By Rob Harris, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — Seven Spanish soccer teams have protested against a plan to transform the Champions League into a largely closed competition, openly opposing the European Club Association ahead of emergency meetings in Malta.
Atletico Madrid, second to Barcelona in the Spanish league, is the biggest club to complain to the ECA leadership about its vision for launching a "frontal attack" on the stability of the European game in a letter obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose officials sit on the executive board of the 232-member ECA, are not among the signatories.
But Spain's other seven members of the clubs group broke rank to express concern to the organization about a lack of consultation and openness about plans they say represent "the biggest threat in the history of European football in recent years."
The ECA, which is led by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, has pushed a vision presented by UEFA that wants 24 out of 32 group-stage teams starting in 2024 returning the following season regardless of where they finish in their domestic leagues.
That would involve promotion and relegation with the Europa League, which would have similar locked-in places and movement with a new third-tier competition. The ECA also is pushing for eight-team groups, creating more guaranteed games and prize money.
"The new European Club Competitions model proposed by UEFA and the Executive Board of the ECA represents a potential great threat, not only to national leagues and the great majority of clubs, but for all European football, representing a frontal attack to the competitive balance and to the stability of domestic competitions," Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid, Malaga, Sevilla, Real Sociedad, Valencia and Villarreal wrote to the ECA leadership.
It's a second act of defiance by ECA members since UEFA opened formal talks in March on Champions League reforms.
One month ago, around 70 clubs defied an ECA request not to attend a meeting in Madrid called by the European Leagues umbrella group.
The leagues say the ECA-driven plan would drain interest and commercial value from their member competitions, and widen a wealth gap favoring storied rich clubs.
Also Wednesday, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin asked for a "direct exchange of views" when inviting leaders of the ECA and European Leagues to a Sept. 11 meeting in Switzerland.
"We firmly believe that European competitions should be a reward for excellence," the Spanish clubs wrote, "in which the best teams participate in a competition open to all, based on the principles of sporting merit, solidarity among clubs, fair distribution, etc."
Currently, only the Europa League winner is promoted to the Champions League. The Champions League winner is assured of its place the next season.
"Access should always be achieved, with only the exceptions that apply in the current format, through domestic competitions," the clubs wrote.
The seven teams threatened to end their membership of the ECA, which holds a special assembly in Malta on Thursday and Friday to discuss the reform talks.
The Spanish clubs cited "negotiations led by a few" for "no longer feeling represented" by ECA leaders, who have seemed focused on building a global brand for their clubs.
England's Premier League said Wednesday its member teams are in "unanimous agreement that the domestic game should continue to be the priority."
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron joined the resistance against changing the Champions League format. His intervention at a private FIFA event in Paris angered Ceferin, who told the AP it was a "clear interference of politics in sports."
French soccer federation president Noël Le Graët tried to smooth relations Wednesday in a speech to the FIFA Congress.
Le Graët said he was "delighted to work alongside" Ceferin, and that while France's voice should be heard in the debate "there shouldn't be interference from anybody else."
AP Sports writer Graham Dunbar in Paris contributed to this report