Soccer - Champions League / `Mother of all draws' beckons today
The Forum Grimaldi Hotel in Monaco will be the focus of attention today for Europe's soccer elite, and the eyes of Israeli fans will be upon them too.
The draw for the first group stage of this season's Champions League will begin at 5 P.M. and Maccabi Haifa will be a part of the show at the "mother of all draws."
At 2 P.M., a special UEFA committee will convene to set the clubs according to their ranking. The seeding is a formality in which there are no surprises, since each of the 32 clubs knows whether it is in the first, second, third or fourth level as it will be drawn into the eight groups.
The ranking - in UEFA terminology, it's called the co-efficient - is determined according to each club's performance over the past five seasons and reflects very clearly the strength of each of the sides.
Real Madrid, which has won the European Cup in three out of the past five seasons, is top of the rankings with a co-efficient of 147.223. In comparison, Haifa's co-efficient is 18.666.
Four other clubs have achieved a co-efficient of over 100 in the past five seasons: Bayern Munich (133.495), Manchester United (125.729), Barcelona (116.233) and Valencia, which reached the final in two consecutive seasons, has 106.233 points.
In comparison with Manchester United, other English clubs are much lower down the rankings even when considering that Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Leeds are thought to be major European powerhouses. Liverpool is the second-ranked English club with 79.729 points despite advancing automatically for the group stages, while United had to qualify.
AC Milan, which was one of the major clubs in Europe at the start of the 1990s, has dropped back and is now in the third grouping of teams with 69.334. Feyenoord, the UEFA Cup holder, is ranked one place higher at 70.062.
The Netherlands has a team in the second grouping (Ajax Amsterdam, 42.082) because Sparta Prague was ousted from the competition on Tuesday night by Genk of Belgium.
Haifa, which is in the bottom grouping, will nevertheless be looking at other huge European names which will be drawn alongside it into the eight groups such as Newcastle United (43.729) and Celtic (36.062).
The draw system is standard procedure for UEFA. First the eight group leaders will be set, after which the second grouping will be drawn, then the third and finally the fourth.
The only mitigating factor in the draw is that two teams from the same country cannot be drawn into the same group.
After the teams are drawn, each group will be given a number. Groups numbered 1-4 will begin their matches on Tuesday September 17, to be followed by fixtures on September 25, October 2, October 22, October 30 and November 12.
Groups 5-8 will start play on Wednesday, September 18 and will then continue on September 24, October 1, October 23, October 29 and November 13.
Each team plays six matches in the first stage and the top two finishers in each group will advance to the second stage, while the team finishing third will drop into the UEFA Cup third round and the bottom team in each group will see its European season come to an end.
Not all the teams appearing in the Champions League are the champions of their respective countries. The top countries in Europe are allowed to field three or four teams in the league, thus Spain, Italy and England have up to four possible participants, while Germany, France and the Netherlands have up to three. The clubs from these countries almost invariably dominate the competition.
Turkey has a champion which is also a top European club in the shape of Galatasaray, while Russia is represented by Spartak Moscow and Greece by Olympiakos. The latter two have two representatives in the shape of Lokomotiv Moscow and AEK Athens. Turkey's second possible representative, Haim Revivo's Fenerbahce, was ousted in the qualifying round on Tuesday by Feyenoord.
One country not represented in the competition this season is Portugal, both of whose teams vying for a place, Sporting Lisbon and Boavista, were ousted on Tuesday by Inter Milan and Auxerre respectively.
The best example of what the big money of the Champions League can do for a small club can be seen by Norway's Rosenborg of Trondheim which first advanced to the groups stages seven years ago and has become a regular participant in the exclusive club ever since.
Slovenia's Maribor, which entered the competition only once, has found financial stability leading it to become the dominant force in its local league which it has won for six consecutive seasons.
Another club that must not be forgotten is Sturm Graz which managed to reach the second group stage in its second appearance last season and pocketed $14 million, double its annual budget.
There are also opposite examples such as Kosice of Slovakia which has completely disappeared as a force, or Sweden's Helsingborg or Finland's HJK, but the potential for success is there, as long as a team is managed prudently.