European Football

European football is not just about Barca, United and Bayern

It all started with the Mitropa Cup....and ended with a giant combine-harvester called the Champions League...

It all started with the Mitropa Cup….and ended with a giant combine-harvester called the Champions League…

Take a look at the top four football leagues in Europe – England, Germany, Spain and Italy – and you won’t need a calculator to work out that they’re all over for the season.

Unless there is a dramatic change in form, only Serie A has any tangible competition still left in its title race, and Juventus may have already shrugged Napoli aside. In the English Premier, Manchester United’s 12-point lead is surely too much for neighbours City and in Spain, Barcelona – despite their dip in form – are unlikely to allow an 11-point advantage erode too much. As for Germany, Bayern Munich have a 17-point lead over second-placed Dortmund – they are already raising the steins and preparing to polish that giant example of steel production, the Bundesliga shield.

There’s never been a season like it. The big guns are running away with the silverware and it only goes to emphasise that the rich are, indeed, getting more and more wealthy. Over the previous five seasons in these blue riband leagues, there has only been one occasion where a team has won the title by a 10-point margin – Bayern Munich in 2007-08. The average across the leagues is six points (Spain 6.6, England 4.25, Germany 8, Italy 5). The only league that’s likely to come near to that in 2012-13 is Italy.

The heavyweights are absolutely in control of these leagues and it’s difficult to see how it can change, regardless of Financial Fair Play. It’s naive to think that football has not always been dominated by big city clubs, but the top European leagues are in danger of freezing-out three quarters of their clubs. Just look at the Deloitte list of the top clubs in Europe. Real Madrid’s revenues totalled more than EUR 500m in 2011-12 with Barcelona not far behind at more than EUR 480m. These are the two top clubs in Europe and they sit astride a league that is hopelessly out of sync with these two massive footballing institutions. Put simply, Spain is a two-horse race more than its ever been.

In the past, there have been isolated occasions when a team other than Real Madrid or Barcelona has risen to the top, albeit temporarily. In the 1970s, Atletico Madrid had their moment with three titles, in the 1980s, Real Sociedad and Bilbao briefly glittered with four titles between them, and in the first 10 years of the 21st century, Deportivo La Coruna had the audacity to win La Liga. Valencia, now financially hamstrung, also won the title twice. But it’s hard to see beyond Barca and Real now and with Spain’s economy on the brink of disaster, it will be near impossible for a team from outside the big cities to attain the wealth needed to challenge the big two.

Bayern Munich are Europe’s fourth biggest club in terms of finances, according to Deloitte, and the signs are that they will become even more powerful in the years ahead. Bayern are everyone’s darlings at the moment, and with Pep Guardiola about to take over, the focus on Germany’s top club will become even more intense. The Bayern model is much-admired around Europe today and not surprisingly. Wonderful stadium, great history and now they have the world’s most coveted manager. Little wonder that they sit 17 points ahead of their nearest rivals, Borussia Dortmund, who themselves are among Europe’s best clubs.

German football has always been quite democratic, but Bayern have always had the edge since the late 1970s. In the ensuing decades, their title haul has been impressive: 1980s six Bundesligas, 1990s four, 2000s six. Dortmund have had two in each decade. Other than that, it’s flickers of hope from Hamburg, Koln, Stuttgart, Bremen, Kaiserslautern and Wolfsburg (of all clubs!).

And what of the Premier? It’s starting to become like Spain. Since 1992-93, when the competition was rebranded, Manchester United have won it 12 times – the 13th is only a matter of weeks away. Chelsea and Arsenal have both won it three times and Blackburn and Manchester City once apiece. The danger is that the Manchester clubs will become Real and Barca. But while Chelsea have their Russian, and if Arsenal get their oil money, that will prevent a duopoly emerging. It’s a far cry from the 1970s when six clubs won the title in 10 years.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, English football used to glance one eye at nearby Scotland and mock the fact that only two clubs – Celtic and Rangers – could win anything significant. Forty years on, the same can now be said of England to some extent. Lack of competition on the domestic stage is not good for European success, although Barcelona and Real Madrid destroy that argument to some extent. But perhaps what has made these two clubs even more formidable is the desire to become strong enough to conquer new lands outside their own. For English clubs, the priority has become Premier survival for most and for a handful (literally), qualification for the UEFA Champions League. For Real and Barca, not to mention Bayern, Champions League success is the goal.

Italian domestic football is resurgent once more with the rise of Juventus. At one time the most glamorous in Europe, if not the world, Italy’s Serie A has been blighted by scandal. The two Milan clubs are not far behind Juventus and will undoubtedly return to prominence, but they are not as feared as they once were. Italy was never dominated by one or two clubs to the extent of Spain, but the big three have all had sustained golden periods, with Inter’s last one coming in the past decade. Juventus and Milan are still in the Champions League and if luck holds, the latter will knock-out Barcelona.

As marvellous, colourful and exciting as these top leagues may be, one of the consequence of mass TV coverage of English, German, Spanish and Italian football is the negative impact on other domestic football. Fans in Holland, Hungary, Belgium and – to some extent – France, all look to the Premier and its counterparts for their kicks. Hungarian football, for example, once a bastion of style, technique and passion, is a very anaemic shadow of its former self. I’ve seen Manchester United and Liverpool shirts in downtown Buda – whatever happened to Honved, Ferencvaros and MTK? It’s similar in Holland, where once they watched European giants like Ajax and Feyenoord. Now they’ve become feeders to the Premier and Germany and the bars on Amsterdam’s canals show Premier football wall-to-wall. Total football, but it ‘aint Dutch.

So while we complain that the top leagues are becoming predictably dominated by one or two clubs, the more worrying effect is that only the leading leagues will ultimately appeal to youngsters, and that will negatively affect the long-term health of the game in Europe. That should not be allowed to happen.

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