THE 2018-19 season is only a few weeks old and the scene is all-too familiar: Manchester City, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona all on top in their respective domestic leagues, while Bayern Munich are currently in second place. The UEFA Champions League is underway and the groups create a sense of déjà vu. Business as usual, as they say.
On October 2, Bayern Munich meet Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League. Students of the game will be mildly excited about this tie, two giants from the history of the European Cup coming face-to-face. Today, it’s a story of one of Europe’s behemoths playing a club whose aspirations are probably confined to qualifying for the group stage or maybe having a decent Europa League run. They might be playing in the same UEFA competition, but Ajax are no longer in the same league as their Bavarian hosts.
There was a time when an Ajax team could beat Bayern and even win Europe’s major prize, but the game has changed. European football is a two (maybe three or four) speed economy and imbalances exist right across the continent. Everyone is aware of the problem, but nobody has the silver bullet solution.
At the World Football Summit in Madrid, competitive balance was on the agenda in several sessions. Juventus Chairman, Andrea Agnelli, a member of the UEFA Executive Committee, believed that a vision needs to be defined in the next five-to-10 years in order to effectively save the European game. “This is the biggest topic…to challenge each other is good and we want to showcase football matches that are uncertain, games that keep people on the edge of their seats.”
Of course, Agnelli’s own club are currently dominating Italian football like never before, winning seven consecutive Serie A titles, four successive “doubles”, two UEFA Champions League finals and a business model that has seen a brave rebranding of the club. They appear to be well ahead of their rivals, and they now have Cristiano Ronaldo. Part of the problem or part of the solution?
Agnelli explained his take on why Europe has become so polarised. “In the 1960s through to the 1980s, the big metropolitan clubs in Europe were able to be successful – clubs that could attract 50,000 people and define the cities they came from – for example, Ajax, Benfica and Celtic. This all changed with Bosman and TV money.”
With players able to move clubs more freely and TV broadcasters attracted to markets where they could build critical mass, it was logical that money would flow towards the biggest economies and football markets. It is no coincidence that the “big five” football nations in Europe are among the top six economies (Russia is the fifth biggest). Using this as a guide, it is also no surprise that somebody has identified the potential of creating a footballing superpower in Paris, Europe’s second most prosperous city.
Agnelli (left) enthused about the creation of a third UEFA competition, but other people were less welcoming of the idea. Georg Pangl of the European Leagues was concerned the money that will accompany another competition will build further imbalances further down the ladder. His fears were that UEFA money might be the catalyst for creating monopolies in leagues where there are currently healthy dynamics. “We need unpredictable winners, not leagues where the same team wins seven, eight or nine championships in a row,” he said.
Pangl called for a more democratic and fairer revenue distribution model to enhance competitive balance. “At the moment, the top 15 teams in Europe earn three times more than the rest of the teams in Europe,” he said. This scenario has been growing for the past decade, with so-called “state clubs” emerging in the form of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City and creating new contenders.
In the current environment, the top five European leagues are not very competitive, they have been dominated by a handful of clubs for the best part of a decade, and the UEFA Champions League (UCL) has become just as polarised. There have been 18 UCL quarter-finalists in the past five seasons, with 37.5% of them coming from Spain. Furthermore, the top 11 clubs in Europe (as defined by Deloitte and other market consultants) account for 65%. In the past 20 years, 10 Champions Leagues have been won by Spain, including the last five. While the competition has always been dominated by a small band of clubs in each decade, the concentration of winners has started to shrink once more, with Real Madrid’s current run of four in five years creating a similar situation to the 1950s. There has also been more country concentration, with the last non “big five” club to lift the trophy being Porto in 2004. It is really difficult to see how a club from outside this group of countries can become European champions – as we have seen, as soon as a group of outstanding players comes through at a club (a la Monaco), agents, intermediaries and hiring chiefs turn up in their droves.
The “big five” leagues surely cannot be content about the pattern that has developed over the past decade. Once a club becomes a regular recipient of big European money on an annual basis, success is self-perpetuating. At the World Football Summit, Benfica (a one-time huge club that has suffered from the European polarisation) said that relegation was not something that was ever contemplated. For a number of clubs, Champions League football is almost taken for granted in the same way, although nobody will ever admit to that. The cash is so significant that reaching the group stage, and maybe going one step further, provides huge benefits for a club that doesn’t have what it takes to go beyond the last 16.
European money has enabled clubs like Bayern Munich and Juventus to dominate their domestic leagues. Bayern have won six Bundesliga titles in a row and in the past five years, the margin of success has averaged 15 points. Furthermore, the gap between Bayern and sixth place has averaged more than 35 points. Germany has struggled to produce a consistent contender to Bayern, with 12 clubs achieving a top six place in five years – Bayern are the only club to be ever-present in the top six during this time.
There has been some consistency in Italy, with Juventus, Roma and Napoli the only clubs to have maintained a top six placing every season since 2013-14. However, Juve’s serial title run has an average success margin of 12 points over their rivals, and a gap of 32 points between top and sixth. Juventus have swept-up in terms of silverware, rather like Paris Saint-Germain have in France. PSG’s financial position, as one of the “state clubs”, gives them such a huge advantage that unless other big investors move into the French market, there is little hope of change. That doesn’t seem to have affected public interest in France or Italy, however, for attendances in Ligue 1 in 2018-19 are averaging more than 23,000 and Italy’s crowds are also up to more than 25,000.
Spain’s crowds are also higher this season, but La Liga is, predictably, already shaping-up as another battle between Barcelona and Real Madrid. This could also be replicated in Europe, where Spain have dominated for the past decade. Interestingly, the average margin of title success is less than five points in La Liga, but that’s because Barca chase Real and vice-versa. With the exception of Atlético Madrid, it’s difficult to see any other club winning the title in Spain in the modern era unless the big two have some form of financial catastrophe.
England is the only place where there is diversity and that’s because almost every Premier League club has considerable resources, thanks to their broadcasting deal. When we say diversity, though, we mean half a dozen clubs with enough cash to mount some form of challenge, although whether that continues into the next few seasons is debatable.
Because European football is a free market, changing the status quo is probably an in surmountable challenge. American sport tries to implement some form of parity among its constituents. Although this has its benefits, it is extremely unlikely that European football could ever achieve a similar level of democracy, largely because of national interests and also because of the corporate nature of big-time football.
However, the future looks very uncertain for many aspects of the European game as the bigger clubs continue to pull away from the rest. In some ways, it makes sense to create a structure that removes the giants from the minnows, but this could also serve to devalue domestic leagues, both as spectator sport as well as a commercial attraction. With that in mind, European football, through the governing bodies, may decide to introduce other measures that reduces the power of the major clubs and fosters greater levels of inclusion, enabling the league’s member clubs to share in wealth. This, in turn, would create competitive leagues that are a more compelling proposition for all stakeholders.