What unites us in Europe? In the current crisis, when the world is changing from a rule-based to a power-based order, Europe is moving closer together and remembering its most important principle: rules and laws apply. This has been agreed in Porto and Helsinki, Bruges and Athens, Warsaw, Prague and Ljubljana.

Football is a mosaic of social life. It contributes to negotiating and communicating values. Whether it finds acceptance and whether western society identifies with it depends on whether its competitions are fair and subject to good rules, ie whether many are allowed to participate with a chance of success.

This works surprisingly well in the national teams, measured by the fact that the size of the countries is a decisive factor for them and no one in Europe wants to change anything about the sovereignty of their borders. There have been 10 different winners in 16 European Championship tournaments.

The problem lies in club football. A lot of money flows into it, from which some leagues and teams profit disproportionately. This creates national monopolies and in the Champions League whole regions of Europe are left behind. It is now up to the competition authorities.

“People go to football because they don’t know the result,” Sepp Herberger, the West Germany World Cup-winning coach of 1954, said. This is no longer true in Germany and the situation is similar in France. The two metropolises of Munich and Paris have developed into monopolies.

Because Bayern are aiming for their 10th championship in a row, people in Germany are discussing play-offs. The title would then depend on a few games at the end of the season. This is how the Bundesliga is supposed to become exciting again. But play-offs cannot be the solution. They would only fight the symptoms, not the cause. Changing the mode does not replace the question: how do you organise competition so that football is fun and many are involved in it?

The greatest density of competition is in the Premier League, where almost all clubs are in the hands of very rich owners. However, no attention has been paid to who is allowed to finance football as a national asset. Roman Abramovich has been hit with sanctions. And the debate on how to regulate who is allowed to invest under which conditions in the future is being conducted very intensively in England. In Europe, universal human rights must be fundamental in this question.

International competition needs innovation, it needs to be reinvented regularly. The Champions League is attractive, the finals are watched by more than 100 million worldwide. But the winners of the past 11 years have come from three countries. In this century, no club from Scandinavia, the Balkans, east central Europe or eastern Europe has reached the semi-finals. The last one was Dynamo Kyiv in 1999.

Does Europe’s football consist only of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France? What about the other nations? Do they have to be happy to only play in the preliminary round?

Benfica, for example, European Cup winners in 1961 and 1962, have a large stadium, many members and a rich tradition. The city exerts its charisma all the way to South America. Benfica are now in the quarter-finals, but because the Portuguese league is too small it is very difficult for the club to compete in the Champions League. The same can be said about Ajax.

Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Copenhagen are also only allowed to watch as soon as the decisive phase begins. Yet these great cities would be interesting for investors who could create the framework conditions for success.

Benfica are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League but it is difficult for Portuguese clubs to compete due to their smaller league.
Benfica are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League but it is difficult for Portuguese clubs to compete due to their smaller league. Photograph: John Berry/Getty Images

The record used to look different. The last 10 winners of the European Cup of Nations, as the Champions League was called before its introduction in 1992, came from eight countries, including Romania, Portugal, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. This diversity has generated enthusiasm, made football socially relevant and the Champions League possible.

Europe needs to find intelligent solutions at the negotiating table – to be cooperative, willing to compromise, and take different interests into account. This includes shaping a league that offers many a chance to succeed, sportingly and economically. It is not an easy task, but it is an interesting one. Uefa and all national associations have a responsibility here, including those who finance the sport. When, if not now, is the time for reform? The desire for change and the sense of solidarity are great at the moment.

The experience with the planned Super League last year shows if the institutions do nothing, the matter could be taken out of their hands. But if a few top clubs then set the conditions, the most lucrative model of a European league will prevail, not the most culturally interesting.

Europe has great appeal in the world because it adheres to its democratic order and stands for freedom and equality. This also applies to its sporting competitions, as long as they offer participation and equal opportunities. These are values that are constantly being rebalanced in an alliance of equal nations. The west is strengthening its cohesion in these days and weeks and football must make its contribution.

Philipp Lahm’s column appears regularly in the Guardian. It is produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine, and is being published in several European countries.