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Canny Platini behind European revamp

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Mihir Bose | 10:05 UK time, Friday, 31 August 2007

As a player, Michel Platini was very skilful and as president of Uefa he looks to have played an equally skilful game in his bid to change the format of the Champions League.

During his election campaign he made much of the fact that the current format allows not only national league champions but also those who finish as low as fourth - at least in the top leagues - to qualify for Europe’s greatest club competition.

Indeed, the last two English winners both qualified not as Premier League champions - Manchester United were runners-up and Liverpool finished fourth.

Platini’s proposals - if they go through - will mean that from the 2009/10 season the first three in the Premiership will still qualify for the Champions League but the fourth place will go to the FA Cup winners, providing a tremendous boost for that competition.

Michel Platini

However the way Platini has presented his proposals shows his cleverness.

At present the first two in the Premiership qualify automatically, while the third and fourth have to qualify by playing two matches in late August, just before the draw.

Although in most years the fourth placed side does qualify, Everton failed to do so two years ago.

Platini is now proposing that the first three teams qualify automatically, so there would be no more hassles of matches disrupting pre-season.

Also, the cup winners will go into a sort of mini Cup Winners Cup, playing in a competition with 16 teams to win one of four available Champions League places.

The Intertoto Cup route, which few in England took, would also disappear and the Uefa Cup would be revamped to make it more like the Champions League, even getting some sort of central marketing.

While the representatives of the professional leagues came into their meeting in Monte Carlo with Platini breathing hostility to any change, their mood was not quite so belligerent when they left.

They did ask for more time to study it and a final decision on the proposals has been postponed to November.

It was interesting to speak to Peter Kenyon, chief executive of Chelsea and one of the big club representatives at the meeting.

He told me the Platini proposals did not mean too much change, indeed he quite liked the idea of the first three from the Premiership qualifying automatically.

Platini remains confident his ideas will go through and I suspect it will. His confidence is based on his feeling that the mood in the bigger clubs has changed.

The present format of the Champions League came about because the bigger clubs threatened a breakaway but, as Platini told me, the political climate has changed; things are more stable.

Kenyon told me he did not think a breakaway will happen, and he is in a good position to judge.

Back in 1998 when Media Partners threatened the very existence of Uefa with their own Super League plans Kenyon, then at Manchester United, attended some of the meetings.

The breakaway was thwarted but G -14 - the group of big clubs created at that time - still existed.

When asked about G-14, Platini said, “I don’t know them.”

However he is well aware that he needs to court the big clubs and, in the draw for the Champions League that followed the unveiling of his evolutionary changes, he went out of his way to praise the big clubs of Europe gathered for the draw.

“I wanted to bend the rules to tell you how important club football is. Club football is at the base of our football. You are the magnificent 32.”

Like almost everything he does, it was said with conviction and charm.

Of course the draw is Uefa’s ultimate charm offensive, to display how important European league football is, how it is in many ways the super league which big clubs talk about and how it is at the very centre of world football.

It is 10 years since Uefa decided to have the draw for the Champions League, followed for that for the Uefa Cup, in Monte Carlo, the symbol of wealth and prosperity.

In the early days of European football the draw was an unmemorable event often held in some undistinguished Swiss hotel and attended by very few from the media.

Uefa have tried to marry two concepts. The draw is a very European idea, while the awards ceremony – with the naming of a most valuable player - is very American.

When the Monte Carlo show first started the two ideas were kept apart. But as this year’s event demonstrated the two can be combined.

It is a combination very useful in making the big clubs feel that, while Uefa is an association of national associations, they are also important and Uefa is keen to court them.

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