Go backwards or forwards – to save European football


THE CONCEPT of European elitism is not a new one in football. Back in the 1950s, some clever French fellows had the curious idea of creating a European Champions Cup, comprising the top clubs across the continent – the champions of France, Spain, Italy and so on. Two-legged ties meant that there were very few shocks, but that’s the way it was meant to be – the best teams rising to the surface.

Somewhere down the line, people  tried to kill the goose that laid the golden football. The Champions League, which is captivating beyond the group stage, is a bloated, greed-driven competition that is marginalising so many clubs across Europe. And it has a pompous hymn and strangely scary advertisement for an ubiquitous energy provider.

If you think this is a harsh assessment, just consider that domestic cup competitions, the Europa League and lots of leagues across the periphery have all been relegated to second best or worse. For many, it is “Champions League or bust”.

Clubs like PSG have become flat-track bullies

The bulk of recent Champions League finalists were not reigning league champions. Since the competition was rebranded in 1992, 12 of the winners have entered the UCL as either runners-up, third or fourth place in their respective leagues in the previous campaign. And only three of the last 10 Champions League winners were genuine champions at the end of the qualifying season. Barcelona, impressive as they were in 2014-15, did not win La Liga in 2014. There’s something of a trend developing in that Champions League finals are starting to look like very good UEFA Cup finals from that competition’s heyday. In 2014, 2012, 2007, 2000 and 1999, the finals were between two non-champions.

With so many leagues becoming very predictable, largely due to financial imbalances, there is a growing feeling that some clubs have outgrown their domestic environment. It’s not a new thing, by any means, but if you take a look at France, Paris St. Germain have become “flat-track bullies”. Great if you’re from Paris, but it does mean that Ligue 1, in  2015-16, is all over bar the relegation spots.

It is also very clear that clubs like PSG are not really building for Ligue 1, but for European dominance. After all, how many £30m players do you need to beat-off the challenge of Caen, Ajaccio and Bordeaux?

The Champions League has evolved into a huge commercial success and certainly, in its latter rounds, it is compelling. But with the mammoth football institutions dominating their leagues and also making the UCL an exclusive members club, it might be time to create a European Super League or revert to the old format of European club football. In other words, go the whole hog or make the competition smaller, more concentrated and less like the Holy Grail.

Who warrants inclusion into such a league? And how would you operate promotion and relegation? No easy answers here. The league could comprise the genuine giants of European football. The Deloitte Money League should provide some pointers to this. On that basis, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund would be obvious contenders . If you look at Deloitte’s list over the past decade, it reveals that the rich remain rich on a consistent basis: 12 clubs have appeared in the top 20 every year for the past decade and two have appeared nine times.

What would the rationale be for creating a European Super League? Firstly, by removing the clubs that have untold advantages over their domestic rivals, it may create a more even competition back at home. Moreover, it would only be anointing the monarch – these clubs are in a super league of their own, in all but name. But it would come with huge challenges.

The absence of Real Madrid from La Liga or Bayern Munich from the Bundesliga would have an impact on the commercial clout of those leagues. Some people might argue that removing La Liga’s two leading clubs would be the league’s death knell. While supporters of the clubs that chase after Real, Barca and Bayern probably despise the predictability of it all, they would not vote for a move that would take these clubs out of the equation. They would much rather some form of directive that prevents inflated investment, thereby encouraging a more democratic system.

If supporters are fed-up with PSG winning everything in France over the past few years, at first glance, the stats don’t support that argument. Ten years ago, the average gate in Ligue 1 was 21,552. In 2014-15, it was 22,250. But look closely and you can see that this is slightly misleading as 11 of the 20 clubs showed a decline on the previous season. And in Ligue 2, attendances were down 22% overall. PSG’s success is not being enjoyed by everyone in France.

We looked at 16 different European leagues and seven showed a decline in attendances over a 10-year period. In some countries, the state of play is worrying. Some of the central and eastern European leagues have suffered a lot from the rise of bigger, more commercially-oriented counterparts. In countries like Hungary, a football-mad nation, there is huge support for the Bundesliga and Premier. But their own football, at the top level, is played in front of an average of 2,500 people.

Who watches MTK when Barca are on the box?

The blame cannot be left entirely at the door of the Champions League or the big five leagues, but European football in its current format is sending lesser leagues into oblivion. The heavy concentration of TV coverage around the big clubs and the wall-to-wall football, while manna from heaven for the fanatic, also enables local neutral and occasional supporters to opt for high quality on TV rather than watch MTK Budapest play Debrecen. Everyone gravitates to the elite – how often do you watch Getafe v Villareal when Real Madrid or Barcelona are on the other channel?

The concept of a European Super League is what the Champions League has been trying to achieve, but knowing its formation would require drastic surgery and emotional and pragmatic opposition, UEFA have settled on a format that works within the midweek programme. But in doing so, they’ve also swept up every half-decent side across the continent. That has not only made UEFA’s other competition, Europa League, the ugly half brother of the UCL, but also made non-qualifiers feel like they don’t matter anymore.

Which really provides ammunition for the “shrink the UCL” brigade, and maybe a return to the days when champions, and only champions, entered the competition. UEFA should take note that its blue riband offering really only gets interesting when it dispenses with the groups and starts to become [almost] sudden death. TV executives will not agree.

Without the Champions League dominating all, the rest of Europe may get a chance to breath a little better and maybe, just maybe, Ferencvaros or Ujpest will get a better look-in back in old Budapest. The UCL is a pan-European affair, it is time for UEFA to come to the rescue of its heartland. Surely it is in everyone’s interest that European football is healthy – everywhere?

7 thoughts on “Go backwards or forwards – to save European football

  1. The creation of a super league is a interesting idea but as you have stated it would face many challenges. Another issue would be the fan reaction to the introduction of a super league, would fans be willing to travel around Europe to support their sides? Many fans are willing to travel for the Champions League games but would they do the same every other week for a super league game.

  2. Very interesting piece, but wouldn’t the Super League exacerbate the decline of the smaller European leagues – and perhaps cause a corresponding decline in places like Spain and Italy (I suspect not in England and Germany)? There would have to be many more matches than the current UCL (otherwise, why bother financially?), over a whole season (at least the UCL matches only take place in certain weeks at the moment), wall-to-wall TV coverage every weekend, and no world-class players in any national leagues. I think we need an FFP regime that does not simply set in stone the dominance of the super clubs.

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