ECA presses for overhaul of international match calendar

ECA chairman Andrea Agnelli speaking at the World Football Summit. Photo: Inés Rojas/Flickr

25.09.2018

By Steve Menary
The chairman of the European Club Association has launched a broadside at the game’s organisers as the association looks for a radical overhaul of the international calendar.

Madrid: Renegotiation of the international calendar from 2024 is the most pressing issue in European club football and needs wholesale changes said European Club Association (ECA) chairman Andrea Agnelli in a wide-ranging speech at the World Football Summit in Madrid.

Agnelli denied that UEFA prize money created imbalance amongst major European leagues and admitted that a third European league would have little commercial value but saved his biggest dig for the game’s organisers.

“I see people who are extremely comfortable because they carry no risk. The only people who carry entrepreneurial risk is us, the clubs,” said Agnelli, who is also chairman of Italian giants Juventus.

“All the other stakeholders just collect and distribute,” said Agnelli, who repeated that phrase three times to emphasise his point.

The Italian added: “If there is a 30% collapse in revenue, they will just distribute 30% less. For us, we would have to find a way of dealing with a 30% decrease in revenue against fixed costs.

“I want us to be well heard when we are talking about the new international match calendar as we are the ones carrying the risk.”

“The 2024 match calendar is the first thing we have to tackle. We want to see confederation tournaments played at the same time in even years [outside of World Cup years].

“Players need a proper rest period. They are not machines and even if they were, you can use a machine too much and it will break.”

Changes of calendar will have major implications
Agnelli’s suggestion would have a major impact on pan continental international competitions such as the African Cup of Nations and the Asian Cup, which are staged in odd years during the European club season.

Agnelli also suggested that the international break in October should be scrapped. Instead of having three breaks in the first half of the season, only breaks in September and November would be retained with three international matches played in each rather than two at present.

This would have major implications for national associations. To retain the same number of international fixtures, national teams would have to play three games closer together in a break.

Agnelli also queried staging internationals in June as this overshadowed the UEFA Champions League final at the end of May, which the Italian said should be the climax of the European season.

“Then the players can go to play in the Euros or the Copa America or the African Cup of Nations,” said Agnelli of his future scenario, but the Italian acknowledged that competitive balance was a growing problem.

The end of great stories of football
“In the 1970s and 1980s, there were more successful teams on the pitch,” said Agnelli, which he said was due to well-supported big city clubs in cities such as Glasgow, Belgrade and Bucharest.

“A club from a capital city would have an advantage then what happened?,” asked Agnelli rhetorically before answering his own question.

“The Bosman case made a huge difference and there was freedom of movement and the introduction of free agents. Then there was the introduction of pay TV. As pay TV has come on, we see a difference in the discriminating factors.”

The ability of big clubs from a capital city to compete in Europe had “slowly died”, said Agnelli, citing Ajax, Glasgow Celtic and Benfica, because the main source of income in the current market is from television rights rather than gate receipts.

“Those clubs do not have the market size to compete with the Big Five,” added Agnelli.

“These other markets and these great stories of football have disappeared. This is the reality we live in now. Ajax had a great season last season and reached the Europa League final but this is all they can aspire to now.”

TV rights distort competitive balance in smaller clubs
The growing impact of international TV rights on domestic leagues has further distorted competitive balance said Agnelli, who praised La Liga for challenging the worldwide domination of England’s Premier League.

Agnelli added: “The value of domestic TV rights in these countries I talk about is sold for less than the value of the Premier League in these countries and this creates further competitive balance issues.”

Citing UEFA’s latest benchmarking report which ran to the end of the 2016 season, Agnelli said that European football had seen growth of 10% in revenue since the start of the current decade.

The Italian acknowledged that money from playing in European competition played a part in this growth but claimed it did not distort competitive balance in the 20 biggest leagues.

Agnelli suggested that that money from domestic TV rights in the leading five leagues in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France was greater than money for playing in UEFA competitions.

Agnelli claimed that in countries ranked 6-20, matchday revenue and commercial income were bigger drivers of growth than TV revenue, but conceded: “In countries ranked from 21 to 37, UEFA competitions does distort the revenue at those clubs, but not in countries one to 20.”

Clubs from these small and middle ranking countries are the ones within the ECA that have lobbied for the introduction of a third European club competition, which would have “very little commercial value” admitted Agnelli.

“We need to listen to our members and they want to participate in another competition,” said Agnelli, who then appeared to contradict himself.

The Italian later went on to say: “We want to see an overall reduction of games then you address the idea of competitive balance, you need to harmonise the time played by players.”

An extra continental competition would surely create more games at middle-ranking clubs, whose players would find themselves playing more – not less games – in the post-2024 future that Agnelli and the ECA envisage.

Freelance journalist Steve Menary is covering the World Football Summit for Play the Game.

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