US exec asks if Man Utd more integral for Champions League than Leicester

LONDON -- Closing off European competitions to elite clubs like Manchester United could make them far richer, according to the American sports executive who held talks with leading Premier League teams about a shake-up to long-established league structures.

Relevent Sports chairman Charlie Stillitano met on Tuesday in London with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United about this year's International Champions Cup (ICC), an annual preseason friendly tournament that's organised by his company.

Stillitano confirmed on Thursday that they also talked about "restructuring the Champions League," an issue high on the European Club Association (ECA) agenda amid a power vacuum at UEFA.

Discussions within the ECA about the merits of advocating guaranteed Champions League places for prestigious teams comes at a time when Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are all in danger of missing out on qualifying for Europe's top competition next season.

If the Premier League season ended now, unfashionable Leicester and outsiders Tottenham would qualify for the Champions League alongside Arsenal and Manchester City.

"What would Manchester United argue: Did we create soccer or did Leicester create [it]?" said Stillitano, a former general manager for the club now known as the New York Red Bulls, told SiriusXM radio.

"Let's call it the money pot created by soccer and the fandom around the world. Who has had more of an integral role, Manchester United or Leicester? It's a wonderful, wonderful story. But you could see it from Manchester United's point of view too.

"Maybe that is absolutely spectacular unless you are a Manchester United fan, Liverpool fan ... or a Chelsea fan. I guess they don't have a birthright to be in it every year. But it's the age-old argument: U.S. sports franchises versus what they have in Europe.

"There are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful elements to relegation and promotion. And there are good arguments for a closed system."

Stillitano revealed that UEFA has been keen on working with the ICC, which already attracts some of the world's wealthiest teams to compete in games across the globe for a lucrative but meaningless prize.

"We have even talked to UEFA in the past because they had an interest in our summer tournament," Stillitano added. "That is something they would like to integrate into their portfolio."

Joining forces with Relevent's ICC would currently be incompatible with UEFA's existing sponsorships. There are no plans with UEFA presently on the table but discussions have not been closed off.

Arsenal are the only team from Tuesday's London talks with Stillitano to go on the record as denying they advocate a breakaway Super League for Europe's leading clubs.

Stillitano believes Europe's biggest clubs deserve to make more cash from the Champions League, given their contribution to making it such a financial success. He said fans are more likely to watch the Juventus-Bayern Munich and Arsenal-Barcelona games in the current round of 16 rather than matches involving PSV Eindhoven and Gent.

"This is going to sound arrogant and it's the furthest thing from it ... but suddenly when you see the teams we have this summer in the ICC you are going to shake your head and say, 'Isn't that the Champions League?"' Stillitano said. "No, the Champions League is PSV and Gent."

Voicing the complaints he hears from clubs, Stillitano said that they told him: "I could make a lot more money, I can be a lot more visible, I can help my sponsors out but right now I am locked into doing certain things that [are] really historic."

Meanwhile, fans at leading Premier League clubs have vowed to oppose any moves to stage Champions League matches outside of Europe, which the Times reported was also addressed at Stillitano's meeting.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Sean Bones -- spokesperson for Manchester United Supporters' Trust -- insisted he will resist any such proposals.

"I am 100 percent against it," he said. "[Man United's] American owners are out to earn as much money as they can, and we want the traditions of the club and of football to be maintained. If they want to do that, they will have a fight on their hands."

The recent ticket-price row angered many fans, and Liverpool supporters have successfully protested against the club's plans to introduce a top-price £77 seat. The prospect of having to head across the Atlantic or to Asia to watch a game would add further fuel to the fire for fans.

Alan Galley, chairman of Manchester City Supporters' Club, branded the possibility "crazy."

He said: "There's enough money in the game as it is. The football fan is hammered all the time, and why? It's similar to the 'Game 39' talk a few years ago, and there was a lot of opposition to that. It's ridiculous, it's not a good idea because the poor old fan has to cough up again."

The idea of playing fixtures abroad first came to the fore in 2008 when the controversial 'Game 39' proposal was floated by the Premier League. At the time the Football Association, FIFA and UEFA rejected the idea, as did many fans, and Chelsea Supporters' Trust chairman Tim Rolls believes the latest suggestion will meet the same outcome.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Rolls told Press Association Sport: "[With] the 39th game, the Premier League put their head above the parapet and got shot down. The clubs will be wary of alienating [fans]. They would know if they openly supported it -- and I'm not just talking about Chelsea, I'm talking about all the big English clubs -- they would be shot down by their supporters.

"I can't speak for any other countries, but I can't imagine too many Spanish or Italian fans would be too enamoured with it either."

Information from Press Association was used in this report.