referee holding ball and showing a red card (3d illustration on white background)On Friday 21 October 2016, the Association of European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) announced that it was terminating its memorandum of understanding (MOU) with UEFA as a result of changes being made to the qualifying system for both the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League for three seasons from 2018/2019 onward.   The EPFL aims to be the common voice of the professional football leagues across Europe on all matters of common interest and currently comprises of 32 member leagues (national professional premier leagues, including the Premier League) and 8 associate leagues (national non-premier professional leagues, including the EFL).

The MOU guaranteed that the EPFL member and associate leagues would not schedule domestic club matches on the same night that any match in the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League were taking place.  The MOU therefore sought to ensure the highest viewing possible viewing figures for both the domestic and the European fixtures.  The EPFL was entitled to terminate the MOU immediately upon written notice in the event that UEFA had violated its terms.

In August 2016, UEFA announced the changes to its European club competitions from the 2018/2019 season had been approved by the UEFA Executive Committee and would include:

  • The UEFA Europa League winners will automatically qualify for the UEFA Champions League;
  • The top four clubs from the top four European national associations will automatically qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Champions league (meaning that the guaranteed places for the winners of the 11th and 12th ranked leagues were cut and that the number of places available for the teams in lower ranked leagues who must compete in a qualifying competition was also cut from five to four);
  • The financial distribution model will now, in almost all cases, take into account a club’s individual past performances in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League; and
  • The future and management of the UEFA club competitions will be determined by a subsidiary company of UEFA, UEFA Club Competitions SA, run 50% by appointees from UEFA and 50% by appointees from the European Club Association (ECA) (the body representing individual football clubs at European level).

The changes mean that 16 of the 32 spots in the UEFA Champions League event will automatically come from the largest footballing nations, currently England, Spain, Italy and Germany.   At the time of announcing the changes, UEFA confirmed that ‘the full details of the access list for both competitions will be finalised by the end of the year [2016]’.

In September 2016, and in response to UEFA’s announcement, the EPFL threatened to terminate the MOU claiming that it believed UEFA had breached the terms of the MOU in announcing such changes ‘…without the support and consensus of the organisers of domestic league football in Europe.  This decision will have a detrimental impact on domestic competitions and will lead to an exponential growth in the financial and sporting gap between the biggest clubs in Europe and all others…’. 

In its announcement on Friday, the EPFL stated that the termination was to be effective on 15 March 2017 to give ‘…the EPFL sufficient time to negotiate a new agreement with UEFA to be presented at our next General Assembly which shall take place on 31 March 2017 and for UEFA to prepare all necessary procedures before its Congress in April 2017… Today’s decision was endorsed by 22 of the 23 leagues represented at the EPFL General Assembly. The decision was not supported by the Italian Serie A’.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Serie A voted against the termination: they are the top league that stands to gain the most from the changes as they will move from holding only two guaranteed spots (and a further play-off place) to holding four guaranteed spots. It is, however, surprising that the EPFL’s announcement came only shortly after its Chairman, Lars-Christer Olsson, held discussions with the new UEFA President, Aleksander Ceferin, which the EPFL called ‘constructive’.  The EPFL and UEFA now have less than five months to resolve their dispute and reach agreement going forward.   If they fail to do so, the European leagues will technically be free to schedule their matches on any day they see fit.  A move that may well offer more variety to fans but which would also naturally divide loyalties and could drastically affect viewing figures for both European and domestic club matches.