The creation of a new European Club Association (ECA) and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between UEFA and the ECA have been acclaimed as vital developments on the European football landscape, and for the chairman of UEFA's Club Competitions Committee, Friedrich Stickler, the agreement marks "a huge success" that will lead to a more harmonious era.
The Memorandum of Understanding, which was signed in Nyon last month, stipulates that UEFA recognises the ECA as the sole body representing the interests of clubs at European level, while the ECA recognises UEFA as the governing body of football at European level, and FIFA as the governing body of football at worldwide level.
This historic development will allow the clubs and the governing bodies to operate free of conflict, as Stickler explained: "It will get European football out of the courtrooms. It is a terrific development that is so important for our committee and for the development of UEFA club competitions. I don’t think we can overstate the significance of this agreement between the clubs and UEFA."
Stickler, who is also the Austrian Football Association (ÖFB) president, added: "The clubs are effectively accepting the role that UEFA plays in organising competitions such as the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Champions League, as well as accepting other important issues like centralised marketing or releasing players for the UEFA European Championship. It covers so many points and so many big issues."
This latest move, combined with the recently-agreed changes to the formats of the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup, has left Stickler feeling extremely optimistic for the future of the European club game. UEFA's Club Competitions Committee has an extensive range of responsibilities, which include exchanging views on the current UEFA club competitions and drawing up recommendations with regards possible modifications of these competitions and their regulations.
UEFA Champions League
In December, UEFA confirmed that, between 2009 and 2012, some 22 teams will qualify directly for the UEFA Champions League group stage instead of 16, and that the UEFA Champions League final will be played on a Saturday. There were no changes to the main part of a competition which, as Stickler stressed, remains in fine health. "The UEFA Champions League has had a high status for many years," he said. "We want to make sure it remains the best competition in the world and we did not feel it needed big changes."
The modifications that have been made to the qualification process will allow more countries and more domestic champions to be represented in the group stage. "It's an excellent development in terms of helping medium-sized national associations get more clubs into the UEFA Champions League," Stickler explained. "We are maintaining the élite nature of the competition, but at the same time offering smaller football nations the opportunity to play a bigger part."
UEFA Cup progress
Meanwhile, the UEFA Cup will more closely resemble the UEFA Champions League in terms of format after it was agreed that 48 sides, split into 12 groups of four, would feature from 2009/10. The knockout stage will still begin with 32 teams and consist of four rounds, leading to the final played at a neutral venue. However, the first round – currently knockout – becomes part of the qualifying phase.
Stickler believes these "important changes" will allow the UEFA Cup to grow in importance. "We felt the UEFA Cup needed refurbishing and the new format is excellent," he said. "There was a danger of the competition growing old, but the changes made in recent years have been good and resulted in improvements, and this latest reshaping is a very good development indeed. By bringing the UEFA Cup more in line with the UEFA Champions League, we are satisfying the wishes of the clubs to have many games, as well as ensuring the excitement is there."
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