Fight for the Champions League’s future threatens an age of uncertainty in Europe

A love story. Florentino Perez called it a love story. Speaking to reporters on his way out of Wembley Stadium after Saturday’s Champions League final, the Real Madrid president sounded like a man in thrall to the mystique, the allure and the romance of a relationship that has spanned seven decades and so many special times.

“It’s a magnificent night, because this competition is the one we like the most,” Perez said after Madrid, 2-0 winners over Borussia Dortmund, were crowned European champions for the 15th time. “It was created by Santiago Bernabeu (the club’s president from 1943 to 1978) along with L’Equipe newspaper, and it made us important in the world. Some (clubs) leave and others come, but this competition is very much ours.”

There is a beautiful story there: the all-conquering Madrid team that won the first five European Cups from 1956-60, inspired by Paco Gento, Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas; a sixth title in 1966, and then an unthinkable 32-year wait before three more around the turn of the century, won by a team illuminated by the homegrown Raul Gonzalez and embellished by the arrivals of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane before the Perez-driven galacticos project lost its way; their re-emergence over the past decade with a side initially built around Cristiano Ronaldo and other A-list talents, but now extensively rebuilt around the young talent of Vinicius Junior, Rodrigo, Jude Bellingham and, coming soon, a bona fide galactico in Kylian Mbappe.

No club have contributed more to the game’s growth in the European Cup era. Equally, no club have grown more with the game. It is, on one level, a beautiful relationship, particularly when they are led by coaches such as Carlo Ancelotti and Zidane, whose personal history with the competition dates back to their illustrious playing careers.

Perez wants to overhaul a tournament Madrid have dominated (Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

But it is a strange kind of love story when Perez appears intent on killing the Champions League as we know it.

He has the European football landscape he dreamed of — a vast and enormously lucrative competition, so elitist that it now attracts talk of fairytales if the second-biggest club in Germany make it to the final — but it is still not enough. Nothing will ever be enough.

One way or another, European football is approaching a tipping point.

It has felt that way for several years now, as if the unprecedented financial advantages enjoyed by the biggest, richest, most powerful clubs in the biggest, richest, most powerful leagues just aren’t enough anymore.

Perez wants the European Cup to be replaced by a Super League. Why? “We are doing this to save football at this critical moment,” he told Spanish television show El Chiringuito around the time of the failed Super League launch in the spring of 2021. “If we continue with the Champions League, there is less and less interest, and then it’s over. The new format which starts in 2024 is absurd. In 2024, we are all dead.”

And now here we are in 2024. Perez is still pushing the Super League project, emboldened and encouraged by the outcome of the latest court case in Spain, and continuing to wage war on UEFA, the game’s governing body on this continent, which he has accused of running a “monopoly” on European football.

UEFA, for its part, has responded to the constant demands for more matches by introducing a new Champions League format from next season: the so-called “Swiss model”, where 36 teams will play eight games each, not in a group format but in a notional 36-team “league” from which 24 of them progress to the knockout phase. This is what Perez has described as “absurd”. And he might well be right.

It sounds… bloated, convoluted, unwieldy, all the things that European competition should not be. It looks like a forlorn, misguided attempt to go with the flow when what the game really needed was for UEFA to do the impossible by stemming and reversing the tide.

It is designed to placate the demands of the biggest, richest, most powerful clubs.

Some of us would say UEFA has acceded far too much over the past two decades in particular, creating a financial model that has created a chronic competitive imbalance between leagues and within leagues. Perez and others have already concluded next season’s reforms don’t go anything like far enough.

Sitting at Wembley on Saturday evening, soaking up the atmosphere created by their supporters, it felt like something of a throwback to see Dortmund in the final again. If it felt that way the previous time they got there, in 2013, when Jurgen Klopp characterised them as a “workers’ club” against a commercial juggernaut in fellow German side Bayern Munich, it certainly felt that way when they played Real Madrid in this season’s showpiece.

It was similar when Inter Milan reached the final against Manchester City last season. Inter have won the European Cup as many times (three) as Manchester United and indeed they have won it more recently, but they too seem to have been left behind in the modern era. The latter stages of the Champions League felt like their natural habitat in the 2000s. By 2023, reaching the semi-finals, never mind the final, seemed extraordinary.

And that is Dortmund and Inter — never mind other former giants such as Benfica, Porto and Ajax (to say nothing of Celtic, Red Star Belgrade and the rest). The 21st-century financial landscape has put these clubs far beyond most of their domestic rivals but unable to compete financially with even mid-ranking Premier League clubs, let alone the Champions League elite.


What comes next for Borussia Dortmund?

The European game is at such a strange point in its history.

The football itself is frequently enthralling, highly technical and played at an astonishing speed, but the structure of the sport’s European model feels increasingly broken: by greed, by entitlement, by the biggest clubs demanding an ever greater share of revenue and ever more protection against underperformance. Attempts to preserve wild-card places for underperforming big clubs have so far been resisted, but that is clearly the direction of travel.

Dortmund reaching the final feels almost like a fairytale in the modern game (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

UEFA’s solution, as always, is to give the elite more of what they want — but not enough to please most of them. The solution proposed by Perez and others is for the most powerful clubs to wrestle power from UEFA and to be allowed to do as they please.

“To fix a problem, you have to first recognise that you have a problem,” Perez said in 2021, before making clear his belief that European football’s issue was not dubious ownership models, nor the spread of multi-club networks, a bulging fixture calendar or a chronic financial and competitive imbalance across the continent. The only problem he was interested in was the one that could be solved by “top-level games year-round, with the best players competing”.

But Perez doesn’t necessarily mean “top-level games” between the best teams of the day. He wants the most marketable matches.

If he feels short-changed by a Champions League campaign in which Madrid faced Napoli, Braga, Union Berlin, RB Leipzig, City, Bayern and Dortmund, you suspect he would be happier to have played Juventus and Liverpool (who didn’t qualify), Manchester United (who were knocked out in the group stage) and Barcelona (beaten in the quarter-finals).

Provided his team still ended up winning, of course.

Two great contradictions arise from the past decade of European competition.

The first, much discussed elsewhere and not greatly relevant to this article, is that this period of Madrid domination, unprecedented in the Champions League era, has felt strange as far as the quality of their performances is concerned.

It is undoubtedly strange that they have come to dominate an era while rarely dominating their matches against top-class opponents. It must leave Pep Guardiola wondering how on earth, beyond the small margins of knockout football, his City side have just one European Cup to show for their sustained excellence over the past seven seasons.

The second contradiction — perhaps linked to the first, perhaps not — is that, in an era when the biggest clubs have enjoyed access to revenue streams that were previously beyond their wildest dreams, several of them have lost their way due to serious mismanagement.

Barcelona, Madrid’s fiercest rivals, have flirted with financial calamity and have reached the Champions League semi-finals just once in the past eight seasons; Manchester United have reached just two quarter-finals in the past 13 seasons under the Glazer family’s miserable, directionless ownership; Juventus reached the final in 2015 and 2017 while in the midst of winning nine consecutive Serie A titles, but they have fallen away from the top tier of European football as ownership and management issues escalated.

It is almost as if some of these ownership regimes became so fixated on driving up revenue streams and reimagining European football’s future that they lost sight of their own club’s present.

That is not an accusation that could be levelled at the Perez regime.

Obsessed as he might be by his Super League dream and his power struggle with UEFA, he has overseen Madrid’s evolution into a club that plays the transfer market shrewdly, always looking for the next big talents in world football (Vinicius Jr, Rodrigo, Bellingham, incoming Brazilian teenager Endrick) and always respecting experience and knowledge while recognising when it is right to let a fading A-list talent grow old at another club’s expense.

Barcelona and Manchester United, from a broadly similar financial position, have spent enormous sums of money in a wildly erratic manner and allowed dysfunction to take hold. By contrast, Madrid have established a clear vision, made good appointments and built a winning environment.

They have also without question ridden their luck at times in the Champions League. That needs to be emphasised: both the luck they have had in some of their winning campaigns (not least the last two) and the assurance Ancelotti and his players have shown in being able to ride it. In some of the individual success stories — Ancelotti, Nacho, Dani Carvajal, Toni Kroos, Vinicius Jr, Bellingham — there is so much to like.

The most uplifting stories of the past few seasons in European football, though, have come away from the Champions League’s spotlight, with Europa League final successes for Villarreal, Eintracht Frankfurt, Sevilla and Atalanta, as well as the success of the initially derided third-tier Conference League, which Roma, West Ham United and Olympiacos have won in its first three years.

The joy in those celebrations, particularly after Olympiacos beat Fiorentina in the Conference League final last week, was truly something to behold.

It has shown there is still life and ambition among those clubs who have been conditioned to accept their place in the game’s 21st-century order and be grateful for whatever crumbs might fall from the top table.

Former Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli once infamously asked whether Atalanta truly merited a place in the Champions League while on their way to a third consecutive third-placed finish in Serie A. When it comes to outperforming expectations and resources over recent seasons, few clubs in Europe have been more deserving.

Surely that is the lesson for European football to draw from the past decade: that, in 2024, there still has to be such a thing as upward mobility, that a club like Olympiacos can win a European trophy, that clubs like Atalanta, Bologna and Aston Villa can still reach the Champions League, that a club like Bayer Leverkusen can break Bayern’s monopoly of the Bundesliga. In an era when hope has been crushed — when Bayern have been able to sleepwalk their way to some of their 11 consecutive Bundesliga titles, often sacking coaches as they go — Leverkusen’s success under Xabi Alonso has been particularly inspiring.

Olympiacos fans celebrated their own European triumph in huge numbers (Giorgos Arapekos/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

But such love stories rarely seem to endure these days. It seems inevitable that, before long, Leverkusen will fall prey to those clubs higher up the food chain, seeing their best players whisked away, just as Klopp’s Dortmund team did, just like the Monaco team of 2016-17 or the Ajax of 2018-19 did. Maybe their manager, too.

And at the very top of that food chain are Madrid, the sport’s apex predator, now champions of Europe for a 15th time, somehow re-establishing their dominance in an era when they felt threatened like never before.

Leaving the stadium after Saturday’s final, it was hard to escape the feeling that European football, having allowed its problems to pile up over a long period of time, is entering a period of uncertainty and seismic change.

This convoluted “Swiss format” will be the most inescapable change in next season’s Champions League, but, whether it has the desired effect or not, you can imagine the Super League mob clinging to its success or failure as irrefutable evidence of the need for radical reform.

The game needs proper leadership. It needs someone to stand up and fight for tradition, for jeopardy, for the romance that runs through the history of European competition.

Hearing his heartening words on his way out of Wembley, you might have imagined that person would be the 77-year-old president of Real Madrid, the man who talks fondly and reverently about the European Cup and his club’s enormous contribution to it.

But no, Florentino Perez has a different perspective on that relationship these days. As love stories go, it’s increasingly complicated.


Real Madrid’s Champions League party: Speeches, cigars, Carvajal’s dad on horseback

(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)