Games of monopoly: European football belongs to the few

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WINNING the “double” used to be a once-in-a-decade event, with the exception of one or two leagues where the power sat with a very small band of clubs. But in 2015-16, around a dozen clubs have [so far] won both their domestic league and cup, including the champions of four of the so-called “big five” leagues: France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The concentration of trophy victories suggests that European football’s leading competitions are the exclusive property of the privileged few. Only in England, where in 2015-16, Leicester City produced a major shock by winning the Premier League, have the major trophies been won by clubs not considered to be part of Europe’s new elite band. There is an all-too-familiar look to the other leagues, with the big prizes won by Paris St. Germain (France), Bayern Munich (Germany), Juventus (Italy) and Barcelona (Spain).

Nobody will be too surprised about most of the other “double” winners: Denmark – FC Kobenhavn; Austria – Red Bull Salzburg; Croatia – Dinamo Zagreb; Georgia – Dinamo Tbilisi; Hungary – Ferencvaros; Poland – Legia Warsaw; Slovenia – Trencin; Wales – New Saints.
Back in the latter half of the 20th century, winning two cups in a season was the stuff that dreams were made of. In England, for example, it had happened just three times between 1888 and 1961 – Preston North End in 1888-89, Aston Villa in 1896-97 and Tottenham in 1960-61. Ten years on from Spurs, Arsenal won it in 1971. Liverpool’s only “double” came in 1986 and then in the 1990s, it happened four times – 1994, 1996  and 1999 with Manchester United and 1998 with Arsenal. At that point, the concern was that football was starting to become too polarised, that the top teams were able to sweep aside rivals too easily. Arsenal did it again in 2002, but since then, only Chelsea in 2010 have achieved English football’s holy grail. It’s not the same story across Europe, however.

Italian football is being dominated by Juventus at the moment, as two successive “doubles” demonstrate. Italy is not accustomed to this feat being done regularly – only nine in Serie A’s history. But half of those have come since 2005-06, two with Inter and two with Juve. Two more were in the 1990s. Between the 1940s and late 1980s, it happened just three times – Torino in 1943, Juventus in 1960 and Napoli in 1987.
Juventus have won the Italian title for five consecutive years. During that period, 11 teams have finished in the top six in Italy, but only Juve and Napoli have been ever present.

Since 2009-10, only three clubs have won the Italian championship – Milan and Inter are the others – in seven years. There is every reason to expect that Juve’s current leadership of Serie A will continue and this could make the period from 2009-10 the least competitive in decades. If you study the title winners across the decades, Italy has moved from six or seven title winners in the 1970s and 1980s, into a three or four-team domination.

Germany is experiencing a similar situation. Bayern Munich won their second “double” in three years, and their 11th in all, in 2015-16. Bayern have won the Bundesliga for four consecutive years. In the Bundesliga era, there have been 14 “doubles”, but Bayern have won eight since 2002-03, which really underlines the power that the Bavarian club now has in Germany. Add in Borussia Dortmund’s “double” in 2011-12 and Werder Bremen’s in 2003-04, and it’s clear that German domestic football’s power is held by a small group. A total of 11 teams have finished in the top six in the past five seasons, with only Bayern, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke appearing each time.

Like Bayern, Paris St. Germain have notched up four straight title victories. The gap in France looks to be getting bigger, as PSG’s statistics show this season. While the past five years have seen 10 clubs in the top six, only eight achieved it in the last four, with the top three in 2014-15 and 2015-16 unchanged. The days of multiple champions, there were seven in the 1990s in France, may be over for the time being as PSG’s incredible wealth gives the club a huge advantage over its rivals. There seems little chance, at present, to return to a more democratic French league, although it should be noted that France has had 17 “double” wins from 11 clubs, including St. Etienne, Marseille and Lille, as well as PSG.

There’s also been 17 “doubles” in Spain, but only four clubs have done it – Athletic Bilbao, Barca, Real and Atletico Madrid. The big two have held court for many years, with the occasional flirtation from other clubs. Only three have been in the top six in each of the last five years and there’s no prizes for guessing that they are Real, Barca and Atletico. A further eight clubs have tipped their toe into the water during this period.

The frequency of the big clubs winning the “double” across Europe can be attributed, to some extent, to the financial state of affairs among these clubs. The “uber clubs” have benefitted from TV money, the UEFA Champions League and increased attendances, and these factors undoubtedly helped them stand astride their domestic leagues.

Football Benchmark recently launched its paper on European football’s elite band of 32 clubs and the teams currently at the top of the “big five” leagues, with the exception of Leicester, are all near the summit of KPMG’s table – Barca (3rd), Bayern (4th), Juventus (9th) and PSG (10th).

There’s little doubt that money – accumulated by long-standing critical mass or inflated investment from Russia, Asia or the Middle East – is playing the key role in sustaining success for these clubs, although at the top of the Football Benchmark valuation table, Real Madrid and Manchester United have not won their leagues since 2012 and 2013 respectively and Arsenal, in fifth place, have gone more than a decade without a league title.

There’s not much to choose between the big five leagues in terms of number of clubs battling out for a top six place. In both England and France, 10 have achieved top six status over five years and in Germany, Italy and Spain, the figure is 11. But over the past decade, English football has become more concentrated. A hundred years ago, 15 clubs achieved top six status between 1910-11 and 1914-15. This figure is fairly static in subsequent five-year stretches – in the 1970s and 1980s, 15 was also the number and it was 14 in the 1990s. But into the 21st century, the figure dropped to 11 and in the past five years, it has further declined to 10. It was therefore so refreshing to see Leicester City buck the trend.

That said, the 2015-16 season largely confirmed what we have known for some time, that “European” status gives a club great advantages in their domestic market. Regular appearance at the continent’s top table gives a club great wealth and that can translate into a significant advantage at home. The behemoths are rich enough and resourced enough to maintain their success and sweep-up in their leagues and cups. The frequency of “doubles” merely underlines the growing imbalances within European domestic football.


2 thoughts on “Games of monopoly: European football belongs to the few

  1. Its 2019 but what you say for this article is still mainly true instead I watch Japanese football as it is more unpredictable and the quality is fairly ok (best in Asia and the best teams can definitely do ok in English Championship).

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