by Jamie Whitehead

Following last week’s European Cup draw in Monaco, I had a conversation with the Editor of this very newspaper. “It’s a fix. A FIX!” screamed Daisy, down the phone to me. “How come Manchester United always get such an easy group?” This got me thinking, was it a fix? It couldn’t be, could it? Surely the custodians of the European game, UEFA, such an honourable and decent organisation, wouldn’t put their good name at risk for the sake of television rights? I had to find out.

The European Cup was founded by French sports newspaper L’Equipe in 1955 following Wolverhampton Wonderers claim to be Champions of the World following a series of friendly victories against the top club sides of the time. Following the Nations Cup, a ten team tournament hosted in Geneva and won by Upjest of Hungary, Gabriel Hanot put forward the idea to UEFA and in 1956, the European Cup was born.

Fast forward to the late 1970s and English sides were in the process of a sustained period of success in the competition. Three wins for Liverpool, two for Nottingham Forest and one for Aston Villa cemented England as the front runners of European competition. A fact cemented by Liverpool’s subsequent final appearances in 1984 and 1985 prior to the five year ban on English sides.

The European Champions Cup, as it was then known, ran in a very different way to the European Champion’s League. There were sixteen teams, all of which were the champion of their respective nation, and the draw was a straight knock out with each round consisting of a two legged tie with the final being played at a one off, neutral venue.

All of this changed in 1992, officially football’s Year Zero if Sky Sports are to be believed. The European Cup, a beautiful competition pitting the best against the best with Ol’ Jug Ears as the prize for the winners, expanded into a monster.

The reasoning for this expansion can probably be put down to money. We now find ourselves with an overblown, 32 team tournament featuring up to four competitors from certain nations. Matches are played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights under a shadow of mass, centralised corporate sponsorship and television deals, to an audience of billions across the globe. In 2009, the Champion’s League final between Manchester United and Barcelona drew a higher worldwide audience than the Superbowl, an event which loudly proclaims itself to be the biggest show on earth.

As a football fan, I and am sure many others, love to see a fairytale cup run, in any competition. Monaco’s run to the final in 2003/04 was fantastic for the neutral, best remembered for the 5-5 draw with Real Madrid over two legs. Monaco failed at the final hurdle to a Mourinho managed Porto, again a club you would not expect to see in the latter stages of European Competition. But, sadly, I don’t make the decisions and I can appreciate a semi final of CFJ Cluj and Steaua Bucharest doesn’t probably hold the same global drawing that Real Madrid vs Chelsea probably does.

So, how does it work?

UEFA need to protect their interests, and their ‘brand’ and this is done by ensuring broadcasters get what they believe to be the highest quality product available. So if UEFA think Arsenal and Barcelona are the teams most people want to see, who am I to argue?

The thirty two teams competing in the group stages are split into four pots, with the eight groups of four being created with one team from each pot. The pots are determined by the club’s UEFA Coefficient ranking. Let’s start by looking at this.

The UEFA Coefficient is based on both each individual club, and the combined performance of the nation they represent, over the last five years. Points are awarded as follows:

First Qualification Round elimination – 0.5 points

Second Qualification Round elimination – 1 point

Participation in the Group Stage – 4 points

Winning a match in the Group Stage – 2 points

Drawing a match in the Group Stage – 1 point

Participation in the Round of Sixteen – 4 points

A further one point is awarded for each round of participation after the Round of Sixteen, with an extra point awarded to the winners of the competition.

So, the total points are accumulated over the last five years. Once that figure is determined, the total points acquired by that club’s country over the last five years (Both Champion’s and Europa League performances) and each club is then given 20% of the total points acquired. So for instance, Real Madrid and Barcelona both benefit in terms of their own UEFA ranking from the all Spanish Europa League final between Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid last season. If you are a Conspiracy Theorist, your first point of call is the above point, bigger nations have more UEFA places available to them, and with all the clubs benefitting from overall national performance, the top club’s from the big nations are kept at the top for longer.

Unsurprisingly, the top five in the UEFA Coefficient ranking looks like this

Barcelona (157.39 points)

Manchester United (141.882)

Chelsea (135.882)

Bayern Munich (133.037)

Real Madrid (121.837)

Arsenal are currently in sixth place, with Premier League champions Manchester City in 28th place with 63.882 UEFA Coefficient points.

For the draw, all five of the above clubs were placed in Pot One. With Manchester City drawn into Pot 2. The four pots are determined by your UEFA Coefficient ranking, with Barcelona at the top and FC Nordsjelland of Denmark with the lowest ranking of 8.005 Coefficient points. It’s interesting to consider that Ligue 1, often considered to one of Europe’s Top Five leagues, has a Coefficient ranking so low that champions Montpellier have a ranking of 11.835 and big spending PSG are only ranked with 45.835.

In addition to one team being drawn from each pot, the only other stipulation is that teams from the same country can not be drawn against one another in the group stages.

As we are all aware by now, Manchester City were drawn into Group D, or the Group of Death alongside Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and football’s fallen angels, Ajax. City’s Salford based neighbours found themselves drawn into the much easier (on paper) with Braga, Galatasary and CFJ Cluj. We can see why Daisy was screaming what she was.

Having looked at the pots prior to the draw, I’ve tried to work out what I believe the easiest (on paper) group that Manchester City could have got. Although City undoubtably got a tough group, they could have found themselves paired with FC Porto, Olympiakos, and CFJ Cluj. In addition to this, Manchester United could have found themselves drawn into a group of Valencia, Borrusia Dortmund and one of either Juventus and Paris Saint Germain.

The Group of Death gives us a number of entertaining football matches in the early stages of the tournament, but does mean that two giants of this season’s competition won’t see the Round of Sixteen.

The draw for the Round of Sixteen is an almost open draw, but with UEFA once again adding ‘Country Protection’ meaning that two sides from the same nation can not be drawn against one another. The Champion’s League only becomes an open draw with no protection once we get the last eight. Considering the fact that last year’s participants in the last eight were Barcelona, AC Milan, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Olympique Marseille, Benfica the history making APOEL, no doubt making an appearance at the expense of Manchester United, it seems UEFA’s protection scheme worked.

It would be unfair to say that UEFA rig the draw to the point where perhaps they know who will be playing who prior to the draw being made. But there is no denying the fact that the eight teams put into Pot One certainly have a far greater chance of progression to the latter stages of the competiton than the teams in Pot Four. This is not so much due to the strength in depth at Old Trafford and the Camp Nou, but more the lack of that they find themselves against.

Is the Champion’s League draw a fix? Let us know in the comments below.

Jamie Whitehead is one half of list based podcast 3for3 and a Broadcast Journalist for the BBC’s World Service. He wants to believe that UEFA are an honest, trustworthy organisation.