Expanding the Champions League to 64 teams would require unworthy qualifiers and thus dilute its quality
Just as one Frenchman invented the European Cup, which metamorphosed into the Champions League, so another is about to oversee a process that could determine whether or not there is ever going to be a full-blown European League.
Gabriel Hanot, a former player who was then editor of the sports daily L'Equipe, was the inspiration behind the introduction of the European Cup in the mid-1950s. Now another ex-pro, Michel Patini, the president of Uefa, has revealed that one option under consideration for the restructuring of the European competitions would involve expanding the Champions League from 32 clubs to 64 by combining it with the Europa League.
The reason for this is not so much that the Champions League is in need of improvement as the Europa League's failure to make an impact since it replaced the Uefa Cup four seasons ago. Premier League managers tend to regard the Europa League much as they regard the League Cup, namely as a chance to rest players before more important matches at the weekend. The relatively low attendances for Europa League games, moreover, suggest that for a lot of fans Thursday night is not a football night.
There has always been a market for a secondary competition in Europe and the Cup Winners' Cup, which did not make it past the millennium, is still missed. The Uefa Cup, which began life as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the late 50s, fitted easily into the fixture list and produced some memorable finals, among them Liverpool's 5-4 victory over Alavés in Dortmund in 2001 that was won by a golden goal in sudden-death extra time.
The Europa League is a result of a mindset that decrees football tournaments should expand to take up the amount of television time and money available. "Small is beautiful," declared Lennart Johansson, then the Uefa president, on the eve of the eight-nation 1992 European Championship but the next one was twice as big.
The European Cup gave way to the Champions League because the clubs were threatening to break away from Uefa and form their own league unless they had more European games. Add to this the fact that the leading television companies wanted their teams to be guaranteed a certain number of fixtures in return for their money and the idea of a hybrid competition, part-league, part‑cup, was born.
Once the indigestible system of having two group stages to decide who progresses to the knockout stage was abolished the Champions League just about got it right. Clubs can easily cope with half-a-dozen group matches in the first half of the season while the two-legged ties thereafter are not a serious distraction when other competitions are approaching their climax.
Doubling the size of the tournament, however, would throw the entire European season out of kilter and seriously upset the balance between domestic and international interests. The Premier League has a worldwide TV audience that brings in significant income. It would surely not take kindly to the idea of being upstaged by a bloated Champions League that would inevitably find leading clubs spreading their playing resources to meet the demands of both competitions.
The Champions League would risk having its quality diluted by the introduction of teams who, far from winning their leagues the last time around, barely made it into the top half of the table. Last season Everton finished seventh in the Premier League, a creditable achievement by David Moyes and his players considering the club's modest financial resources. Yet they were 33 points behind the top team, Manchester City, and the thought that this might in future be enough to qualify for the Champions League is risible.
For the moment it seems that the most likely outcome of Uefa's deliberations will be to give both Europa League finalists places in the Champions League after 2015. But should this fail to rouse more interest among the competing clubs the case for integrating the two tournaments might find more favour.
So why not go the whole hog and have a European League proper, as has been mooted for several decades? After all there was a time when the possibility of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal meeting Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Juventus and the Milan teams on a regular basis made the mouth water.
But that was before Bosman, when the leading teams still reflected their nation's distinctive footballing characteristics. Now a European League would simply be another multinational conglomerate and English football already has one of those. Spotting the difference would not be easy.