Web Issue 3373 February 2 2009   
Smith wants to see return of Atlantic League
DARRYL BROADFOOTDecember 24 2008

Walter Smith has revealed Rangers would be prepared to leave a shadow squad to fulfil their domestic obligations in order to bridge the gap with Europe's elite clubs.

The Rangers manager yesterday floated the idea of an updated version of the Atlantic League, a stillborn idea promoted in the late 1990s by the continent's geographically handicapped, to revitalise the ambitions and replenish the finances of clubs who have outgrown their domestic environment, while rejuvenating what he considers to be a Champions League cartel.

He foresees a new European league - consisting of the top sides in Holland, Scandinavia and Scotland - running parallel with the domestic divisions and providing entry into the Champions League. Rangers, in theory, would have their A team performing in the Atlantic League, with a reserve side remaining in Scotland to challenge for a more open championship. Exposure to a superior general standard, not to mention to increased television revenue, would then enable the Old Firm to compete more keenly with the cream of Europe.

Smith has lamented the financial disparity that has prevented the Old Firm from making a serious and sustained challenge against the wealthiest clubs in England, Germany and Spain. He claims the Champions League has become devalued because Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool have become so wealthy, and so consumed by winning the Barclays Premier League, they can afford to send out their second-string players for the group stages and still qualify for the latter stages.

When asked if Rangers would contemplate taking their first-team squad out of Scotland for the betterment of the club, Smith said: "Yes, but it would not necessarily mean we still won't have teams here. It would effectively be a B team but it would create, I would hope, a situation where we could still have a decent challenge here as well. It would also give the other teams what they crave: the opportunity to challenge for the championship."

Rangers' earning power has been ruined this year by their failure to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, after being knocked out by FBK Kaunas in the qualifiers. Celtic's domestic dominance has been financed by their European progress in the past three years, qualifying for the last 16 on two occasions prior to this season. Smith believes the Old Firm brand deserves a greater platform and despite the Scottish Premier League agreeing a £125m 10-year television deal with Setanta Sports, he believes they are still being sold short.

"We are two huge clubs who deserve to be in better circumstances than we are in Scotland," he said. "There are a number of big clubs in Europe who find themselves in the same situation. We are all hamstrung in terms of finance in comparison to the other leagues and there are not too many people doing a great deal to try and equalise things.

"It is going to be a huge problem for European football, probably the biggest.

Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are all now playing reserve teams in the Champions League and keeping the main ones for their own league tournament. That slightly devalues the Champions League simply because of the financial advantage they have got.

"It is not going to be me or anyone else who changes it: UEFA have got to start trying to help bigger clubs in small countries. There are a load of them out there looking not for an equal level of finance to England, Spain and Germany but the disparity shouldn't be as it is at the moment."

The Atlantic League was the brainchild of Frank Kales, the former commercial manager of Ajax. His plan was endorsed by the Dutch Football Association, the KNVB, back in 1999 and was backed by Allan MacDonald, the former Celtic chief executive. Rangers were less public in their support.

The idea never got beyond the planning stage but with the gap now beginning to affect club football's premier competition and the G14 pressure group now disbanded after securing their monopoly, Smith believes that UEFA must now take the initiative for the good of the game.

"It is the biggest problem in European football and it impacts on us at the Old Firm and a lot of other clubs in a similar situation," he said. "The problem is wider than letting a few more teams into the Champions League. My own feeling is there should be a Champions League but there should be another European league, not to rival it but which can run alongside it, involving the big teams from the smaller leagues in a Saturday fixture. It can rival domestic leagues and, yes, involve Rangers maybe going to play in Belgium, Scandinavia or Holland.

"We have to offer a way - or someone has to come up with a way - of trying to challenge the teams in the Champions League. UEFA have a responsibility to look at it to bring a level of finance that would allow the big teams in small countries to compete, then we would have a real challenge, more than we have at present. I would hope to see it happen but I probably won't."

Smith's comments came after Gordon Strachan, his Old Firm counterpart, stated his hope that the credit crisis would create a level playing field by forcing English clubs to stop paying exorbitant salaries. If UEFA do not act, Smith warned a club from outwith the most financially powerful leagues may never again win the European Cup.

"We are not making a challenge," he said. "Who is going to win it? Real Madrid? Manchester United? You are not going to get Ajax or Porto winning again. England have got what they have got and will make sure they keep it, so there won't be a distribution of wealth."

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