Revenue from European football's elite club competition is invested back in the game, benefiting teams at all levels across the continent.
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It's quarter to ten in the evening and the sun is still burning bright in the sky. They say that in Iceland you get all four seasons in 24 hours, and this is today’s peak summer. It’s shining brightest on 2021 Icelandic champions Víkingur, who have just beaten Andorra’s Inter Club d’Escalades 1-0 to reach the first qualifying round of the 2022/23 Champions League. Less than a month after the final whistle blew on Real Madrid’s final triumph over Liverpool in Paris last May, already the road to Istanbul 2023 had begun.
Relief among the 925 crowd was palpable when Kristall Máni Ingason headed in the game’s only goal on 68 minutes. He smiles as he stops to talk after the game. Kids are leaning over the fencing behind us, so the 20-year-old walks patiently down the line signing autographs.
This was Ingason’s second game in the Champions League and he speaks of the thrill of walking out onto the pitch with the anthem playing. "It was really nice," he says. "And really good to get the goal. This is a whole new level for me – it’s my first time in Europe. It’s such an experience. I wouldn’t have expected to be playing in the Champions League a year ago, and to have scored is such an amazing and unbelievable thing."
For clubs at this level of the European football pyramid, revenue generated by the Champions League has a tangible impact and reaches all of UEFA’s 55 member associations, through prize payments for participating clubs from the very first game and solidarity payments to teams that haven’t even qualified for European competition. From the preliminary round to the final, 78 clubs from 53 member associations have taken part this season.
Of predicted net revenue of €2.92bn from UEFA’s men’s club competitions in 2022/23, 93.5% will be distributed to the participating clubs. By successfully negotiating the preliminary round of the Champions League and eventually reaching the third qualifying round of the Europa Conference League, Víkingur earned a cumulative €1.21m in prize money. This included a €260,000 bonus for winning the Icelandic title and represented a boost of more than 50 per cent to the club’s annual budget. As Víkingur discovered, the new Europa Conference League has made a prolonged European campaign a realistic ambition for champions of smaller nations, who move into its qualifying rounds once eliminated from the Champions League.
After losing to Malmö in the first qualifying round of the Champions League, Víkingur eliminated The New Saints over two legs in the second qualifying round of the Europa Conference League, before succumbing to Lech Poznań. The club’s performances brought wider benefits to Icelandic football. They boosted the national association’s UEFA coefficient and potentially helped to ease the path of its clubs in the years ahead.
Víkingur coach Arnar Gunnlaugsson knows how it feels to succeed at the top. He left Iceland at 19, joining Feyenoord then playing in Germany and France, before spells at Bolton, Leicester and Stoke in England; he also won 32 international caps. He was a League Cup winner with Leicester, but nothing compares to clinching your first title as the man in charge and then leading your team into the Champions League, whatever the round.
"Even though we’re playing against Inter Club, you still hear the anthem before kick-off," he says. "It’s special. And for a team like us, that’s important. You want more of that adventure." Then there’s the financial aspect. "It makes a huge difference. The money gets invested in infrastructure, players, bonuses for the players. It’s not millions, but it is good money for a club like ours. It’s important both financially and for the respect of Icelandic football."
So when the final whistle blows at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium and the new European champions have been crowned, spare a thought for some of the continent’s lesser lights who in just a few weeks will be embarking on their own European adventures. Kick-off next season for the four-team preliminary round is on 27 June. Let the games begin.