It's become a yearly event that during the Champions League a retired player will make a statement to the press about how easy the Champions League has become since it stopped being a true "champions" league. That is to say, previously only domestic champions participated, while now the three major leagues send their top four teams through, Germany sends their top three teams, and the remainder of the competition is made up of domestic champions and runners-up (all at varying stages of three qualifying rounds). Usually the voice of such criticism is a curmedgeon like Di Stefano, or a bitter retiree like Platini.
Truth be told, the only competition a true "champions" league would help is the "Europa Cup." When Real Madrid won back-to-back "UEFA Cups" it was an achievement because at that time it was literally every second place and third place team competing. Now that competition is the province of more middling teams, so that when Sevilla won back-to-back UEFA Cups, while still an achievement, it was significantly less of a feat than when Real did it previously.
And yet an honest appraisal of today's club football inevitably leads to the conclusion that the third or fourth place English, Spanish, Italian, or German teams are better, and compete at a higher level, than the the Romanian, Norwegian, or Polish champions. Further, those third and fourth place teams are internationally recognized because most have accomplished something in their tough domestic leagues and generally have two or three genuinely world class players (Sevilla, Villareal, Atletico, Arsenal, Chelsea, Roma, Fiorentina, Stuttgart etc.). Thus, these are the teams that should be competing in the Champions League, and probably at the expense of "champions" from inferior leagues.
Sadly, Platini runs UEFA, and made a few changes to the Champions League format last year that we are now witnessing the results of. I won't delve into the precise changes of the qualifying phase format, but the critical text of UEFA's press release describes the changes as:
• Champions Path: The first qualifying round comprises two two-legged ties involving the champions of the countries ranked 50 to 53 in UEFA competition. The winners of those ties progress to the second qualifying round where they are joined by the champions of the 32 countries ranked 17 to 49 (except Liechtenstein). The victorious sides from those 17 ties join the champions from the associations ranked 14 to 16 in the third qualifying round, with the winners of those ten pairings reaching the play-off round. These five play-off ties will take place on a home-and-away basis with the winners qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
• Non-Champions Path: The third-placed side from the sixth-ranked member association, plus the runners-up from the associations ranked 7 to 15, start the competition in the third qualifying round. The winners of these five ties progress to the play-off round, where they are joined by the fourth-placed sides from the associations ranked 1 to 3 and the third-placed teams from the associations ranked 4 and 5. The victorious teams from the five play-off ties qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
• Teams from the Champions Path and the Non-Champions Path cannot meet in UEFA Champions League qualifying.
Don't bother thinking about that too much. The crux of the matter is this - the Champions Path and the Non-Champions Path never meet in qualifying, and group together two distinct subsets of teams. The Champions Path, as described above, pairs together the champions from several leagues, puts them through between one and three qualifying rounds, and dumps them into the fourth and final qualifying "playoff" round - a round where by virtue of their "Champions" status, they are protected from the third and fourth place teams from the elite leagues. Meanwhile, "Non-Champion" teams start in the fourth "playoff" round, and play against each other. The idea, Platini would argue, is that we're going to see more true champions in the Champions League. Conceptually it's an interesting proposal. But look at how that plays out in qualifying match-ups:
Sheriff Tiraspol v. Olympiacos
Red Bull Salzburg v. Maccabi Haifa
Ventspils v. Zürich
Copenhagen v. APOEL
Levski Sofia v. Debrecen
Lyon v. Anderlecht
Celtic v. Arsenal
Timişoara v. Stuttgart
Sporting CP v. Fiorentina
Panathinaikos v. Atlético Madrid
I don't know about anyone else, but the Champions Path teams appear primed for Cinderella status in this year's Champions League. And last I checked, they didn't need to change the format to allow Cinderellas in. Just last year CFR Cluj, Anorthosis, Basel, Aalborg BK, and BATE participated in the group round. Meanwhile, the Non-Champions Path pits teams against each other that most observers would agree are simply superior teams despite not being league champions. Lyon, Arsenal, Celtic, Atletico, Stuttgart, Fiorentina, and Sporting are all quality sides, and some will be advancing at the expense of others.
Arguably mediocre teams are simply being replaced by other mediocre teams. Despite their greater name recognition are Fiorentina or Sporting really going to make much more noise in the group stage than Maccabi or Copenhagen? Maybe, maybe not. But when one group in a preliminary qualifying round has nine teams out of 10 that you recognize from Champions Leagues of the last three years, and one has Olympiacos, something's up. Previously when a team like Copenhagen or Maccabi have been in Champions Leagues (and they have), it was because after two or three rounds of qualifying they beat Spain or England's fourth place team. Now the smaller teams are getting an easier road, and no one feels sorry for the big clubs because, hey, they're big clubs.
But the big loser in this scheme is the competition itself. No one wants the minnows out of the tournament. But the key to any four team group is getting that third team in that can shake things up. If the third team ends up being rolled over in the Chelsea, Sevilla, APOEL, and Anderlecht group what have you accomplished? You've killed any drama in the group, and increased the likelihood that Chelsea and Sevilla go through to knockouts. So the competition loses, and there's less parity. Now put Stuttgart or Lyon in with Chelsea and Sevilla. How are those group games looking?
But UEFA and Platini wanted "real" Champions. Even if it's at the expense of better teams in the competition. And while this year UEFA's avoided killing off a great team early (despite the fact that only half of these teams will make it in: Arsenal, Celtic, Fiorentina, Sporting, Atletico, and Panathinaikos), it's only a matter of time before they do. And trust me when I tell you that no one's going to be pleased when Liverpool and Inter square off so that Finland's "real" champion can get a shot.