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Complete archive of Robert Wagman's It Seems to Me.

It Seems To Me . . .

It takes an advanced math degree to get the new Champions League qualification.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, June 8, 1999) -- I thought this week, in celebration of Manchester United's European Champions League crown -- and in answer to several recent e-mails -- I would attempt to explain how the Champions League will be contested next season.

The explanation is simpler to understand if you have an advanced degree in mathematics, preferably from some German university. But I will do my best, and if I fail, you can go to UEFA's web site ( and spend hours lost in the explanation.

First a little history. UEFA, the "Union des Associations Européennes de Footbal" runs football in Europe. It's motto is "We Care About Football." But more than a few detractors say its real love is money. It had found the proverbial pot of gold with the Champions League, the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup competitions. Simply put, UEFA has been raking in the cash from global television rights, while giving back only a relative little to the clubs that were actually competing.

So along came some British and German entrepreneurs who suggested the formation of a "Super League" to be made up of the best club teams not only in Europe, but the rest of the world. The lure was billions of dollars in television revenue from a pay-per-view scheme.

UEFA at first scoffed at the idea. Of course, they huffed, none of the clubs would go for it; and certainly none of the national associations (who would have to sanction the clubs' appearances) would turn their backs on UEFA. But when it became clear that the money being offered was so huge the plan might happen, UEFA blinked and suddenly came up with a counter-offer.

It would expand the Champions League and pay the competing teams much, and I mean much, more money. At the same time, the secondary competition -- the UEFA Cup, would merged with the Cup Winners Cup, and also be made significantly more lucrative for the participating clubs.

So that is what got us here. Next year (and next year actually begins next month) the 1999-2000 Champions League will feature 32 teams, up from 24 this year. But figuring out who those 32 will be, takes either that degree in math, or one in computer science. A total of seventy-two teams have become "eligible" for the Champions League based on how they finished in their leagues this past season. They in turn have been ranked 1-72 based on where they finished in their own domestic leagues multiplied by a number derived from a table called the "Associations' Coefficients." A simpler title would be a ranking of countries.

UEFA ranks the quality of play in 50 national football associations from number one Italy to number 50 Bosnia-Herzegovina. The rankings are arrived at using a formula only that math major could love. The top 10 in order are: Italy, Germany, France, Netherlands, England (ouch), Portugal, Greece, Czech Republic and Norway. A team’s league finish is multiplied by the coefficient, so a third place team from Italy's Serie A is much higher ranked than the winner of the League title in say Scotland (26th ranked).

Half the final field of 32 is already known. The defending champion, Manchester United plus fifteen other clubs earned the distinction of "directly qualified." The clubs are Man U (England), Milan (Italy), Lazio (Italy), Bayern Munich (Germany), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Barcelona (Spain), Real Madrid (Spain), Bordeaux (France), Olympique de Marseille (France), Feyenoord (Holland), Willem II (Netherlands), Arsenal (England), FC Porto (Portugal), Piraeus (Greece), Sparta Praha (Czech Republic) and Rosenborg (Norway).

The remaining clubs ranked 17-72, are further divided into three groups - Group 2 (rankings 17-34), Group 3 (rankings 35-52) and Group Four (rankings 53-72).

(It should be noted that as this is written the Spanish League is still playing. So while the 72 teams are known, the relative ranking of Spanish teams could change slightly.)

Now things start to get complicated. First, the 22 teams in the lowest group, Group 4, will engage in the First Qualifying Phase. They will meet in 11 home-home, total goals elimination competitions with number 53 playing number 72, number 54 playing 71 and so on.

The 11 winners will move on to the next round, called appropriately, the Second Qualifying Phase, where they will be joined by the 17 clubs from Group 3. These 28 teams will engage in another home and home, total goals, elimination set of contests with clubs again facing one another based on rankings.

Fourteen clubs will emerge to go on to the Third Qualifying Phase where the 18 teams from Group 2 will be waiting. Again a series of 16 home-and-home total goal elimination competitions will see which 16 teams emerge to join the 16 "directly qualified."

Whew! If your still with me, and your eyes have not glazed over, we have now reached the actual start of the Champions League. The 32 qualifying clubs are divided into eight groups of four based on their rankings. Each club in a group plays the other three home-and-home.

The eight group winners and eight runnersup then qualify for the next round, comprising four groups of four, again in home-and-home encounters within each group. At the end of this second phase, the four group winners and four group runnersup qualify for the quarterfinals.

There will be four home-and-home series, leading to the two semifinals, also home-and-home, leading to the single championship match next May.

Why should we care about all this over here on the other side of the pond? Actually there are a couple of reasons.

Obviously this will be the premier club competition in the world next year, and many of these matches will end up on American television. So the Champions League should provide a high entertainment quotient.

At the same time a number of key American players will be involved including Claudio Reyna at Glasgow Rangers, Tony Sanneh at Hertha Berlin, and Frankie Hedjuk at Bayer Leverkusen. With this competition starting in just a few weeks, most competing clubs, including those in the highest "directly qualified" category are starting serious training in early July. This could impact players availability for U.S. international matches, even for the Confederations Cup in late July.

Finally, many observers in Europe are saying that unless this year’s competition results in very large pay days for the premier clubs, talks about starting that Super league will begin again. And believe it or not, organizers were looking at the possibility of one or two teams in the U.S. (and other countries like Japan and even China) as a way of bringing in potentially huge non-European and South American television markets. So if the Champions League does not live up to expectations, there could be U.S. entries in a new Super League.

Robert Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at

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