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The Swiss Model: What is the new Champions League format Bayern Munich supporters are protesting?

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The format will make it easier for big clubs to make the tournament and will expand the number of games drastically.

UEFA European Club Football Season Kick-Off 2019/2020 - UCL Draw Photo by Harold Cunningham - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Bayern Munich fans have joined supporters of clubs across Europe in drafting an open letter of condemnation to the European Club Association and its chairman Andrea Agnelli over the latest proposal for the rules and setup of the UEFA Champions League. They were joined by supporters from Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Ajax, Anderlecht, Atletico Madrid, Benfica, Borussia Dortmund, FC Copenhagen, Fenerbache, Young Boys, and Lyon.

UEFA is set to vote on the rules and new format of the Champions League for the 2024/2025 season in the coming days. The association believes in changing the format for that season, after the existing television contracts expire. However, the format proposed is a bit confusing. It follows what is being called “the Swiss model” in reference to a system of competition used in competitive chess tournaments.

In the open letter (via Daily Mail), the supporters called the association — of which all the above mentioned clubs are members — greedy and accusing them of profiteering.

‘Your plans to restructure the Champions League by increasing the number of games, introducing qualification based on past achievements, and monopolising commercial rights present a serious threat to the entire game,’ said the joint letter, which has been coordinated by Football Supporters Europe, a coalition of fan groups across the continent
‘You will only make the gap between the rich and the rest bigger, wreck domestic calendars, and expect fans to sacrifice yet more time and money.’

So what do all of those terms mean? And what exactly does the Swiss Model propose?


A Massive Restructuring

The biggest and most notable change is the abolition of the group stage.

Instead of playing six games against three set opponents, all of the teams will form a league. There will be ten “league” matches for each team — five home and five away — with opponents being determined by a seeding system that ranks clubs based on their history of performances in past European competitions.

After the ten games are played, the top eight teams will advance automatically to the knockout stages. To determine who will join them in the Round of 16, teams 8-24 will play in a playoff to advance. It’s not clear whether this will be a single-leg or double-leg playoff. From there, the competition will play out as normal.


UEFA Champions League Draw Photo by UEFA - Handout/UEFA via Getty Images

Qualification

Outside of the new format, the next biggest change is the expansion of the number of teams from 32 to 36. A greater number of teams means many more games and an increase in television revenue. The expansion is relatively small in comparison to recent expansions of soccer tournaments. A prime example of that is the FIFA World Cup, which set to expand the number of participants from 32 to 48 in time for the 2026 edition.

Where the controversy, and arguably the biggest negative in this, comes in is how the extra four qualifying spots will be awarded.

The first will go to Ligue 1, which will have their number of automatic bids increase from three to four, to match their status with the likes of the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga.

The second spot will go to a team that performed well in a past tournament that would normally need to go through the first qualifying stage of games to make the Group Stages. The most recent example of this would be the Ajax team who made the semi finals of the 2018-19 Champions League. The Eredivisie, along with leagues like the Scottish Premiership and the Swedish Allskvensan, do not have automatic qualifying spots. Instead, teams need to play through two qualifying rounds having two legs each in order to make the Group Stages.

But the most controversial part of qualifying lies in the last two spots. Under the new system, UEFA will give spots to the two teams with the best club coefficient ranking who did not qualify for the Champions League outright but managed to finish between 5th and 7th in their domestic leagues. The club coefficient is a FIFA metric used to determine how good a club is based on their past performances in Europe

This provides a safety net to the major clubs instead of giving automatic spots to smaller clubs who actually won their domestic leagues. Using the 2019-20 season as an example, those spots would have gone to Tottenham Hostpur — who finished 6th in the Premier League — and SSC Napoli — who finished 7th in Serie A.

Moreover, the final spots are not league restricted, meaning it’s entirely possible that any of the top five leagues in Europe could send six teams to the tournament.

In addition, under the new system, the top five leagues are only allowed seven European spots in total. Using the Bundesliga as an example, if Bayer Leverkusen — a team with a high club coefficient — finished 6th but was called up to the Champions League, then only one team would be sent to the Europa League from Germany. If that team finished 7th, then it’s highly likely that no team from Germany would compete in the UEFA Europa Conference League.


The Pros and Cons

The two bodies that will benefit the most from this are the existing national leagues and the teams that are lowest on the proverbial totem pole.

By setting up this format, it gives incentive for the major European teams to stay in their respective national leagues as this seems very similar to what was proposed in the European Super League. With the top clubs getting more opportunities to play each other, the demand for a mass exodus from the top leagues on the continent will die down.

On the flip side, smaller teams that qualify will be able to play more games which increases their earning potential. The current format eliminates half of the 32 teams after they’ve only played six games. By adding four more games plus the playoff structure, it will only send 12 teams home early.

However, this also has the potential to increase the number of games down the line. European soccer has one of the shortest off-seasons in world sports and an increase in games can lead to more injuries and longer seasons. This format could see match increases on a much larger scale in the years to come, adding to an already congested football calendar.


That last point is what fans are protesting. By increasing the number of matches and disproportionally favoring bigger leagues and clubs, fans argue they will only increase the wealth inequality between “rich” and “poor” teams:

‘You will only make the gap between the rich and the rest bigger, wreck domestic calendars, and expect fans to sacrifice yet more time and money.’

It doesn’t help either that the ECA reportedly wants to gain more control of the distribution rights to the money earned in the Champions League from UEFA, naturally benefiting their larger members.

With money being the driving force in world football, it’s hard to see this plan being rejected. As the importance of the Champions League rises, the domestic leagues are more likely to hurt the most from it.

This almost seems like a discount version of the European Super League, and we could still see that vision become a reality. If the power given to the top clubs and the ECA explodes until we reach that point, we can point to this moment as the match that lit the fuse.