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By Brian Homewood
BERNE, Jan 22 (Reuters) - The days when teams such as Panathinaikos, Celtic, Malmo, FC Bruges and Steaua Bucharest could reach the Champions League final appear to be long gone as Europe's smaller leagues struggle in the shadow of the big five.
Even four-times European champions Ajax Amsterdam and twice winners Benfica now find it impossible to compete with the financial clout of teams from England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
Frustrated with the growing gulf, some smaller countries have dabbled with the idea of merging their national leagues to increase the possibilities for sponsorship and television rights and even things up again.
There have been rumblings about a Czech-Slovak league, a Belgium-Netherlands league and a Balkan league, while Scottish pair Rangers and Celtic have often talked about packing their bags and joining the English Premier League.
None of those plans have come to fruition and FIFA president Sepp Blatter's abrupt rejection of a proposed resurrection of the old Soviet league suggested that clubs will have to make the most of what they have got.
"It's impossible," he told reporters in St Petersburg on Sunday. "It goes against the principles of FIFA, therefore FIFA would never support such an idea."
Last month, several top Russian clubs, including champions Zenit St Petersburg, big spenders Anzhi Makhachkala and CSKA Moscow unveiled a plan to break away from Russia's top flight and start a multi-national league of up to 16 teams next year.
The plan called for six or seven elite Russian clubs, such as Zenit, Anzhi, CSKA and their Moscow rivals Spartak, Dynamo and Lokomotiv, to join four or five top Ukrainian teams, namely Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, plus one or two from Belarus, Armenia or Azerbaijan to make up the new CIS league.
A similar plan was announced by clubs from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Hungary and Bulgaria at a meeting in Sofia in 2011, but progress has fizzled out as they wait for approval from UEFA.
Plans for a Czech-Slovak league also appear to have hit the buffers.
"It was talked about of course on different levels in different times, but it never got far enough to put some concrete proposal on the table," said Czech FA spokesman Jaroslav Kolar.
"There is nothing that would suggest that it will come about in the foreseeable future."
Ten years ago, an attempt to form an Atlantic League involving teams from Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Netherlands also failed after UEFA warned that the winners would not be able to play in European competitions.
Despite all this, the concept is not yet dead and buried.
In a recent concession, UEFA has allowed Belgium and Netherlands to hold a combined women's championship known as the BeNe-League on an experimental basis this season. Depending on the outcome, it could authorise similar moves in the men's game.
A spokesman for the European Clubs Association (ECA) said that, even if UEFA approved the idea, nothing could start until the next cycle of competitions begins in 2015.
"It's open for discussion, we've received requests from a small number of clubs and a few discussions and we're not dismissing it," he said. "It's not easy, there's the question of how to qualify for Europe, but we have told our clubs we are here to facilitate communication."
Even so, many still feel that keeping national leagues is the lesser of two evils.
"I am a strong supporter of national leagues and totally against any combination of countries," Theo van Seggelen, secretary-general of the world players' union FIFPro told Reuters. "Football has its own culture and we have to keep national competitions as they are."
He also longed for the old days of the European Cup.
"I remember when Dutch clubs were very successful and there was more diversity than there is now," he added.
Bernhard Heusler, president of Swiss champions FC Basel, was not keen on the suggestion of combining the Swiss Super League with the Austrian Bundesliga.
"It's an idea which always comes up when one club wins the Swiss championship twice in a row," he told Reuters.
"I'm not so sure that if you bring in five teams from Austria and five from Switzerland it would really work.
"In the first season, it might have a novelty effect but at the end of the day FC Basel supporters want to see their team playing the derbies against FC Zurich, Grasshoppers, Young Boys and the other Swiss teams."
He admitted that the 10-team Swiss Super League, in which the teams play each other four times per season, was not ideal but made sense in the circumstances.
"For economic and sporting reasons, it was right to reduce our first division to 10 teams but, in terms of excitement for the fans, the derby loses its significance because you play four times a season," he said.
"Nevertheless, I may point out that the Swiss league has broken the attendance record in each of the last two seasons."
Heusler said the days when FC Zurich reached the European Cup semi-finals in 1977 were unlikely to return. "It seems impossible nowadays," he said, adding that the influence of the big five leagues had become pervasive.
"It is not so long ago that in Switzerland you could watch one English match every year, the English FA Cup final. Everybody would watch it on television and this was the big thing.
"Nowadays, football fans can watch English league games 10 times a week if they want. They can watch Barcelona every week, so it's understandable that the level of expectation has risen extremely.
"Nowadays, they are world selections, it's not simply the best English team playing the best Spanish team.
"You have a game between world selections, they play in a wonderful stadium with 60,000 people and then, three days later, people come to domestic matches that partly take place in outdated stadiums. Not surprisingly, they complain that Swiss football has no quality.
"I believe that all leagues in Europe below the top five are suffering a bit because of this. In Switzerland, FC Basel is in a special situation.
"We have won the national championship three times in a row, so the objective remains the same every year. Apart from that, we aim to play in the Champions League.
"However, the investment needed to get to the Champions League is too high for the reality of the national league, since the domestic market does not provide for the necessary turnover." (Additional reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague, Gennady Fyodorov in Moscow and Angel Krasimirov in Sofia; Editing by Clare Fallon)