WHEN a financial institution becomes involved in discussions about the future of football, it doesn’t sit very comfortably. It will undoubtedly be good for accountants, lawyers, bankers, intermediaries and the main protagonists (in other words, the clubs in the driving seat) but for the future of the game and the eco-system that supports it, questions have to be asked about the intentions of the parties involved.
The financial crisis of 2008-09 taught us many few things – that some financial firms are systemic and vital for the stability of the global economy, that governments and banks are indelibly linked and the pursuit of profit often clouds judgement. Regulators have since tried to rein-in reckless bankers, but the very ethos of financial services is, let’s be clear, to make money.
CVC Capital Partners is a big name in private equity and they have an interest in sport, notably Formula 1 and Rugby Union. The Luxembourg-based company has around US$ 75 billion under management. CVC is already talking to FIFA about the commercial rights of the expanded Club World Cup and they’ve been approached by Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez regarding a possible World Football League, another attempt to create elitism on a grander and more lucrative scale.
These threats of major disruption are becoming more frequent, and usually involve, at some point and in some way, clubs like Real Madrid. Football’s governing bodies should be concerned, for it indicates that forces are at play with the intention to challenge the status quo, but not necessarily for the overall benefit of the sport’s stakeholders.
A World Football League is the latest concept, but in truth, it is a European Super League because one of the ideas we have heard is a 20-team top division that includes teams from the five leading leagues – in other words, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. It does seem that the agent provocateurs merely keep coming back with a similar agenda. It’s the same bottle with different labels.
The critics have called it “insane”, “selfish” and “egotistical”. More worryingly, Aleksander Ceferin of UEFA believes it will “ruin football around the world”. It would certainly change the current landscape and render the UEFA Champions League redundant. All major leagues would surely be weakened, but according to Pérez, it would double revenues for the clubs involved. A huge carrot has been dangled.
Equally disconcerting is that it would be a two-division “closed” league with relegation and promotion only between the two 20-team leagues. Closed structures may benefit the member clubs but they are for the few and not the many. Given that broadcasting revenues will be one of the main attractions, it could mean that clubs outside the new elite would be scratching around for scraps from the top table. And with the channels constantly pushing the new league, interest in the old model could quickly evaporate and we could see the decline of clubs that are part of the game’s rich heritage. We’ve seen something similar occur in some of the smaller leagues in Europe where fans shun their domestic league in favour of watching Barca, Bayern or Real on TV.
It is difficult to see how a breakaway competition can be beneficial to the overall structure of European football. Pérez, who was chosen as the first president of the World Football Club Association (WFCA), has said that the world is changing and football has to keep developing, working towards ensuring that national and regional competitions are aligned. The WFCA has been created for a reason, but at present it only includes eight clubs: Real Madrid, AC Milan, Auckland City, Boca Juniors, River Plate, Club América of Mexico, Guangzhou Evergrande and TP Mazembe. Pérez said: “The new association will be a credible, focussed counterpart to FIFA and we will strive to improve all aspects related to clubs.” The sceptic might suggest that the creation of the WFCA is aimed to prepare the way for the rebel World Football League.
Taking a more positive approach, the current polarisation of Europe’s biggest leagues where a group of clubs are dominating each year cannot be healthy either. In some ways, the time may be right to introduce a better competitive balance to European football. In France, Italy and Germany, most clubs are not getting a look-in while in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have long dominated La Liga. If there is no hope of overtaking clubs like these, then there is an argument that they could be removed from the domestic league to allow better competition among the rest of the club. A closed league is not the way and a project being guided by anyone other than FIFA or UEFA is unacceptable. If football becomes a free-for-all, the structure of the global game will crumble. However, if this latest move is designed to prompt action from the governing bodies, then it might just work.
The Pérez project will go nowhere fast without the support of Gianni Infantino and although the FIFA president is open to consolidation – witness the pan-African league idea – rubber-stamping a league that will effectively trigger a break-up will not get his blessing.
The future of European football is to create greater levels of inclusion, encourage more competitive balance and to remove monopolies. If football is the world game then it should be allowed to flourish and should not be stymied or destroyed by self-centred elitist structures. Yet it cannot be good for German football that Bayern Munich win the Bundesliga every season, neither is it healthy that Juventus keep on retaining the Scudetto. We do not have the perfect world at the moment, by any means, but the creation of a breakaway global league should not come about like this, not at a time when much of Europe is at a political crossroads, and not promoted by one club or by financial opportunism. It is time that continual attempts to disrupt come to an end. But that will only happen if the governing bodies, who get weaker with every attempt to undermine, listen to all stakeholders and are open to change.