WE’VE seen the world over what happens when people feel marginalised in any way: Brexit and Trump are just two examples of how a breakdown in the spirit of inclusion can have devastating results. We may be on the verge of seeing it in the football world.
The suggestion being partly driven by ambitious FC Copenhagen for a breakaway North Atlantic League has some degree of merit, but if I were UEFA right now, I would be worried that we could be at the start of the fragmentation of the European football structure.
An Atlantic League would not include all nations. At present, we are hearing this may involve Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Scotland. So what happens to the Southern, Central and Eastern European nations? Would there not be a move to implement something similar in other parts of the continent? And how would it align itself with the UEFA Champions League?
I was at a seminar on Polish football a few weeks ago and one of the suggestions, which had some credibility, was to bring back the Mitropa Cup. The rationale was based on the assumption that, despite significant progress being made in Poland in its domestic football, it was almost impossible for the likes of Legia Warsaw to challenge the elite clubs that have made the UEFA Champions League their own.
The Mitropa, like the Latin Cup, was the precursor to the European Cup, Cup-Winners Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. The problem of how to serve clubs beyond the very elite has always existed, it is just that the financial stakes are now so huge that there is more anxiety about hierarchy than ever before. The “excluded”, shall we say, are certainly upset that UEFA – or somebody – might create a system whereby clubs with heritage, money and influence will always form part of the constitution of the top club competition, regardless of their contemporary performance. In other words, the creation of a closed shop.
So, the idea is to design a club of their own, so institutions of the calibre of Anderlecht, Ajax and Celtic can regain some form of status beyond their own shores, and of course, make more money.
These clubs are big in their own backyard, but despite healthy crowds and a pre-eminent position in domestic competition, they cannot compete with clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
But will setting-up another universe deliver benefits in the long-term? And how will it differ from the current two-speed structure of UEFA Champions League and Europa League?
The Europa is the UCL’s poor relation, more so than the UEFA Cup ever was in the 1970s. That is largely because of the success of the UCL as modern sport’s great marketing power, boosted by TV and social media. So all-consuming has it become that no matter how much UEFA tell you the Europa is great, the UCL has been so well marketed that its ugly sister will always feel like an also-ran. What will make the Atlantic League any different?
Should it go ahead, and it has to be doubtful that it will ever get off the ground, given the impact it might have on domestic leagues in the countries involved and the structure of UEFA, it may act as the catalyst for similar breakaways. Before too long, we may see Mitropa return and a southern European competition develop. In other words, complete fragmentation with no uniformity or cohesion. The very things that helped formulate the European Cup and its junior tournaments will be washed away, much as Brexit might similarly achieve with the European Union.
When these original competitions (and trade organisations) were inaugurated, it was all part of a desire to unite the continent that gave us two world wars. What has evolved is a giant, money-making machine for the “bulge bracket” called the UEFA Champions League. The gulf between the big names and clubs that have a rich history but a restricted future is so big that the under-privileged demand action. Today it is the Atlantic League, tomorrow it could be another part of Europe. Recognise any similarities with the politics and economics of the broader continent?
What’s the answer? We’ve long advocated a smaller UEFA Champions League and a stronger Europa League which will redistribute wealth and transfer some of the lustre and prestige. If UEFA cannot do that – and the power of the clubs is such that it won’t be easy – there is no future for the Europa League and UEFA may as well sit back and watch rival competitions pick apart its franchise. But European football needs a uniting body and it needs standardisation of some sort. Being a top dog in the Atlantic League is all very well, allowing a club like Celtic to look in the mirror and preen itself, but the UCL will still be in the background and dominating the airwaves. Nobody will look upon an Atlantic League as anything other than a second-tier structure.
Nevertheless, the rumblings should act as a spur to UEFA to introduce more democracy to the current system. We do not need UEFA to fall apart, however imperfect it might be. Listen to the little man, UEFA – 2016 should tell you something about the power of the masses when they no longer believe.