Football’s competitive issues: Predictability is not just a “big five” problem

PRIOR TO this disrupted and somewhat confusing campaign, the past two seasons saw the same league champions across the “big five” leagues in Europe – domination by the rich and advantaged, namely Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona. It was seen as affirmation the game had become predictable, stale and lacking in competitiveness.

Manchester City, for example, were being tagged the “best ever” Premier League side and although some pundits wondered whether teams like Barca and Bayern might be entering transition, the 2018-19 season induced a little yawn in many people. Meet the new champions, same as the old champions. It was the first time the five leagues had replicated their winners’ podium as a bloc in the modern era.

This season, there could be a 40% shift as Liverpool – the latest “best ever” Premier line-up –  have ended City’s run at the top and Real Madrid may well be La Liga champions. City were the only club to retain their title in England since Manchester United achieved that feat in 2008 and 2009. Since then, the past 10 years have seen the Premier become one of the most open leagues in terms of champions – five since 2010-11: United, City, Chelsea, Leicester and Liverpool. The Spanish league, for all its focus on the Barca-Real rivalry, has changed hands in six out of nine seasons, and if Real are successful in 2019-20 it will be seven in 10.

The real problem lies in France, Germany and Italy, where PSG, Bayern and Juve have won seven, eight and (most likely) nine titles respectively in 10 years. It’s not rocket science to work out the dominant clubs are also the richest, most influential and backed by wealth, power and muscle. It is a similar scenario in most countries across Europe.

Just look at the roster of league champions that have been crowned so far in 2020 – Red Bull Salzburg, Ferencvaros, Ajax, Zenit, Celtic, Red Star Belgrade, Slovan Bratislava, Shakhtar Donetsk, Slavia Prague and Dinamo Zagreb – these are all clubs that have retained their titles. In Portugal, Porto are about to dethrone Benfica, one of the few big leagues where the champions are not identical to 2018-19.

Not all climbing – an example of 50 years of gates

  1970 2020
Austria 5,113 6,322
Belgium 11,188 11,347
Czech Rep 7,682 5,690
England 32,113 39,349
France 7,636 22,526
Germany 20,698 40,842
Hungary 8,668 3,176
Italy 30,134 24,607
Netherlands 12,804 18,229
Poland 10,192 8,879
Russia 26,322 17,294
Switzerland 7,529 11,166


We hear many complaints about the way the big clubs from the top leagues are monopolising the European game, but is it really any different across any leagues?  Admittedly, it’s at a different level, but every country has its driving forces, from Linfield and the Red Imps in Northern Ireland and Gibralter respectively, to Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukraine.

The game has always been about winners and losers and the consistent victors have the cash, the strugglers simply do not have the resources. Imbalance has become part of 21st century football, but the enduring charm of the sport and its ability to produce shocks and setbacks and make people dream, retains the public interest. In this age of hegemony, crowds have rarely been better in some top leagues, but at the same time, the creation of uber-clubs and super leagues has left behind some nations’ domestic programmes, particulary those from former Soviet states and others in eastern Europe.

Number of champions in 10-year period

  61-70 11-20
England 7 5
Spain 2 3*
France 4 4
Germany 8 2
Italy 6 2*
Netherlands 4 3
Portugal 2 3*
Scotland 4 2


Notes: While English football has become polarised, the scale of the league has meant there are more candidates for success than other big leagues today. Spain, meanwhile, has become a three-club state rather than two and France has created its first super club. Italy has seen traditional giants struggle to move into the 21st century, with Juventus rising to the top once more. Germany has also become less competitive, with Bayern Munich’s dominance showing no sign of easing up. * League not finished in 2019-20.

Money buys success at all levels, from the humble non-league club that finds a way to pay extra cash to players without the burden of tax, to the big-time corporate club that uses offshore accounting and sophisticated financial tools to benefit its pampered stars. The current football world may have moved beyond the realms of the people’s game in so many ways, but at the end of the day, all clubs are on the same hamster’s wheel, all trying to be successful, all willing to push the boundaries, and all yearning to be the club that can attract star players. And, although many clubs will deny it, most secretly hope that one day, a rich man with deep pockets drives into their car park and offers them the world and Lionel Messi. That way, they can compete. It’s not necessarily right, but that’s football life.



Photo: PA

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