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UEFA to boost Women’s Champions League with new group stage

Olympique Lyonnais v FC Barcelona Women - UEFA Women's Champions League Final

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - MAY 18: Ada Hegerberg of Olympique Lyonnais lifts the trophy in the UEFA Women’s Champions League Final between Olympique Lyonnais v FC Barcelona Women at Groupama Arena on May 18, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) In a move to raise the quality, profile and value of women’s soccer, UEFA is changing the Champions League format to include a group stage.

The 2021-22 edition will have a 16-team group stage with increased revenue from the sale of centralized broadcast and sponsor deals, the European soccer body’s executive committee decided Wednesday.

Top European leagues will likely have more entries - three instead of two - joining at an earlier stage, with at least 10 different countries to be represented in the groups.

“We expect the Women’s Champions League to take off more than it has today,” UEFA deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti said. “Certainly there is also more interest from the market.”

Currently, the Women’s Champions League is a 32-team knockout tournament with few games shown by national broadcasters. French club Lyon has won the past four titles.

This season’s winner will earn 460,000 euros ($510,000) in prize money - about 0.5% of what the men’s Champions League winner will get.

UEFA also confirmed its preferred qualifying path for Europe’s quota of 13 places at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which FIFA must approve. The winners of 10 qualifying groups will advance directly to the final tournament. Three will advance through playoffs.

The playoffs in March 2022 will include the 10 group runners-up and the two best remaining teams from the next Nations League standings. The 12 playoff nations will be drawn into three four-team knockout brackets playing single-game semifinals and a final.

The 2020 Nations League groups will be drawn on March 3, on the sidelines of UEFA’s annual congress in Amsterdam.

Amid uncertainty across Europe about how video review, and the interpretation of offside and handball, are affecting referees’ decisions, UEFA will ask soccer’s law-making panel for clearer guidance.

The video assistant system, introduced by FIFA for the 2018 World Cup, will stay, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin said, but “it is far from clear.”

“We have to make it (the technology) clearer. We have to make it faster. We have to make it less invasive,” he said.

UEFA plans to make a detailed proposal to the rule-making panel, known as IFAB, before its annual meeting on Feb. 29 in Northern Ireland.

Ceferin said the tight offside lines drawn by video officials were not giving the same clear, accurate decisions as goal-line technology succeeded in doing.

“Goal-line technology, it works perfectly but offside cannot work that way,” Ceferin said. “I still think that football needs uncertainty. The referees on the pitch have to take responsibility and not some people hidden somewhere in a van or in a building 500 kilometers from the venue.”

Ceferin declined comment when asked if Russia’s hosting of the 2021 Champions League final in St. Petersburg could be threatened by an expected decision next Monday by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

WADA’s executive committee has been advised by an expert panel to recommend banning Russia from hosting major sports events for four years as punishment for state authorities corrupting data and documents from the long-disgraced Moscow testing laboratory.

UEFA is not a formal signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code - FIFA is - and is technically not bound by any WADA decision.

“As a lawyer and the UEFA president,” Ceferin said, “I cannot comment on something that hasn’t been decided.”