Since 2009, the UEFA has made it easier for champions of Europe’s “lesser” nations to qualify for the Champions League. But it has also put those clubs under enormous financial pressure, causing a major disruptive influence on the viability of their leagues in the process.
While the continent’s club elite is still mainly engaged in the transfer market and preseason tours, Croatian league has been up and running for three weeks already. And not only that, the nation’s representatives have already played 14 matches in UEFA competitions.
For the four of them—Dinamo Zagreb, Rijeka, Hajduk Split and RNK Split—the most important part of the season starts in the middle of the summer, before the likes of Real Madrid or Manchester United have played a single competitive game. This week, the clubs play the return legs of their qualifying fixtures; should they progress, they will be only one step away from the group stage and getting their hands on some serious UEFA prize money.
The stakes are highest for the champions, Dinamo Zagreb.
They are defending a 1-0 advantage from an away leg against Aalborg of Denmark, champions of another league that started three weeks ago. If they win the tie, they will be awarded €2.1 million from the UEFA for qualifying for the Champions League playoff round. If they win that as well and reach the group stage—like they did in 2011 and 2012—that will mean a further minimum of €8.6 million prize money, not to mention the income from TV rights, ticket sales and everything else the participation in Europe’s elite competition can bring.
For those used to reading about transfers worth tens of millions of euros, the combined sum of €10.7 may not seem like an awful lot of money. But it is roughly the half of Dinamo’s annual budget.
For their archrivals, Hajduk Split, that kind of money would pay off all their debt and make them domestically competitive again. It equals almost twice the sum Rijeka made last year. It would be nearly enough to cover the costs of the remaining seven Croatian league clubs for a year.
Croatia has the least competitive national league in Europe. Dinamo have won it nine years in a row, amassing 68 points more than league runners-up in the last four seasons alone.
And yet their every foray into continental competitions ends up in bitter disappointment. Their last Europa League group-stage win dates back from 2010; in the two years of participating in the Champions League (2011 and 2012), they lost 11 of their 12 matches, with a 4-36 goal difference.
Surely the lack of real competition domestically is having a negative effect on the team’s chances in Europe, where they face much stronger opponents. But the paradox of the whole situation is that their dominance in the Croatian league guarantees them a chance to join Europe’s elite and fight for prize money, which, in turn, guarantees them further dominance in Croatia.
From 2009 onward, UEFA has allowed champions from associations ranked 13 to 53 on their league ranking to access the main tournament through a separate qualifying route. This means they can’t draw sides from major European national leagues until their potential group-stage participation. There are five slots available through this qualifying route.
So whoever wins the Dinamo Zagreb vs. Aalborg tie will compete in one final round against the champions of nations like Scotland, Romania, Cyprus and Belarus, while the “non-champions” from top leagues, like Arsenal, Athletic Bilbao and Napoli, compete for the further five slots available through UEFA’s “League Route.”
The opportunity to earn Champions League money presents a huge challenge for Dinamo. This summer, they already invested around €10 million in new signings. Their lineup against Aalborg isn’t likely to feature more than one or two players developed in the club’s famed academy, which has produced the likes of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Alen Halilovic.
But everything is subordinated to short-term success, and Dinamo can’t afford to be very patient. These days they sell their best prospects even before they turn 18, replacing them with mediocre, but experienced, players mainly from abroad.
If Dinamo fail to qualify for the Champions League, they can still make it to the Europa League, where bonuses are much lower. The base fee for participating in the group stage there is €1.3 million—a very nice sum for other Croatian clubs, but merely a consolation prize for Dinamo.
While their budget, eclipsing those of Hajduk and Rijeka combined, almost guarantees them another title in Croatia, another failure to qualify for the cash cow that is Champions League group stage would present a big blow for them.
But if they do qualify, the prize money will only serve to widen the gap domestically, effectively killing off competition in the Croatian league. This way the UEFA, while helping champions of smaller nations reach the elite, becomes the biggest generator of inequality in their domestic leagues.