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A Champions League invite would help Atlético — at the expense of others

UEFA would do Atlético a huge favor but set a dangerous precedent in the process.

Liverpool FC v Atletico Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to deepen across the globe, igniting protests from vocal citizens and even national leadership tired of living upended lives. These drastic changes to routine have impacted everyone — not least of which, society’s vulnerable and young. In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pledged Saturday to relax restrictions centered on children going outside, but the country has recorded the world’s second-highest confirmed case total and coronavirus deaths there topped 20,000 on Saturday. A satisfactory ending to a crisis that has killed nearly 170,000 people remains far from imminent — though we badly want to manufacture said ending.

Sports are far down the “things that truly matter” list right now, but still — it’s been tough going for those whose vitality (or a healthy chunk of it, as is the case for many writers) rests upon competitive athletic events. Atlético Madrid’s players took a 70 percent pay cut and are trying to keep busy — whether it’s Marcos Llorente looking after his new dog, Stefan Savić hanging out sans shirt or Koke taking questions from fans on Instagram.

UEFA are trying to figure out the next steps for its own competitions. The governing body may reveal plans to finish this season’s Champions League during the month of August, starting the 2020/21 edition two months later. This is of great importance to Atlético, one of the four qualified quarterfinalists.

Coronavirus - Wanda Metropolitano Stadium Photo by Oscar J. Barroso / AFP7 / Europa Press Sports via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Royal Spanish Football Federation and LaLiga are again butting heads over when domestic competition may continue. In the event that the season is declared finished, RFEF wants the current top four — Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla and Real Sociedad — to get into to next season’s Champions League. Getafe, Atlético and Copa del Rey finalists Athletic Club would compete in the Europa League. The two Madrid clubs are each within a point of La Real in fourth, while Valencia (seventh) are five points clear of Athletic (10th).

UEFA reportedly sees a problem with this, namely that Atlético would be contesting its second-tier competition for the second time in four years. Atleti have become a Champions League mainstay — and according to Cadena COPE, the club’s second-place coefficient ranking will prompt UEFA to invite Diego Simeone’s men into the competition next season anyway.

Atlético — swimming in half a billion euros of net debt and already having slashed pay across the board — need continued European excellence to sustain Simeone’s project. True, only Barcelona and Real Madrid spent more on signings than Atlético last summer. Also true, Atleti brought back more money in transfer fees than anyone on the continent. Barça and Madrid can afford to run north of negative €100 million in net spending. In Atleti’s case, one begets the other.

The club’s revenues have risen every year since 2013, yet Atlético are always pushing LaLiga’s revenue-based player salary cap. Furthermore, the Wanda Metropolitano is not going to pay for itself, so revenue must continue to expand for that reason too.

Enter UEFA and its lifeline. The association extending this invite undoubtedly would be a major assist for Los Colchoneros, who have reached the Champions League quarterfinals five times in the past seven years (including two finals). But Valencia — a Round of 16 participant this year — would be denied entry into next year’s Champions League for a second time if RFEF’s plan were to be enacted. Getafe were in the midst of their own European adventure before the sport went on lockdown. Picture sixth-place Napoli entering next season’s competition over bat-slayers Atalanta based on the club coefficient rankings.

UEFA’s ability to invite at will could make the long-mooted European Super League a reality — an annual closed competition for the continent’s blue-bloods based exclusively on history, income and brand power. Club executives have kicked around this idea for two decades — and just last month, Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli argued that AS Roma should have participated in the 2019/20 Champions League.

The Super League idea gains more traction each year, and it’s going to happen eventually, after the sport recovers somewhat from this global crisis. The gulf between “rich” and “poor” widens each season — Atlético once belonged to the latter, but have been one of the big boys for several years now. That’s great news for Simeone and company, but terrible news for other deserving clubs.