Much was made of the decision, back in 2007, to elect former French midfielder Michel Platini to the office of president of UEFA, European football’s governing body. The post is arguably the second most powerful in football, after FIFA’s own president, and the man Platini defeated in the election, Lennart Johansson, had held the position for 16 years previously. Johansson ushered in the era of the Champions League, which has become the second largest football tournament in the world in fans’ regard, behind only the World Cup. Johansson was a tough act to follow, and many wondered if Platini, somewhat arrogant as a player and with bold new ideas for football, would be capable of changing the game for the better. I believe Platini has brought in a new vision for football. Although some ideas have proved more outlandish and controversial than others, Platini’s changes have been widely successful so far in bolstering European football’s dominance within the game and in sport in general.
One of the first, and most notable, Platini changes was to the Champions League qualifying system. Platini himself wanted to see fewer teams from the top countries like England, Spain and Germany taking part in the competition, suggesting they receive three rather than four entries. This plan was rejected, as UEFA argued that this was more conducive to an exciting tournament. However, a change was made to the qualifying process for the 2009-10 season that split it into two different streams: one for champions and one for those finishing second, third or fourth in leagues that are rewarded with more than one entry. Before the change, champions often faced off against teams that had finished lower in their respective leagues and invariably the non-champions were stronger and progressed to the lucrative first round. The change has resulted in at least 17 champions being involved in the 32-team group stage rather than an average of 14.8 in the five seasons before the change. This has meant that more teams from ‘smaller’ footballing leagues such as Cyprus and Croatia have been represented more often in the competition. It also hasn’t resulted in a feared lack of excitement in the group stage either, with as many big games as before in the group stage; although this could be argued as a fault of the seeding system used. The change, for the better, of Champions League qualifying is a great example of Platini improving the reach of football in Europe.
Under Platini’s reign, innovative plans have been put in place for the next two European Championships in 2016 & 2020. For the next edition, 24 teams will take part, rather than the usual 16 that has been the norm since Euro 96. This means that almost half of UEFA’s 54 nations will have the chance to play in a major competition, which is exciting for nations that have just missed out on qualifying many times (ahem, like Scotland). Some argue that this will dilute the quality of what is a very high calibre competition, and undoubtedly that will be true to an extent. However, with a group stage of equal quality to the World Cup and an added last 16 round, where the cream of the crop will begin the knockout route to the final, I believe that the competition will be even better. If at least because more people on the continent will have had some fan investment in it. One criticism that I will agree with is that qualifying will inevitably become less important, and as they are the only competitive games taking place between next year’s World Cup and the Euros two years later, and there is an issue with how exciting the process will be. UEFA have still not announced the format for Euro 2016’s qualifying phase, but such information will be forthcoming soon – with the draw scheduled for next February.
One innovation for Euro 2016 qualifying that is set in stone though is UEFA’s Week of Football initiative. Instead of matches taking place solely on Fridays and Tuesdays in international weeks, leaving a football drought in between days, matches will be spread across the full week – so that there will always be a match on television. This has been facilitated by the consolidation of media rights by UEFA, rather than each individual national association handing out their own contracts for televising matches. This is another great Platini idea. Internationals are often seen with contempt, because they deprive fans of football to watch on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. With exciting qualifiers going on elsewhere in Europe, often fans only see their own national teams’ efforts because of scheduling clashes, which could now be a thing of the past. Overall, more people will be watching football – which is a good thing for UEFA and their accountants.
Not all of Platini’s inventions have been met with praise and acceptance. One such decision was to host Euro 2020 in a variety of cities across the continent to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the tournament, rather than the hosting it in a single nation as per custom. This has attracted criticism because of the large travel times involved between matches. Turkey, who narrowly lost out on hosting Euro 2016 to Platini’s France (made even more bitter because of his off-hand comments about announcement) were the only bidding country for the 2020 edition when the multiple city approach was announced – and were incensed that they have been passed over yet again for the honour of hosting the tournament. It would be wise to place a bet on them hosting either the 2020 final or the 2024 competition, as Platini has confirmed that the 2020 Europe-wide showcase will be a one-off. Despite these valid criticisms, I am personally for the idea. It will allow countries that are too small to host the tournament on their own, particularly since the expansion to 24 teams, to have an experience in hosting a football tournament, given that they qualify. And looking at this from a Scotland-based viewpoint, this is a great prospect to see world class football at Hampden!
The modern game has continued to grow more commercial, and more teams are racking up huge debts to fight for success in their national leagues and the Champions League. But under Platini, UEFA have implemented Financial Fair Play regulations to curb this behaviour and protect the stability of the game, to its’ benefit. The basics of the rule is that all transfer debts, employee wages (including players) and applicable tax from the previous calendar year debts are paid off before the end of March, so that the team can play in Europe the following season. Punishments for falling foul of these rules range from warnings, fines and league points deductions to outright expulsion from UEFA competitions. A major casualty of these rules this season were Malaga, who finished 4th in La Liga and reached the Champions League quarter-finals last year, but were denied their place in the tournament this year because of their debts. It’s a strong message that clubs have to be able to back up their spending with capital, to avoid financial disasters as have happened at Rangers here in Scotland. It’s something that needed to be done to avoid the spiralling costs of football.
Out of all of these ideas I’ve mentioned so far, all have been actioned. A recent proposal for a UEFA Nations League has not of yet, but would be a drastic change to international football. This league would involve national teams being placed in divisions to compete, taking the place of international friendlies. It would mean that teams could play against their equals, creating exciting games that are unpredictable, rather than the usual procession of qualifying group games. I think the idea has some merit, but think that replacing international friendlies completely would be drastic. For one thing, it would mean European teams only playing counterparts from outside the continent at World Cups, which only a minority would get the chance to do. It would also mean that games between neighbouring countries, like the England v Scotland game in August, wouldn’t necessarily be allowed. Games like the clash at Wembley are one of the highlights of international football, and losing them to a setup designed with the best teams in Europe in mind is not ideal to the majority of European countries. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure if it’s one that will ever come to pass.
Although I agree with Platini on many issues, there is one issue where I whole-heartedly disagreed with his policy, and luckily the powers-that-be sided with me. This is the issue of goal-line technology, which Platini was vehemently against. He argued that allowing the tech opened “Pandora’s box” leading to the possibility of the referee being undermined by future offside technology, foul technology etc. Despite his claims to the contrary, referees will always be a part of football due to the subjective nature of the game and it’s good that technology has been brought in to help the referee decide accurately the most important question that could be asked of a referee: whether or not a goal has been scored.
We will only be able to truly see the effects of the Platini-era changes to football after a period of reflection when he eventually resigns. Many have tipped Platini to go on to succeed Sepp Blatter when he finally retires from the FIFA Presidency, and I believe that he would be more than competent at the job. Platini is the sort of figurehead football needs to keep the simplest of games fresh in a new century.