In 2009, a subtle yet fundamental change was made to the UEFA Champions League, whereby the qualifying rounds were divided into two sections – one for champions and one for non-champions. The thinking behind UEFA president Michel Platini’s revamp of the qualifiers was that the group stage would contain more teams who had actually won their domestic leagues rather than giving fourth-placed finishers from the top leagues a cosy passage. Inevitably the idea had its critics, many of whom said it would only put more cannon fodder clubs into the group stage, but Platini’s plan to extend the olive branch of Champions League football to Europe’s middle-ranking leagues has worked exactly how he would have wanted it.
Towards the end of the previous decade, the Champions League was becoming a closed shop where one nation having three semi-finalists was almost the norm. Even when the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal were stumbling into fourth place in the Premier League, they would usually land a relatively straightforward qualifying tie against a team from Israel, Poland or Belgium and coast into the group stage, from where they would power on to the business end of the competition. Platini’s revamp meant that such teams were no longer granted ‘easy’ ties against the champions of mid-ranking nations, but would instead have to play a similarly-placed club from one of Europe’s top leagues. While English clubs have consistently passed this litmus test in each of the seven seasons since it was brought in, teams from France and Italy have not been so lucky. In fact, this year’s group stage will be the second in a row to feature just two Serie A clubs, something that is almost unthinkable given the Champions League’s openness to teams from the major nations in the 21st century.
Since the qualifiers were restructured into a ‘champions route’ and ‘league route’ in 2009/10, 27 teams have made, or are due to make, their inaugural appearance in the group stage:
2009/10 (7): APOEL Nicosia, AZ Alkmaar, Debrecen, FC Zurich, Rubin Kazan, Standard Liege, Unirea Urziceni
2010/11 (6): Braga, Bursaspor, FC Twente, Hapoel Tel Aviv, MSK Zilina, Tottenham
2011/12 (5): Man City, Napoli, Otelul Galati, Trazbonspor, Viktoria Plzen
2012/13 (3): Malaga, Montpellier, Nordsjaelland
2013/14 (1): Austria Vienna
2014/15 (2): Ludogorets, Malmo
2015/16 (3): Astana, Borussia Monchengladbach, Gent
While some of those debuts owe to surprise league successes (Unirea, Bursaspor, Otelul, Montpellier) and wealthy benefactors (Man City, Malaga), many of the clubs mentioned above are highly unlikely to have made it to the group stage were they not kept apart from teams who came third or fourth in the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga et al. Hence the presence of the champions of Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Bulgaria, Sweden and most incredibly, Kazakhstan in the Champions League proper. While Astana, who made history last week when they overcame APOEL to reach the group stage, are the only groundbreakers in terms of being the first team from their country to get this far, others restored their nations to the top table after a long time away. Debrecen (14 years), Zilina (13), Ludogorets (8) and Malmo (14) all put their respective leagues back in the continental picture after lengthy spells away.
Another knock-on effect of Platini’s 2009 revamp is the renewed presence of some of these clubs in the Champions League group stage. BATE Borisov of Belarus first made it that far the season before the revamp, but with them being kept away from clubs from England, Spain, Germany etc, they are now in the group stage for the fifth time in eight years. APOEL have been in the competition proper on three occasions since 2009/10 and are the standard bearers for Platini’s democratic plan, having sensationally reached the quarter-finals in 2012 before losing to Real Madrid. No doubt the Frenchman will point to that extraordinary achievement and claim, not without some justification, that it would most likely have not happened if he hadn’t rejigged the qualifying rounds. Another beneficiary has been Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia, now preparing for a fourth group stage appearance in five years, although they have failed to make any impact whatsoever upon reaching this hallowed threshold.
The story of Astana making it to this year’s group stage is another triumph for Platini. The club from Kazakhstan, appropriately enough, was founded in 2009, the same year as the historic overhaul of the Champions League qualifiers, and won its first national title last autumn. They actually came close to reaching last season’s Europa League group stage, advancing through three qualifying rounds before losing to Villarreal. This year though, they have seen off Maribor, HJK Helsinki and APOEL Nicosia to take their place among the continent’s elite. Even accounting for the champions of ‘lesser’ countries being kept to one side of the draw, Astana’s qualification for the group stage was most unexpected. Two of the three teams they defeated were in last season’s group stage – HJK the exception – although their manager, Stanimir Stoilov, has experience of taking teams to this phase of the Champions League, doing so with Levski Sofia for the first time in their history in 2006.
Astana’s tale has made the Champions League qualifying overhaul a worthy move from Platini. I, for one, would far prefer to see league winners from the likes of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Cyprus have a go in the group stage than a 3rd or 4th place team from the traditional top leagues. APOEL’s progress to the last eight shows that such a team can be far more than mere filler when it comes to the group stage and the achievements of that club, BATE, Astana and a few others has, most crucially, given hope to the majority of champions in Europe that they can follow in their footsteps. For instance, Albanian champions Skenderbeu Korce were this season one step away from being the first club from their country to reach the group stage.
Astana will most likely find the challenge of Benfica, Atletico Madrid and Galatasaray far too difficult, but for them, success has already been obtained. They have done Kazakhstan proud and it is only right that clubs like that can realistically aim for the promised land of Champions League group stage football. I haven’t agreed with everything Platini has done in his eight years as UEFA president but he most certainly got it right with this overhaul of the Champions League qualifiers six years ago. I already look forward to seeing who next year’s Astana will be, or indeed if the Kazakhs can become a more regular presence in the competition proper.
Featured image provided by Annika Hugosson.
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