sport news MARTIN SAMUEL: Ignore the spin, protecting the elite is UEFA's only concern

Ajax. It's all about poor little Ajax. UEFA's latest protectionist scheme is focused on favouring the underdogs.

Of course it is. They're all heart, as ever. Aleksander Ceferin, the UEFA chief, wants to give the Champions League semi-finalists, not just the winners, automatic qualification to next season's event.

He was clearly moved by Edwin van der Sar's speech at the European Leagues meeting in May, bemoaning that his club reached the last four of the Champions League, but would have to sell players this summer because there was no guarantee they would qualify for the group stage in 2019-20.

UEFA are attempting to suggest their protection scheme is all about favouring the underdogs

UEFA are attempting to suggest their protection scheme is all about favouring the underdogs

'We would like to protect teams like Ajax this year, or Monaco and Leicester City before,' said Ceferin. 

'Ajax played the semi-finals this year and now they will have to sell all their players, because they don't know if they will qualify for the Champions League next year.'

Yes, but whose fault is that? Who guaranteed 19 of 32 group stage places to clubs from just five countries: England, Spain, , Germany and France? Who made it such a closed shop that even winning the Dutch league, as Ajax did, no longer ensures a place in the Champions League group stage? That was UEFA. That was Ceferin's lot.

France have produced one Champions League or European Cup winner in 64 years of competition - Marseille in 1993, a victory tainted by corruption after it emerged Valenciennes were paid to lose a league game, so Marseille would have more time to prepare for their final with Milan.

They were stripped of their league title, and banned from defending their European crown the following season. Yet this hugely underachieving league gets three guaranteed places in the final 32, and the Dutch none.

receive four, having produced a single European champion since 2007. No team in Germany beside Bayern Munich have won the Champions League since 1997, yet their fourth-placed team will also make it in, unchallenged. So that's Ajax's problem - not that semi-finalists aren't getting an even break.

Aleksander Ceferin's UEFA guarantees 19 of 32 group stage places to just five countries

Aleksander Ceferin's UEFA guarantees 19 of 32 group stage places to just five countries

Let's not pretend this is about championing upstarts, either. In the last 10 years, had semi-finalists received protected status, would have benefitted eight times, Bayern Munich seven and Barcelona six.

Ceferin threw Leicester into the mix because he ran out of recent semi-final surprises after two - Ajax and Monaco - but Leicester went out at the quarter-final stage in 2017 so their circumstances would remain unchanged.

Anyway, even knowing they had qualified for the Champions League did not stop them selling N'Golo Kante to Chelsea that summer. This is window dressing, no more, and potentially ruinous to a properly competitive league, as exists in England.

In each of the seasons between 2006-07 and 2008-09, the Premier League produced three of four Champions League semi-finalists.

Back then, automatic qualification would not have mattered because England had a top four and little beyond. The teams who reached the semi-final were going to finish in the Champions League qualification places anyway. Yet the Premier League now has a top six, and maybe more, looking at teams such as Wolves and Leicester.

In UEFA's brave new world, however, that fabulous competition at the top could be rendered partly or completely redundant if any combination of qualifiers - Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea this season - made it to the Champions League semi-finals.

Ajax have always been a selling club - as shown by the sale of Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona

Ajax have always been a selling club - as shown by the sale of Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona

Ajax have always been a selling club, as Van der Sar well knows - Ajax to Juventus, £5million, 1999 - and had agreed to sell Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona in January, when they could still have won the Champions League and qualified for this season's campaign automatically. But that's not the point.

Whoever wins the Dutch league is worthy of a place in the Champions League group stage – and that is what needs addressing.

But it won't happen because UEFA have enshrined the right of privileged mediocrities from , Germany, England and Spain to finish fourth and still get in, guaranteed. In reality, these are the underdogs to which Ceferin is most loyal.

Playing by our own VAR rules will lead to inconsistency and confusion

With the new Premier League season a month away, VAR is still proving problematic, but not to worry - referees chief Mike Riley has a solution. We're going to play a version of the rules: you know, like we always do.

The English game, says Riley, will be softer on handball, for instance. Many of the penalty decisions awarded in the Women's World Cup would not be given - and neither would the call against Moussa Sissoko of Tottenham in the Champions League final. 

'There are areas of interpretation around the way the new handball has been written - what you consider to be an unnatural position of hands and arms,' Riley explained. 'In this country we have always said that arms are part of the game and as long as you are not trying to extend your body to block a shot, then there is more scope so that we don't penalise.

VAR rules in England would see handballs like Moussa Sissoko's (left) in Madrid not penalised

VAR rules in England would see handballs like Moussa Sissoko's (left) in Madrid not penalised

'We have worked to our guidelines for the last three or four seasons and, by and large, people accept that interpretation and I don't think it changes.'

And to many, this is fine. Some of the calls in France this summer were too harsh. Yet what do managers demand? Consistency. And here we are, building inconsistency into our game. It means the seven English teams competing in Europe will play to different rules from at home; the national teams will, too; and what of English referees in international competition? Whose rules will they favour: UEFA's or ours?

Mark Clattenburg looked brilliant in the Champions League because he let the game flow, mocked any attempts at play-acting and favoured the leniency we enjoy in the Premier League. Yet he wasn't always as well thought of in Europe, for precisely those reasons. He let players get away with a level of physicality that was not present in their domestic leagues. He was often the source of outrage.

The Sissoko decision did not raise an eyebrow across much of the continent while here many considered it unjust. And now we're signing up for more moaning, more controversy - because we don't actually want consistency if it means change.

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