Systemic clubs – who would we save to preserve football?

SINCE the world locked down, there has been an upswing of interest in dystopian novels, films and radical theories from desert-dwelling hermits predicting the downfall of the human race from their caravans as they polish their weapons and count their tinned tomatoes.

But what of the football industry? How is this going to look when it finally resumes business? And can we honestly say the world of inflated investment, spiralling transfer fees and multi-millionaire footballers will continue? The fallout in the global economy has yet to be truly taken on board by the public, but there’s little doubt we face a crisis every bit as seismic as the 2008-09 earthquake.

It’s a sign of the times that whenever large companies become bankrupt there are calls for bail-outs and government help. It is not inconceivable that, in extreme cases, a football club of the size of, for example, Manchester United, could be bailed-out by the state. Whether that is right or wrong is another issue, but the morale-boosting properties of football should not be underestimated. When the UK bailed-out the economy by underpinning the banks, the government set a precedent to some extent, but people have found it hard to differentiate between saving the economy and saving banks.

Football clubs are not vital for the economy, but as far as “soft” issues are concerned, the game is vital to the working man. Indirectly, the kudos a government would get from saving the national game could be substantial, although the opposition – whoever they may be – would naturally object. Nobody actually wants to be linked to closing down a football club, whatever the political narrative.

In the worst case scenario, in other words football imploding, which clubs could be deemed to be essential to the structure of European football? This is not just about performance, it is also about the gap that club would leave if it was to suddenly disappear. Obviously, any club being wiped off the map leaves behind a lot of heartache in the local community, but if it became a “Noah’s Ark” discussion, which clubs would need to remain if a country wanted to preserve its national game?

Each would will have its national icons, but let’s assume that a pan-European body, such as UEFA, wanted to save the continent’s football, the clubs that are essential to the structure would be so because of a number of reasons. These would be, primarily, clubs that would be missed and their absence would be akin to taking a vital brick out of a broad structure. They could be clubs that are renowned player factories, producing young talent on a conveyor-belt basis. Furthermore, they will surely be institutions that have the critical mass needed to be influential – large attendances, high levels of sponsorship, appeal to broadcasters.

The most essential clubs are not necessarily the richest or recently successful. For instance, are Paris Saint-Germain vital to Europe or merely vital to their owners and supporters? PSG are Jean-come-latelies, as are Chelsea and Manchester City, clubs that represent the modern model of inflated investment. English and French football did without these three clubs being phenomenally successful for decades, so in theory, if it was to stop, would the rest of the football world care? If you recall how the traditional giants of English football reacted to the threat of “new money”, it was also reflected across the many constituencies of the game, with some fans claiming these clubs had “no history”. Putting myopia aside (I am a Chelsea fan, by the way), clubs became historically dominant for a reason and the addition of clubs like City and Chelsea was, to a certain extent, artificial insemination. The corporate world has long made it difficult for organic growth and now we see that football has gone the same way.

In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona are obviously the most important clubs. The attendances of these two clubs account for 25% of all La Liga gates. An even more unbalanced situation can be found in Portugal, where Benfica and Porto’s attendances represent 46% of the overall Primeira Liga total. And if you add Sporting to the equation, this rises to 62%. Benfica and Porto also have a strong reputation for player development and trading, hence their position in the Portuguese game, not to mention Europe and links with South America, makes them systemic clubs beyond their domestic environment. A similar argument could be made for Ajax in the Netherlands.

Italy’s “essential” clubs would surely be Juventus and either/or Inter and AC Milan, while Germany would obviously champion Bayern Munich. Scotland, although not in the same category, would point to the Glasgow duo, Celtic and Rangers, veritable giants that are responsible for 55% of Scottish Premiership attendances.

Somebody, somewhere, has a list of the clubs that are pivotal to maintaining the European football structure, just as the world bank and European Central Bank will have a list of the banks considered to be “of systemic importance”.

This is an exercise that will hopefully not be tested, but when clubs can generate hundreds of millions in revenues but have a problem after a couple of months of financial inactivity, it does make you fear for the future of the game. Time for that screening of “28 Weeks Later”.


Photo: PA

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