The boss of Celtic’s potential Champions League opponents, Cluj, has hit out at UEFA over the ‘joke’ of national champions having to play in qualifying rounds.
Dan Petrescu blasted the organisers and said he “doesn’t like the competition” over a carve-up that protects the interests of bigger countries with large TV audiences.
The former Chelsea and Romania star highlighted the situation of European Cup semi-finalists and four-time winners Ajax, who have to play PAOK of Greece in the third qualifying round.
He said: “I do not like the competition. I watch Ajax play in the preliminaries. What is this?
“They played the Champions’ final and they are in the preliminaries. The champions of Holland. God forbid!
“Why are they not directly in the group stages?
“Let’s also respect the countries. All countries deserve a team in the Champions League in a tournament that is called the Champions League.”
His comments echo those of Ajax chief executive, Edwin van der Sar.
The former Man United goalie said: “Leading clubs from mid-sized associations, like Celtic, FC Copenhagen or Ajax, should not be solely dependent on the position of their association in the UEFA Country Ranking, but also be rewarded for their own performance, both domestically and in the European club competitions.
“Starting at this stage means that you have to be ready in a very early part of the season, which brings a lot of pressure in many different aspects.
“Some of our players already started this year in the third week of June, but the best international players of our squad started much later as a result of having international duties like the Nations League, African Cup of Nations and Copa America.”
Celtic fans will agree with the above. The club has a proud history in Europe (with a few bumps along the way). It currently sits at 13th in ranking terms of all teams to have played in the competition. We are former winners, have reached another final, and two other semi-finals.
While there is room for four English sides, finishing as also-rans in the EPL can earn tens of millions of pounds as a reward for failure.
Meanwhile, Celtic have to beat the actual champions of several countries, three rounds and a play-off this year) just to get into the group stages. With Celtic’s end of season almost running into the new season with only a couple of weeks break, it means international players face burnout.
Callum McGregor topped the ‘most minutes played’ in world football last season. This isn’t a good thing.
When it was a proper knock-out competition this kind of run, with a kind draw, could take you to a semi-final. When Celtic reached the quarter-final of the European Cup in 1980, our opponents before Real Madrid were Partizani Tirana and Dundalk.
There wasn’t much glamour in those rounds from Celtic’s perspective, admittedly, that run would be the high point for more than 20 years that followed.
When the European competitions were revamped, what might initially have seemed appealing (the guarantee of a certain number of home games) changed over the years into something more clinical and cut-throat.
Those countries with larger TV audiences began to gradually freeze out smaller nations. So Ajax, who have been finalists six times, are penalised along with Celtic and other big clubs from countries with small populations.
Romania, too, has provided a champion for this competition and, as Petrescu says, the country should be respected.
Before glitz, glamour, sheikhs, oligarchs and any number of dodgy entrepreneurs began to squeeze the game until it bled, working class people in working class towns and cities kept the game alive.
Before marketing and multi-million pound prize funds, super agents, and contracts, this was a sport that belonged to the people rather than the square box in the corner of the living room.
When European competition first came along, it was a fair tussle between two teams on a pitch relative to the actual size of the club. This was dependent, largely speaking, on how many people paid to go through its doors.
Celtic, Ajax, Benfica, Feyenoord, and the likes could all win it, while Brugge, Malmo, Partizan Belgade got to the final.
Maybe with EPL riches and sponsorship from an oil-rich nation or an oligarch, there remains a possibility that an Aston Villa or Nottingham Forest could find a way to get there again. They remain among the unfashionable sides to have lifted it.
Liverpool, a working class city similar in size to Glasgow, is not only an elite side on their own merit in European terms, but are now also from one of the elite nations that will in all probability continue to share the spoils.
People sneer when Celtic face sides with ridiculous wealth and, if we suffer a heavy defeat, complain about what we bring to the competition.
The new money of football has blinded them to the sporting element of the game. When there was less financial disparity, a team like Aberdeen could beat Real Madrid in a European final. Dundee United could reach a semi-final and could beat Barcelona home and away.
Over the years, Celtic have more than held their own against English sides, including Liverpool, Man United and Leeds United.
Three years ago, we managed to pick up two creditable draws against Manchester City, now a ‘super club’, simply by virtue that playing in a ‘superleague’ made them attractive to the prime minister of a Middle East country.
These results get harder for teams being deliberately made irrelevant by modern-day fixers.
And while all this is going on, there is talk of a breakaway European superleague in a ‘cartel-like structure’, as if they weren’t rich enough already.
Maybe there is an appetite for watching the same teams play each other, with opera music at the start and opera prices at the turnstile, on a loop, over and over and over again.
Once Celtic go out, it’s not something I’m interested in. Most of the people I know who previously held the European Cup in great esteem feel the same when their team exit. It doesn’t sound as if the likes of Petrescu and van der Sar fancy it too much either in its current format.
If UEFA has no interest in listening to fans, maybe the voices of those with a European pedigree such as those two will at least be heard.