to what we have at the moment?
As it stands, four Premier League teams can qualify for the Champions League, but such is the English top flight’s dominance, they are almost certainly guaranteed five slots from 2024 onwards.
One element that will not be changing when the new system is introduced in 2024 is the two-legged semi-finals.
The Times reported in May that “momentum is building for two-legged Champions League semi-finals to be scrapped, with leading European clubs backing a plan to play the semis and final over a single week in one city”.
However, that is unlikely to be implemented any time soon, with UEFA committed to keeping them in place for the foreseeable future.
Why did it take so long?
Talks over a dramatic reform to the Champions League, which were often heated and bitter, have been ongoing since 2019.
There has been more than enough political manoeuvring from Europe’s biggest teams, culminating in the failed European Super League attempt.
Had the historical coefficient proposals gone through, it would have essentially made the Champions League a closed shop — something the Super League would have been for Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona among others.
Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli was a key figure in the plan and, in recent times, has witnessed his historically great side fall behind state-backed clubs such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
Ceferin, as recently as March, described the failed Super League plot as a “non-football project” and will view the new 2024 format as a win over the clubs who conspired to implement seismic changes to European football.
UEFA knows its competition is not as marketable without Real Madrid, Barcelona and co competing in it, so it was about finding a mutually agreeable compromise and moving forward.
“We are convinced that the format decided 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,” Ceferin said on Tuesday.
Who will be happy about it?
The Premier League will be delighted that they are almost guaranteed to have five Champions League places instead of four.
You would also expect Spain, Germany and Italy to be relatively satisfied with the new format as the second extra spot is likely to end up going to either La Liga, the Bundesliga or Serie A.
Despite there being bonus points for being in the Champions League as opposed to the Europa League or Europa Conference League, a smaller country could still earn one of the coefficient places.
Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association, welcomed the decision: “Supporters have been consistent in their arguments against any expansion of European competition that would eat into domestic football and attack our principles of sporting merit.
“Our persistence has paid off and has put the brakes on the worst excesses of Europe’s biggest clubs. While any increase in the number of games is a step in the wrong direction, it appears that fans’ input into the dialogue with UEFA has not been in vain.”
Who will be annoyed?
There is a school of thought that UEFA were only listening to the Premier League and La Liga when it came to deitching the 10-game league phase and reducing it to eight matches.
France’s Ligue 1 wanted 10 games and not club coefficients. They wrote to UEFA and the ECA to say that is why they reduced their domestic league to 18. They anticipated the increase in European games.
They did not like club coefficients, though. They wanted one of the two extra places to be given to a domestic champion from a mid-sized league and the other one to the fifth-biggest league so it had four spots, like the top four leagues. At the moment, the fifth-best league is Ligue 1.
It essentially boils down to every league being greedy and wanting more, but the new format will offer balance and should encourage teams playing in either of UEFA’s three club competitions to go as far as possible and earn coefficient points for their country.
What does it mean for Premier League clubs?
Premier League sources welcomed UEFA’s decision to drop the historical coefficient places and reduce the number of group-stage matches from 10 to eight.
Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, is thought to have worked hard with UEFA on the proposals and this will go down as a win on his behalf.
There is now a very real prospect that England’s top flight will have seven teams competing in European club competitions every season, which is good news for those outside of the established Big Six.
The rhetoric concerning the race to finish in the top four is now likely to change to the top five, and that will come as a boost to the sides trying to break into the established elite.
Teams such as West Ham United, Newcastle United and Leicester City should be buoyed by the news that there is an extra Champions League slot up for grabs by finishing fifth.
Under the new rules, Leicester would have qualified for the Champions League last season.
The changes should also satisfy disgruntled club executives who criticized the historical coefficient proposals as deeply unfair and putting a glass ceiling on what they could achieve.
Making it country coefficient takes away the club argument.
There is, however, an argument to suggest that the financial gap between the smaller-sized teams and bigger sides will only grow bigger due to the new Champions League format. This is down to the potential of an additional spot as well as increased broadcast revenue from the competition.
What about the Europa League and Europa Conference League? What’s changed there?
Similar format changes will be applied to both competitions.
The Europa League is doing away with the traditional group stage and replacing it with the league phase, with each team having to play eight matches.
Clubs competing in the Europa Conference League will play six matches in the league stage.
Both competitions will start with 36 teams.
(Top photo: Getty Images)