A whale in the fishpond: Declining competitiveness in European football
Posted on April 20, 2016
IF the UEFA Champions League has a familiar look about it, most of Europe’s top football leagues are becoming even more predictable. Apart from the English Premier, which may deliver just about the most unexpected final outcome for many years, most of Europe’s leading competitions will be won by members of the footballing elite.
Germany will have Bayern Munich as Bundesliga champions for the fourth consecutive season and the seventh time in 10 years. In Italy, Juventus look set to make it five in a row, while in France, Paris St. Germain have already won their fourth consecutive Ligue 1 title. Spain is a little more competitive this season, although Barcelona are still at the top. If Leicester City win the Premier, it will be a first and possibly the most unlikely victory in England since Nottingham Forest won the old first division in 1978.
The past five years have seen the creation of a European elite that is dominating not just domestic but also international competition. A cartel of enormously rich clubs has been formed, as evidenced by the Deloitte Football Money League which places this band of clubs very much at the forefront of the game: Real Madrid (1st); Barcelona (2nd); Manchester United (3rd); Paris St.Germain (4th); Bayern Munich (5th); Manchester City (6th); Arsenal (7th); Chelsea (8th); Liverpool (9th) and Juventus (10th).
While the creation of the “elite” has seen these individual clubs become enormously wealthy, it has also meant that many of them have pulled even further away from their domestic peers. This is good news for supporters of the clubs in question but not necessarily healthy for the competitiveness of the leagues.
In France this season, attendances are down around 10%, with some clubs – Marseille -17%, Lyon -9%, Lille -15%, Toulouse -15% and St. Etienne -10% – showing sizeable declines. While some individual club performances may have influenced these figures, the fall in gates could, arguably, be attributed to the current power base in French football. At the same time, Paris St. Germain, while enjoying unprecedented superiority, thanks to enormous investment from the club’s owners, are not altogether equipped to compete at the very top international level.
It would be wrong to say that elitism has not existed across European football in the past, but many of the top leagues are being monopolised to such an extent that financial imbalances are very evident. Most major leagues are two (or even three) speed economies
There is no strong hint, however, that the other top leagues are suffering at the gate like France. Germany and Italy’s attendances are only marginally down on 2014-15, England is on par and there have been mild increases in the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. You can only assume that the lack of competition in France – and perhaps concerns over terrorism in public places – may be contributing to a drop in public interest. The element of surprise has gone and shows no sign of returning soon.
Game of the People examined the leagues in England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia and Spain to see just how competitive they are in 2015-16. France and Germany emerged as the least competitive of the eight. It is difficult to make statistics prove the competitive level of a league, but the points gap per league table place can provide some indicators. In France’s case, the average points gap per place (as at April 15) is 3.63 which is swollen by the 28 points separating PSG and the second-placed club. There are 30 points between PSG and fourth-place and 69 separating top and bottom. From PSG to the mid-table 10th place, there is a 39 points differential.
After PSG, the Ligue 1 table is fairly consistent with an average gap per place of 2.27 points. This merely underlines just how telling the gulf between PSG and the rest of Ligue 1 really is.
Germany has an average gap per place of 3.64. The big difference in the Bundesliga is between second and third, currently 19 points. After the second place, the average is 2.4, higher than France’s for their second to 20th places.
The Netherlands is the next least competitive league. In 2015-16, it is a two-team race, with a 17-point margin between second-placed PSV Eindhoven and third-placed Feyenoord. Portugal has, traditionally, been about three clubs: Benfica, Porto and Sporting, but this season, the gap between second and third is 10 points. Third and fourth is also a 10-point difference. This contributes to a 3.12 average points gap per position.
The most competitive league among those reviewed by Game of the People is Russia. The gap per league table position is just 2 points.
Every league has a cut-off point where the margin between two places suddenly becomes high. The sooner that arrives in the rankings, the less competitive the league actually is. For example, for France it is the differential between first and second – 28 points. For England, it is the gap between bottom and 19th, which demonstrates how close the Premier is this season. For Germany it is between second and third, in Italy it is between fifth and sixth, in Spain third and fourth.
There’s further evidence for arguing that English football is very tight this season. Leicester City may be seven points ahead of second-placed Tottenham Hotspur, but they are 15 up on fourth place, only 28 better off than mid-table 10th and they have 56 more than Aston Villa in 20th.
What’s the conclusion, then? In competitive terms, Russia, Spain, Italy and England lead the way. Germany and France are the least competitive leagues overall, although PSG skews the French result dramatically. The falling attendances and foregone conclusion of French football, just goes to prove that having a whale in a fishpond doesn’t do much for the eco-system – or the whale, for that matter.