“Football is about winning, it’s about competition, it’s about sporting merit,” he said. “I think it’s kind of a natural thing to give to those who have won a competition a special treatment like this.”
Those words, spoken by the then UEFA boss Gianni Infantino in 2015, seem to suggest that he was thinking along the lines of giving a boost to winners of national leagues across Europe. Perhaps he was hinting at adding a few extra places in the Europa League/Champions League proper for winners of domestic leagues and cups?
Of course, he wasn’t. The current boss of FIFA was actually referring to the problem (at the time) seeding of Arsenal ahead of Manchester City, plus some other adjustments within the ranking of teams from the stronger leagues in Europe. In short, he was talking about making it ‘fairer’ for the teams at the top.
Four League of Ireland teams with tricky ties this week
At the time of writing, just as Infantino is lording it over an admittedly successful World Cup in Russia, four League of Ireland teams are set to embark on their annual European adventure. Each one – Cork City, Dundalk, Derry City and Shamrock Rovers – have been entered into the first qualifying round of their respective competitions.
The qualifiers are a veritable minefield, with an almost attritional quality to them. Cork City, for example, a Leicester City-esque 5,000/1 to win the Champions League in the betting online at Mr Green, come up against Legia Warsaw this week. Thus, the ‘prize’ awaiting one of the champions of Ireland or Poland is guaranteed an early exit before most of Europe’s elite has started pre-season training.
If Cork City can get past Legia Warsaw, and the Poles are overwhelming backed at odds-on to qualify, then they would come up against Spartak Trnava or Zrinjski Mostar. While John Caulfield’s men might fancy their chances a little more against the champions of Slovakia or Montenegro, it is essentially meaningless, as getting through the three qualifiers will mean a lop-sided playoff draw against one of Europe’s elite teams.
Kenny’s Dundalk will be confident of progression
Of the UEFA Cup qualifiers, perhaps only Dundalk, who are priced at 7/5 to win the away tie against Levadia Tallinn, will have a more than probable chance of qualifying for the second round and a potential tie against AEK Larnaca. But once again, they will have to face a glut of big teams being parachuted in if they make it to the Playoffs.
Of course, we have to be pragmatic about this. There is no suggestion that the champions of Ireland, Liechtenstein or any of Europe’s other ‘smaller’ leagues should be in Pot 1 beside Real Madrid for the Champions League draw. But with each passing year, UEFA skews everything towards the big leagues.