Imagine with me, if you will, the image of football’s future at a restaurant. Worry not, we are not looking at a fast food joint during a major tournament, the gaudy images of Disney characters doing scissor kicks is not welcome here. I am, of course, speaking metaphorically. Within our scene we see a top table, reserved for the best, the more sizeable contingent. Here we see our Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s, our Manchester United’s and Chelsea’s, our Milanese giants. We look on as they stuff more into there already full mouths, chairs buckling beneath weighty posteriors, crumbs and excess falling to the ground around their feet. As we look down we see a sight that is unpleasant for anyone to view. The once great powers of Paris St Germain, Ajax and Celtic are scrambling to claim what they can from the slurry, enough maybe to see out starvation for just one more season. Is this the way our game is headed?
There is a gulf beginning to open; an expanse which will seemingly become harder and harder to bridge. The divide of which I speak is that between the various leagues under the weighty jurisdiction of the UEFA. As the big guns get fatter, those of lower stature become increasingly separated. The football associations of leagues such as Scotland, Belgium and Holland can only look on in awe as their bulkier neighbours enjoy increased sponsorship revenue, an influx of the cream of players from around the globe and as a result, greater worldwide coverage.
When the news of the English Premiership last week agreeing a television rights deal that will result in even the side finishing last at the end of the season pocketing £30 million, an equal sum to that which Chelsea received for their Championship winning term last year, the emphasis on the increasing gulf became all the more clear. So what does the future hold for side’s in leagues aside from the ‘Big 3’ of England, Italy and Spain?
Scottish football has now reached a juncture at which the league championship has become increasingly insignificant. Without doubt there will be fireworks, champagne and Tenants Super a-plenty at Parkhead when the inevitable occurs, but by many Bhoys supporters will concede that the ease at which their side continually win the championship does diminish the achievement to an extent. It now seems that Celtic and Rangers now focus their attentions more upon European competition than domestic.
This in itself creates a vicious circle. A cyclone that reduces the worthiness a various country’s domestic programmes, the upshot of this will ultimately render the teams effected occupying the unenviable position of having their finances, potential purchases and competitiveness marginalised. The effects of this, which many may argue we are already experiencing, could be catastrophic.
The richer the ‘big three’ leagues of England, Spain and Italy become, the harder it will become for those following to keep pace. Over the past decade this effect has become prevalent. Using the Champions League as an example, only twice in the past ten years have sides away from the ‘elite’ brought home the famous trophy. Taking this into consideration looking forwards, surely the chasm that divides will only widen, possibly to the extent to which long established leagues from countries like the Netherlands, Scandinavia and possibly even France become little more than feeder leagues to those who have established financial superiority.
The question that must be addressed is what can be done about this issue? Having recently succeeded UEFA stalwart Lennart Johansson, former France captain Michel Platini has many difficult tasks in his new role as president of the organisation, but I foresee this issue to be of huge importance in keeping the sport in the possession of the people.
The issue has been previously debated heavily in the Netherlands. At some point over the past ten years, all of the nations three most successful clubs (Ajax Amsterdam, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven have voiced their desire to potentially leave the Dutch Championship as, similarly to in with the Old Firm sides of Scotland, they feel that they can gain nothing more from this competition.
Although this has not yet materialised, talk has been apparent of a merger between such leagues. Using the working title of a ‘Northern European Superleague’ it was voiced that an alliance as the title confers could give teams in this predicament a new lease of life. The new league could theoretically be as strong as any other whilst simultaneously enabling the clubs involved to fulfil the potential they posses, a potential really only denied previously due to a geographical misfortune.
The Ajax’s, Celtic’s and Anderlecht’s from across the continent would welcome this with open arms. It would instantly grant the prospective clubs money making opportunities that they had never experienced before. It has long been the argument of many Old Firm supporters that their beloved clubs would be as big as any south of the border if the competition so allowed, this could be the chance to prove this bold claim to be true.
Overall, bigger games week-in-week-out would produce more media interest, in turn gate receipts could improve, sponsorship deals fatten, and those who are now forced to sell to survive could begin to buy into a galactico class of player. Basically, everybody’s happy.
Or so you would think.
On the other side of the fence, the side where the grass is lush and the lawnmower is shiny. The side of the fence onto which the ball has been kicked, on this side we will find that the current occupants would rather the status quo remains.
For starters, we must appreciate that the power in football is held by the mighty. UEFA remain the organising and decision making entity, but the English FA, the Spanish LFP and Italian FIGC and the recently formed G14 conglomerate of clubs hold many of the Aces.
If we look at the situation from this perspective, we can easily see why the fattest diners at the table would not wish for someone to cut in on the cake. A rival league such as the one mooted could claim a portion of what is essentially a market share that is currently held by the biggest leagues. With football clubs run today more with financial gain in mind than ever before, the big hitters will doubtlessly not wish to see what they perceive as being their money (money that is often already accounted for in these days of projective finances), as such it is unlikely that any such league will be formed without much protestation.
Also, and the key deciding factor from the perspective of the governing body, is the impact that a pan-European league could have upon the Champions League. The jewel in UEFA’s crown can justly proclaim itself as being (aside from the World Cup) amongst the finest competitions in football today. A league combining different nations could potentially throw the famous tournament into disarray, with qualification processes requiring instant and dramatic overhaul.
As highly unlikely as the idea is to get off the ground is, the thinking behind the theory is the key factor that we must acknowledge. Quite simply, the divide between rich and poor in football today is widening to an extent to which I fear that domestic leagues outside of our decided elite will serve as little more than to develop and groom players for their ‘superiors’.
Once proud leagues like Le Championat in France, the Scottish Premier Division, possibly even the German Bundesliga find themselves further and further behind and the struggle to keep up is not getting any easier. Surely the greed of the biggest will not destroy that which grants the stature initially? Without healthy competition at all levels, football will be an elitist pastime, further separating itself from the people. The fans who supply the fuel that powers our beautiful game could become yet further separated.
A pan-European league may not be the answer, but surely something should be done to prevent the bloated sides at the top table ultimately crushing the hand that feeds them.