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Platini loses power battle to Europe's big clubs

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Mihir Bose | 22:10 UK time, Monday, 12 November 2007

Revolution often produces unexpected results, or so it seems with Michel Platini’s big idea of radically changing the Champions League.

Instead of cutting the power of the bigger leagues like the Premier League he has ended up making them stronger.

He has made some changes but they are nothing like as revolutionary as he promised.

This time last year, when he was campaigning for the Uefa presidency, he told me he did not like the idea of the bigger countries in Europe having four teams in the Champions League (the year after Liverpool won the Champions League, England had five).

Yet in stark contrast many of the champions from lesser footballing countries do not even get into the Champions League.

The proposal he came up with was that six new champions from the less successful leagues would qualify automatically for the group stage.

Platini, the romantic revolutionary, also wanted the winners of the cup to get a chance to play in the Champions League.

Sixteen of them would go into the qualifying round replacing the fourth-placed team from England, Italy and Spain and the third-placed team from other countries.

The professional leagues and the big clubs viewed these proposals with horror. Their gripe against Uefa has always been that it tries to be what it should not.

The leagues and the big clubs want Uefa to be a competition organiser making sure the Champions League, the Uefa Cup and the European Championship are well run events.

One leading club official told me: "The problem with Uefa is that they are not happy being a competition organiser, they want to be a regulator of European football. Regulation is for Fifa and the national associations."

The big clubs remember how in 1998 a plan to form a breakaway European league masterminded by Media Partners threw Uefa into such chaos that they radically altered the Champions League. Those changes ushered in the present format.

But since then Uefa has tinkered with the system abolishing the second group stage. The clubs did not like it and they always moan about lack of consultation.

This time round Platini tried to get the big clubs on side. First of all he offered the clubs from the bigger leagues a sweetener.

At the moment the third- and fourth-placed English, Italian and Spanish teams have to play a qualifying round before they can get into the Champions League proper.

Platini proposed that the top three should qualify automatically. He thought this would make it easier for the fourth spot to be offered to the cup winners.

He also offered consultation forming the European Strategic Council which brings together leagues, players' representatives and Uefa in one big European forum.

But this is where he ran into problems. The clubs decided to accept the proposals they liked but reject the ones they did not.

So they fought vigorously against the idea of cup winners coming into the Champions League. But they liked the idea of the third-placed team qualifying automatically.

And to give something to Platini they agreed that six new champions from the less successful leagues can qualify automatically.

It benefits Scotland whose champions will now qualify directly. It does mean that the fourth-placed team will now play two rounds of qualifying but that is a small price for the victories the bigger leagues have won.

What is fascinating is how this decision has been presented. When I arrived in Nyon this morning I was under the impression that after the council meeting there would be a press conference. But come five o’clock everyone left saying nothing.

Uefa put forward its general secretary David Taylor, who merely said there had been good progress but gave no details. The reason for the secrecy was soon evident. Platini had not got his way and this put him and his executive in an awkward position.

The changes decided today have to be ratified by the Uefa executive later this month. The meeting will be held in Lucerne during the draw for Euro 2008.

Platini wants to go there not as the president overruled by the clubs but the man in charge whose executive has the power to decide.

Yet the game was given away as the leading players from the professional leagues left Uefa headquarters last night. They looked like cats who had got the cream.

Platini may have thought he ruled European football when he got elected.
The reality is the true power increasingly lies with the big clubs and the big leagues.

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