Following Celtic’s shock exit at the hands of CFR Cluj, Michael Conway reflects on what this means for their season, and for Scottish football.
Celtic’s departure from the Champions League qualifiers is a gutter, not just for the team itself, but for the entire league. Currently, Celtic are the only team who can fly the flag for Scotland at the highest level of European football.
This is a result of the co-efficient system which dictates that only 1 Scottish team, the winners of the league, can enter the qualifiers for the champions league. Three other teams, position second, third and fourth, can enter the qualifiers for the Europa League, the less financially rewarding and overall less glamorous European tournament.
The coefficient system bases this on recent results of Scottish teams in Europe. It was only over 10 years ago that both Celtic and Rangers could enter the third round of qualifiers for the Champions League however due to poor Scottish results and better results by teams from other leagues determined that the Scottish Premier League (SPL) would lose qualification positions, and teams would have to go through more rounds.
Celtic’s recent failure to qualify only adds to the difficulty of one day retaining more prestige for the Scottish game in the Champions League. There is an argument, however, that teams as big as Celtic and Rangers should not have to go through 3+ rounds to get onto the big time European stage. Firstly, the Champions League was founded as a tournament of teams who won their league, hence the "Champions" league.
But the Scottish champions status is not considered enough, a team in the English league can enter automatically into the tournament by finishing second, third or fourth. In other words, they get in despite winning nothing. The case for this is that England has more quality and therefore deserves more places. If the Scottish league had the same kind of money it would have similar quality. It's also well documented that Celtic and Rangers have much bigger fan bases and more genuine worldwide reach than most teams in England do once the TV money is subtracted.
The quality of football in Scotland is undoubtedly what puts Celtic at a disadvantage each year they go into the qualifiers and beyond. They go from being world beaters in their own league to the underdog in the Champions League. They can be playing Motherwell on a Saturday, and then face Barcelona on the next Wednesday – and let’s be honest, a game against Motherwell doesn’t prepare you for a game against a top side in Europe. Yet, Celtic, Rangers, and any other team can only play week in and week out against what is in front of them.
As for Celtic’s exit this year, it was unfortunate. It was a game determined by the mistakes rather than the performance of the team. A bizarre hand ball from the captain and a poor clearance from a goalkeeper resulting in two goals will always make a game an uphill battle no matter who you are playing for and who you are playing.
But it’s not just on Celtic. Any team in the Scottish league who have a chance to qualify for Europe in some capacity has to take it. If Celtic can return to the Champions League next year, then it will be one big step for Celtic, one giant leap for Scottish football.