Commentary Box: Time for non-league to go European?
Posted on June 14, 2018
THERE seems to be a World Cup or European Championship for virtually everything these days. The CONIFA World Football Cup drew to a close recently and captured the imagination of a certain type of football fan. It brought international football to non-league clubs in and around London. We have European competitions for every stage of the game at international level and the appreciation of football beyond these shores has grown significantly in recent years, boosted by TV coverage, but also because of the budget price flight era in which we live. Freedom of movement has also helped, but we won’t go into that.
It occurred to me that non-league football could do with some form of pan-European competition. Of course, the finances of the game provide a massive hurdle, but we are talking about the top-end of the non-league pyramid.
It’s my belief that only in Britain does non-league football have such a high status among football fans. Certainly, the automatic promotion between Football League and non-league has helped that, just consider how many teams in the National League have some connection with the Football League. Relegation to the National League is no longer the death knell that it once was and the standard is pretty good. What’s more, fans of non-league in Britain are just as passionate about their clubs as supporters of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Does the non-league game in continental Europe have the same appeal?
It depends where you draw the line. For example, in some countries, you drop into non-league territory very quickly in the domestic pyramid, but let’s say what can be realistically compared to the National League? There is an argument that, in Germany for example, non-league begins after Liga 3. Regionalligas after Liga 3 have some very large attendances and some big names, such as TSV Munich 1860, the team West Ham beat in the 1965 European Cup-Winners’ Cup final. The overall average gate in the Regionalligas is less than 1,500 so we are talking upper-end non-league levels of interest. In Italy, you could say that anything after Serie C is non-league, and in Spain, the Segunda League B, the third tier, has gates around 1,500 – a massive drop from La Liga. The Tercera Division and subsequent Divisones Regionales are more likely to be non-league than anything above, however. France has its National Division which could possibly qualify – and one of the big stories of 2017-18 was the performance of little Les Herbiers in the Coupe de France, a tiny club that took on the mighty Paris Saint-Germain.
Perhaps it is something of a romantic notion, but the prospect of non-league’s leading clubs battling against their European counterparts has its appeal. That said, it has been tried before in the form of the Barassi Cup, a competition that was the brainchild of that Italian “mover-shaker” Gigi Peronace. Inaugurated in 1968 as a contest between the FA Amateur Cup winners and the Italian Coppa Italia Dilettanti (amateur cup), teams like Leytonstone, Hendon, Skelmersdale and Enfield won the competition. When the FA Amateur Cup was abolished, it limped on to be played by champions of the second level of the Isthmian League. Tilbury were the last English contestents in 1976, losing to Soresinese.
At the same time, the old Anglo-Italian Cup, another Peronace innovation, moved to a semi-professional level after a period when top clubs like Newcastle United played out a mini-tournament in the close season. It was revived in 1976 as a non-league affair with Sutton United the only English winner in 1979. It petered out and was revived again in the 1990s as a professional competition.
Since then, of course, the world has globalised and the average fan has far greater knowledge of overseas football. Travel has, in relative terms, become cheaper and artificial pitches could make a close-season tournament all the more achievable. We do live in an age where club football has overtaken internationals, although a decent World Cup would provide a shot-in-the-arm for that level of the game.
It might not be easy to achieve and, as always, with non-league football, the finances would have to be considered, but an eight-team tournament featuring the non-league champions of say, England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Scotland (choose your permutation) could have a unique appeal.
A competition too far? Football is, as I have often said, a global language and like it or not, club football is the future of the game. The whole concept of the European Cup and its various formats was to bring people together across Europe, invite healthy nationalism and competitiveness and to broaden the mind. Non-league is often accused of being a shade parochial (that’s part of its charm), but what better way to prove otherwise by testing the best English clubs against the crème de la crème of European non-league?