Champions League avenger Agnelli risks futile push for fan of tomorrow | Paul MacInnes
The worlds of Marvel superheroes and European club football aren’t so dissimilar. They are massively popular forms of entertainment, competing for eyeballs in the global marketplace. They have traditional fans who remember things how they used to be and those who want a product that reflects their lives now. They each boast a roster of names that vary in terms of recognition (for every Incredible Hulk or Barcelona, there is a Moon Knight or FC Krasnodar) and right now they are setting up their next chapter.
For Marvel it is about expansion: more TV shows, more characters and more movies, such as Benedict Cumberbatch in Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The powers of European football want similar growth, but in which direction? Casting himself as football’s own Sorcerer Supreme this week was Andrea Agnelli and the multiverse of possibilities he presented struck many as particularly crazy.
On Monday the chairman of Juventus and president of the European Clubs Association confirmed football’s worst kept secret: that the Champions League is to be reformed. There will be more teams, more matches, a group stage of one league table and seeded fixtures arranged in what is known as the “Swiss system”.
Agnelli described such a system as ideal and said he expected it to be agreed within weeks. He said he also expected some of the four extra teams to be allowed to qualify on their historical European record and not their domestic performance, something that would suit his member clubs but seems only very tenuously related to the idea of a ‘Champions’ cup.
Agnelli was not overly concerned by such a shift. “Unprecedented events then turn into normality,” he said.
This is not the only transformation Agnelli sees coming. He can perceive disturbances in another dimension; the one that controls the game itself. In answering a question about how better to regulate football agents, Agnelli casually mentioned he would like to stop Champions League clubs from buying each other’s players. Such a measure, he suggested, would not only stop huge transfers between the biggest sides, but allow them to concentrate instead on buying “champion players in smaller countries”.
Big teams would not only be able to hoover up talent from smaller rivals, they would be obliged to. Naturally, this raised a few eyebrows.
Agnelli went on to say that he thought this idea should be on the table when it comes time, in 2024, for the ECA to renew its “memorandum of understanding” with Uefa. This is a document that dictates the terms on which the two bodies will work together for the benefit of each other and the game. Go through the most recent version, in 2019 and it reads like nothing less than a peace treaty.
Central to the agreement is the workings of the Club Competitions Committee (CCC). It’s the CCC that decides “any matter having a material impact on Uefa club competitions”, including the shape of the tournament and, yes, who gets the money. The ECA is represented on the CCC but, to make any changes, the CCC must have their plans approved by Uefa’s leadership. If Uefa bosses do not agree and if a one-to-one summit between the presidents of Uefa and the ECA cannot agree a compromise, the status quo remains in place.
That standstill, effectively a veto held by the governing body, would seem to be a quite important lock in stopping the Champions League from being controlled by its biggest clubs. It could be why such clubs might believe a breakaway Super League as better suited to their individual interests. A breakaway, Agnelli suggested this week, that would not be possible if his clubs were to sign a new memorandum.
So perhaps Agnelli really wants to stop Real Madrid from signing Kylian Mbappé or maybe it’s just a negotiation and he knows the discombobulation such a thought would provoke.
You get the sense he enjoys playing in the minds of those running the game. His organisation – with its youthful British chief executive hired from the tech sector – carries itself as an increasingly confident, disruptive power broker.
However, the Italian’s pitch for more “competitive” European football is not only about making it more responsive to the needs of his members (which, as he pointed out, extends to 246 clubs). It’s also about catering to the fan of tomorrow.
If football is to continue to grow as it has these past two decades (pre-Covid at least), if all those who have invested heavily in the game are to see their desired returns, they need to sell a product that is as compelling as a Marvel movie. That’s why, among all the other ideas, Agnelli mooted selling instant highlights for matches or 15-minute subscription packages; the better to attract a demographic – 18- to 24-year-old males – who are not paying attention.
It could just be, however, that the fan of tomorrow is a chimera. That football will remain popular with the hardcore who enjoy the sport for what it is, while those who might have engaged for entertainment will choose something more inherently designed for the purpose. If that turns out to be the case, all this change will have been for nothing.