In the old days, when life was simpler, teams competed against each other. There were exceptions – the Football League used to play the Scottish League in contests known as “Inter-League games”. They were poor-man’s internationals. Today, the major leagues of Europe are competing with each other for financial opportunities and TV rights. And at the moment, league officials in Spain, Italy, Germany and France all fear the creeping menace that is the English Premier League.
That was one of the messages from the recent Soccerex convention in Manchester. “The Premier could become the NBA (National Basketball Association) of football if we are not careful,” said the President of Spain’s La Liga, Javier Tebas.
At the moment, Tebas need not worry too much. La Liga sells itself as “the best league in the world” and the presence of players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have made it big box office. The latest TV deal brought EUR 600m for the rights for domestic football for 2015-16 and it is being shared out on a more equitable basis. “I am confident we will get EUR 900m next season,” said Tebas.
But some people are worried about what comes next for Spain: “La Liga needs to be more than Messi and Ronaldo – we are currently marketing this duel, but we have to sell La Liga as an international brand,” said Tebas. “The question is, what do we do when we don’t have these two guys.”
Tebas raised concerns about the gap developing between the Premier and rest of Europe. “The way things are developing, the Premier will be like the NBA – all the best players gravitate towards it and then nobody is interested in TV rights for the rest.There will be nothing left. The Premier will be the very top league and the rest of us [Spain, France, Germany and Italy] will cast as the minor leagues.”
A similar message was coming out of the Soccerex session on club ownership, with particular reference to the outlawing of Third Party Ownership, which the Premier has totally backed. Other leagues are less than happy about its abolishment. It is an emotive issue both in Latin America and Spain. Tebas is an advocate of TPO, which has been banned by both FIFA and UEFA. “The Premier is in favour of the ban – but they are the only winner in this as they have their big TV deal. TPO is a form of funding which is legally accepted across many industries. If there are issues with youth players, there have to be controls and regulations in place. Frankly, the prohibition of TPO will ruin the smaller leagues and their clubs – what chance does a small club have of holding onto their players?”.
Daniel Cravo Souza, a Port Alegre-based lawyer with a link to Fluminense, said TPO has been vital in Brazil, pointing to Chelsea’s Oscar as a good example of a player that has been developed through this type of financing. He added that with the absence of TPO, Brazilian clubs like Santos become an “easy target” for their European counterparts.
But while the Premier seems to be engulfing everyone with its high-octane commercialism and multi-cultural all-star line-ups, Raymond Vega, the former Switzerland international, and now successful fund manager, said there are big flaws in the Premier’s culture. “There is very little academy knowledge in England – I do not see a single good quality academy – and their clubs just keep buying foreign players. Commercially, the English clubs are there, but the fundamentals are lacking. And, most worryingly, the Premier has accumulated an awful lot of debt.”