European football struggles to find right balance

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Cork City supporters will never forget the day that the Irish semi-professional side hosted Bayern Munich in a European tie at their tiny ground.

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The game was preceded by a war of words in which Bayern midfielder Stefan Effenberg said that Cork’s balding centre-forward Dave Barry “looks like my grandfather” and Barry retorted that the outspoken German “plays like my grandfather.”

The fireworks continued on the pitch: Barry himself fired Cork ahead in the first leg before Effenburg rescued a 1-1 draw for the embarrassed Bundesliga side, who won the return 2-0.

“Those are the memories you can’t take away from supporters,” said Niamh O’Mahony, a Cork supporter who is acting CEO of Supporters Direct Europe group.

But under the current European setup, the paths of the two sides would not have crossed.

Bayern had finished second in the Bundesliga the previous season which nowadays would take them straight into the Champions League group stage.

Cork’s second place in the League of Ireland, meanwhile, would today send them into the depths of the Europa League qualifiers.

European football will become even more exclusive from 2018/19 when Spain, England, Germany and Italy will be guaranteed four places each in the 32-team Champions League group stage.

Eight more places will be shared between the next six biggest leagues, while a mere four slots will be contested by the remaining 44 domestic champions.

The changes reflect the way in which a handful of big clubs, benefited by the huge television revenues in their own countries, have come to dominate the competition.

In the past, teams such as Dundee United, Widzew Lodz, Austria Vienna, IFK Gothenberg, CSKA Sofia and Anderlecht all reached the semi-finals of the old European Cup.

Malmo and Panathinaikos each got to the final and Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest won it. None of those teams could even dream of such progress today.

Only nine different clubs, from five countries – Spain, England, France, Italy and Germany — have reached the Champions League semi-finals in the last five seasons.

Even former European champions such as Ajax Amsterdam, Benfica and Porto have effectively become feeder clubs for the bigger leagues.

Ajax appear to have the makings of a great team after last month reaching the Europa League final with a side whose average age was 22. Yet, it has already begun to break up with coach Peter Bosz joining Borussia Dortmund.

“The recent changes to the European competitions do benefit clubs from the bigger leagues when European competitions were always about all clubs having the opportunity to play at that level,” said O’Mahony.

“It’s a badge of honour when you see your league and club doing well in Europe and the way the competition is going, it is losing that sort of magic.”

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