Big city clubs remain dominant
Posted on August 12, 2019
LEICESTER CITY’s 2015-16 Premier League victory was remarkable in many ways, it was a rare moment in time when the status quo in English football was challenged and the most surprising title win since Nottingham Forest won the old first division in 1978. It also reminded football fans there is still some romance left in the game, that high finance does not govern absolutely everything and tales of the unexpected can be created by luck, hard work and a refusal to acknowledge hierarchy.
Such occasions do not happen often, especially in the modern age where money and power go hand-in-hand and the biggest clubs get richer by the year. Right across Europe, domestic football has become a case of “leagues within leagues”, with two thirds of almost every country’s teams having no chance of tangible success. Survival at the highest and most lucrative level has become the priority for many.
Football has become the property of large, metropolitan clubs. The prospect of a small or medium-sized provincial club winning the league is now quite unlikely. Indeed, there is something of a correlation between population and football success.
Clubs from large cities have more potential for economic growth and building mass supporter engagement. Of course, there are exceptions, but given football’s traditional demographic – working class, male, white – the big cities were always more likely to fuel success. Furthermore, big cities have the commercial and industrial links to provide income for football clubs in the form of sponsorship, benefactors and business opportunities. It is also a matter of profile, the more people there are, the more visible and embedded in society a club becomes.
Leicester, for example, is a city of 330,000 but the club is backed by Thai business, so any assumptions about the Foxes being a humble outfit springing a surprise become a little invalid. It was a shock for the system, but Leicester’s status was changing at the time of their title win. Needless to say, nobody anticipated they would be contenders in any shape or form. Leicester are certainly not Steeple Wanderers, but they do have to co-exist with bigger, even more wealthy clubs.
The tide turned
Before football became a free market – the first stage being the removal of the £20 maximum wage in the early 1960s – almost any club, with good management and a few decent players could take a stab at winning the major prizes. Go right back to the start of the Football League and Preston North End. Today, Preston is a town of 120,000 people, comparable to when they won the league in 1889 and 1890. Bank in the late 19thcentury, Preston drafted in a batch of Scots to build their team – up to six or seven played at one time – and adopted a professional approach and tactical awareness that made them too strong for the opposition.
At the time, nearby Manchester had experienced extraordinary growth during the industrial revolution and its population was close to 700,000. Preston’s moment in the sun, little did they know it, was only going to be short-lived. The two clubs had roughly the same attendances in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but by the time United won their first title in 1908, their gates were over 20,000 and Preston’s were around half as big. Like many clubs in the Lancashire area, the industrialised growth of Manchester and the rise of United cast them into the shadows and wiped-out any first-mover advantage that Preston had benefitted from.
English professional football’s early decades were dominated by the industrial north and midlands, hence clubs like Newcastle and Aston Villa enjoyed their most fruitful and influential periods. It was during this period that football started to define its audience – the working man taking advantage of cheap entertainment that acted as a pressure valve for the struggles and high poverty levels of 19thand early 20thcentury life in the big cities and towns.
The emphasis started to shift in the 1930s and coincided with the rise of Arsenal. London’s ascendancy – the city had not won a single championship until 1931 – came at a time when the north of England was severely hit by the great depression and industrial decline. During this period, clubs that had been at the forefront of the English game started to lose some momentum. In some towns in the north of England, unemployment was as high as 70%. Newcastle United, for example, saw crowds fall from a peak of 40,000 to 20,000 and also suffered relegation. There are a number of clubs who struggled to regain their mojo from the days when they ruled the game: Aston Villa and Sunderland are two other good examples.
Scroll forward to the post-war years and big names such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United started to win regular championships. There were exceptions, such as Tottenham in 1951 and 1961, Chelsea in 1955, Burnley in 1960 and Ipswich Town in 1962. but essentially, the balance of power was tipping in the direction of Manchester and Merseyside. By the time England won the World Cup in 1966, the two cities had won four consecutive championships and three of the previous four FA Cups.
Of the teams that pulled-off surprise title wins, the most eye-catching were Portsmouth’s back-to-back achievement of 1949 and 1950, Burnley’s 1960 triumph and Ipswich Town’s 1962 win.
Portsmouth’s win in 1948-49 could easily have been explained as a curious success in a time when the major clubs were rebuilding after the war, but to do it again a year later underlined their genuine quality. In hindsight, and considering the history of the club over the past 50 years, Pompey’s success now seems even more unlikely. As for Burnley, Harry Potts had a blend of promising young players and proven talent, while Ipswich’s success was startling because the club had little money and depended on the management and tactical brain of Alf Ramsey to take English football by surprise.
It would not be until 1972 that a team from outside the large cities, Derby County, won the title again and that was largely because of the exceptional managerial talent of Brian Clough, who built a team that combined function with form thanks to astute transfer market activity and a loyal band of players.
Clough repeated the trick at Nottingham Forest in 1978 with pretty much the same format, while Derby did it again in 1975 under Dave Mackay. Both of these cities had populations of under 300,000 but they were still bigger than Burnley (73,000) and Ipswich (133,000).
Increasingly, though, the growth of the Premier League polarised English football to such an extent that the possibility of similar oustanding feats now seems very remote. Although Aston Villa had a resurgence in 1981 and 1982, winning the league title and European Cup, even Birmingham, England’s second city, struggles to create a winning formula on a sustained basis.
Money can bring temporary success as Blackburn Rovers found in 1995, who benefitted from the cash of long-time supporter Jack Walker. Rovers won the title and sunk back to where they had come from in a relatively short cycle. That’s why the Leicester story was so astonishing, people had forgotten that clubs from outside London, Liverpool and Manchester can actually win trophies. Leicester’s success was only the eighth post-war title win to come from the Midlands, an area that comprises sizeable clubs with reasonable support, but has, in recent history, been an under-achieving neighbourhood. It should be noted, though, that the region has won more European Cups than London by three to one.
The footballing capital of Italy is currently Turin, but it has never been Rome as the north has dominated, with Milan the previous principal city. Rome’s lack of success is quite notable, just five title wins between AS Roma and Lazio. By contrast, AC Milan (18), Inter (18), Juventus (35) and Torino (7) underline the power of Milan and Turin.
Italian football has seen unexpected triumph, such as Fiorentina in 1956 and 1969, Cagliari in 1970, Verona in 1985 and Sampdoria in 1991. Of these, Cagliari of Sardinia represents the lowest population of any modern Serie A winning side, just 154,000.
In recent years, Italy has seen smaller clubs win promotion to Serie A, but they are up against it in terms of competing with the bigger teams. Furthermore, Italy has been dominated by Juventus with Napoli and Roma in pursuit in recent years. At the same time, with traditional masters, Inter and AC Milan have laboured in living-up to their heritage, despite some false dawns.
Given that Milan and Turin both have a rich industrial history and are now among the top 30 wealthiest cities in Europe, it is no surprise that the clubs from those locations have dominated Italian football. There is a very clear north-south divide in Italy, with a much higher level of prosperity in the north. In fact, economic sociologists claim there is no other country in Europe where the gap between the richest and poorest halves of the country is as large as Italy. This may explain why the only champion club south of Rome and on the mainland was Napoli, who won the scudetto twice during Diego Maradona’s time (1987 and 1990). Italian fans have often taunted Napoli’s supporters by referring to the city as “Africa” and serenading them at their own ground by singing, “welcome to Italy”.
Through Spanish eyes
If opportunities in Italy are limited, the same has long applied to Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate La Liga. When a team other than this mighty duo wins the title it is often partly due to one or both being in transition or another less-favoured club profiting from an influx of cash. Either way, such is the strength of Spain’s leading clubs that success for anyone else has proved to be unsustainable. Perhaps the two most unlikely title winners were Real Sociedad from San Sebastian and Deportivo La Coruna, cities with populations of 187,000 and 245,000 respectively.
The sheer financial strength of Real and Barca along with their political and cultural influence and heavily cemented place in Spanish society, makes it almost impossible for another club to win the title. Although Atlético Madrid were top in 2014 and have clearly moved up the ranks as a European force, with two UEFA Champions League finals in 2014 and 2016, Real’s revenues totalled € 750 million in 2017-18 season, but more than double their city neighbours. The fourth Spanish club in terms of revenues is Sevilla, but they generated just € 165 million. The chasm is there for all to see, so it is hard to envisage a La Liga winner beyond the top three clubs and even then, Atlético would have to overperform and perhaps overspend to overcome the Real-Barca axis.
Large cities like Valencia (791,000) and Sevilla (689,000) have rarely had a look-in when it comes to the title. Valencia have won La Liga six times, the last in 2004, while Sevilla have just one to their name, in 1946. Athletic Bilbao, with their Basque-only policy, have been champions eight times, 1984 being their last title-winning season.
On the face of it, Bilbao’s policy of only playing Basques, while a reflection of regional pride, has not always worked to their advantage. The population of the region is just over two million, a relatively small percentage of Spain’s 47 million. When La Liga started, five of the 10 teams were from Basque country and Bilbao enjoyed a golden period in which they won four titles in eight seasons and finished runners-up twice.
The Spanish Civil War ended Bilbao’s era of dominance. The national league was suspended but in 1937, the Republican areas of Spain formed La Liga del Mediterraneo (Mediterranean League) and La Copa de la Espana Libe (the Free Spain Cup). Bilbao did not enter – the Basque region was in the front line in the struggle against General Franco and most of the club’s players had either enlisted or fled to France. Although Athletic Bilbao have maintained their place among the most well supported and intense clubs, success has been intermittent and they have never regained the lustre of their glory years.
It is fair to say that Paris Saint-Germain, thanks to their financial strength and backing, are enjoying their glory years at the moment. Ligue 1 has been monopolised over the past half dozen seasons and the financial gulf between PSG and the rest of the division is now vast. PSG have elevated the status of Paris as a football city after years in which the French capital seemed pre-occupied with other activities.
Historically, French football has been far more democratic than other countries. Success has been shared around, with Marseille and Saint-Etienne winning more titles (10) than any other clubs. Interestingly, while Marseille has 900,000 residents, Saint-Etienne has just 175,000, underlining the achievements of the later in the 1970s when they performed exceptionally well domestically and on the European stage.
Population, in the past, appears to have had little say in who wins the French league, Lens (31,000), Monaco (38,000) and Auxerre (37,000) have all won the title. However, since 2012-13, PSG have won six out of the last seven Ligue 1 championships, with Monaco interrupting the sequence. Were it not for PSG’s somewhat artificial wealth, it is possible that French football would be the most competitive among the top leagues, with well-supported clubs like Marseille (Average 50,361) and Lyon (49,079) likely to be among the front-runners. As it is, though, France’s football capital is now its principal city.
Bavaria over Berlin
The same cannot be said of Germany, where the balance of footballing power has long been in the hands of Munich. The country’s history certainly got in the way of Berlin ever assuming that position – the last Berlin champion of any kind was East Germany’s Dynamo Berlin, who – state-assisted – won 10 consecutive DDR-Oberliga titles. Hertha Berlin in the west last won a title in 1931. In 2019-20, Union Berlin will join Hertha in the Bundesliga for the first time.
Bayern Munich, once they were admitted to the new German league, didn’t win their first Bundesliga title until 1969. German football, until that point, had been very open although in the inter-war years, Nuremberg had been the most successful team with five titles. In the post-war world, there were 11 different German champions in 16 seasons.
Munich, in many ways, was a natural city to become the standard-bearer for German football, indeed post-war recovery. Munich played a key role in the economic, political and cultural redevelopment of the nation, earning a nickname, Heimliche Haupstadt – the secret capital.
Bayern’s rise started at a time when Munich was heavily in the spotlight. In 1972, the city hosted the Olympic Games and two years later, when Munich was still reeling from the tragic killing of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village by terrorists, the World Cup final was held in the magnificent Olympic Stadium.
It is difficult to call Munich, or any of the major cities in Germany, provincial. The country has a decentralised economy, a result of the structure set-up by the constitution. The capital is Berlin, but the financial centre is most certainly Frankfurt. Large economic hubs are spread right across the nation – Munich, Stuttgart and the Ruhr are good examples. German football, for a long while, mirrored, this, although the modern “industry” has placed Bayern very much at the top as a kind of “national champion” in much the same way that BMW, Bosch, Porsche and Siemens are viewed.
Another German company and national champion, Volkswagen, have backed Wolfsburg, a club from a city of 123,000 that won the Bundesliga in 2008-09. Wolfsburg are a relatively unpopular club due to the advantages of being connected to VW, but in the modern era, their financial clout has been somewhat diminished. Nevertheless, Wolfsburg are the last club other than Bayern and Borussia Dortmund to win the Bundesliga.
Bayern have won 28 of the last 51 titles. Their nearest rivals have been Borrusia Mönchengladbach and Dortmund, who have won five apiece. The only other team from a city of less than 200,000 people to stand astride German football was Kaiserslautern, who last lifted the huge shield in 1998. Bayern’s stranglehold shows little sign of easing up, so it is difficult to see where a new champion may come from.
Giants at home
Generally, across Europe, due to economics, politics and demographics, capital city clubs have dominated their leagues. In the old Soviet Union, Moscow was the major power until the 1960s and it was not until 1961 that Dynamo Kiev broke the capital’s hold on the USSR football scene. But into the 1970s and 1980s, Moscow sides rarely got hold of the silverware, with teams like Ararat Erevan (Armenia), Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgia) and Dnipro (Ukraine) coming to the fore.
However, since the break-up of the union, Russian football has seen Moscow sides win 19 out of the last 27 championships. Clubs like Spartak, Lokomotive and CSKA have been challenged, though, with Zenit St. Petersburg emerging as a power, thanks to the support of energy giant Gazprom. It is likely that future Russian title battles will be between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In Portugal, the league has never been won outside of Lisbon and Porto. It is often overlooked that Portugal is a relatively small country, having a population of 10 million and a capital with half a million people. Benfica, with 37 title wins, has an average gate of more than 50,000 which represents 10% of the Lisbon population, although the club has something of a “national” status with fans coming all over Portugal. But there is little doubt that provincial clubs have no chance of major success – the differential between the top clubs (Benfica, Porto and Sporting) and the rest is substantial, ranging from Benfica’s 54,000 average to Aves’ 2,500. In fact, 15 of the 18 top flight clubs are watched by less than 20,000 and 11 below 5,000.
In the Netherlands, the Eredivisie title has been dominated by four cities: Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Rotterdam and the Hague. Between them, they have won 104 championships versus 26 among the rest of the country. Eindhoven is a city of 228,000 but PSV’s success has, historically, been underpinned by the club’s relationship with electronics giant Philips. Consequently, in terms of population, Eindhoven has over-performed, but Utrecht, a bigger city with 345,000 people, has under-performed with one title.
Elsewhere in Europe, cities such as Brussels, Budapest, Istanbul, Prague and Vienna have been at the heart of football’s development. In Austria, which is now dominated by RB Salzburg thanks to the financial impetus provided by the Red Bull drinks company, Vienna has won 69 of 107 championships, but between 1911 and 1923, the Austrian league comprised only clubs from the capital. The last time a club from Vienna won the Bundesliga was 2013 (Austria Wien), while Rapid, the most decorated club in Austria, were last champions in 2008. Prior to Red Bull’s monopolisation of the league (they have won six consecutive titles), Sturm Graz were the last provincial club to finish on top (2011).
Budapest has always been a big football city – 95 titles out of 117 – but Hungarian football has declined over the past 50 years and has always struggled to live up to its golden age of the 1950s. In the 21stcentury, clubs from Budapest have been challenged by rivals from Debrecen (population 202,000) and the city of Székesfehérvár (pop. 98,000), which plays host to Videoton.
Debrecen is the second most important city in Hungary and its football club has received generous government support. From 2005 to 2014, Debrecen won seven Hungarian titles. Budapest, meanwhile, went through a lean spell and from 2008 when MTK were champions to 2015, the city did not win the league once. Ferencvaros restored order in 2016.
Similarly, the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague, has been confronted in recent years by Viktoria Plzen from the famous beer-making city. Prague has won 64 out of 93 titles, with Sparta and Slavia leading the way. But two of the historic and famous names in Czech football, Dukla and Bohemians, have not lifted the crown since 1982 and 1983 respectively. Other cities have not won as many prizes and one might expect, such as Brno (one) and Ostrava (four).
Istanbul is a city that has dominated its domestic football, although it is not Turkey’s capital. Passionate it may be, but Turkish football has been overwhelmingly run by Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Besiktas, who have won 53 out of 63 championships.
Ankara, the capital, has yet to deliver a title, although the top divison, the Süper Lig, includes two clubs from the city. The last team from outside Istanbul to win the championship was Bursapor in 2010. Given the financial clout of Istanbul’s big three, it seems unlikely that the balance of power in Turkish football will shift in the near future.
Switzerland has seen a sea change in the past two season. Young Boys Bern have revived the notion that the Swiss capital has an important role to play. Switzerland has, after all, been commanded by Basel in the 21stcentury, a club that has won 12 titles since 2000. Young Boys, who have won 13 championships, ended Basel’s run in 2018, but Zürich, which is not only Switzerland’s financial centre but also a magnet for research and development, has secured more league titles than any other Swiss centre. At present, Zürich is at a low ebb: FC Zürich finished seventh in the 10-team Super League and Grasshopper were bottom, suffering relegation for the first time in 68 years. Bern, for the time being, is also the capital of Swiss football.
In Belgium, Brussels has faced increased competition from the provinces, although Anderlecht remain the most successful club. Over the past five years, Anderlecht have won the title just once, while clubs from Genk, Gent and Bruges have been champions. Genk, a city that has an important role in Belgian industry, has a population of 66,000 of which more than 50% are foreign. It is the third most significant city in Flanders. In the past, Belgian football was seen as Anderlecht – Bruges – Liege, but the emergence of Gent and Genk has attempted to change the status quo.
Although the national team is strong and the country has a good record of exporting top players, Belgium’s clubs struggle to compete in Europe. But Belgian domestic football has had four champions in the past five years, suggesting the league is quite competitive and therefore more interesting. Not everyone agrees, though, as crowds in the top division are at their lowest level for a decade, perhaps due to the format of the league, which has a first stage and then a series of play-offs.
While Belgium has experienced a variety of champions in the past five years, in the five major leagues, the 2018-19 season saw five clubs retain their titles, underlining the level of dominance the elite enjoys in European football. All five: Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona can claim to come from the current football capitals of their respective countries: Manchester, Paris, Turin, Munich and Barcelona (although Madrid will stake a claim to that accolade).
All of these cities are among the top 25 richest in Europe and in the top three in their own country. By population, they are among the top three or four, with the exception of Paris, which is the most populous city in France.
Wealth tends to gravitate towards large cities where opportunities abound and commerce can flourish. Football is now an industry and therefore, it too benefits from the advantages of a thriving metropolis. The combination of critical mass, commercial potential and globalisation creates a compelling mix that will probably ensure football will, for the foreseeable future, be dominated by the metropolitan elite. However, there is always room for the unexpected and that’s why people still flock to football even though for many clubs, success can only ever be temporary and may be as regular as Halley’s Comet.
The achievements of Ipswich Town, Leicester City, Burnley, Cagliari, Verona, Lens, Kaiserslautern and Deportivo La Coruna, among others, can never be taken away. The question is, with such an emphasis on cash generating clubs from principal cities, can it happen again?