EUROPE 2021 is not a truly united continent and the United Kingdom is less of a member than at any time over the last 50 years. Modern football has been partly shaped by European unity and free movement of labour as well as post-Bosman player employment rules.
There are hundreds and hundreds of football clubs, dozens of leagues, thousands of players plying their trade across European football. Over the past 20 years, five nations have emerged as the leading leagues: England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. These countries represent the biggest commercial markets for global business and broadcasters.
To some, that wasn’t enough, the desire to ring-fence the very top clubs and squeeze more money out of the industry and target it towards an elite band was, supposedly, going to “save” football. The truth is, it merely provides golden tickets for a footballing Noah’s ark.
These clubs are already very privileged and prosperous and there is clear blue water between them and the rest of football. Those top five leagues are wealthier than the rest of Europe, indeed the gap is alarming and their consumer appeal goes way beyond their borders.
Travel to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria and Greece and you’ll find fans of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. A lot of football followers would sooner watch these clubs on TV than pop along to see their local team in action.
There are a lot of reasons why football in some countries has been struggling to keep pace for the past two decades: the after-effects of the collapse of communism and the old Soviet Union; globalisation; financial crises; mobile workforces; and the rise of oligarch and oil-backed football. For all the romance around European clubs with interesting social histories, professional marketing has stolen fans from clubs and countries with a rich, if sometimes sepia-tinged football heritage.
Clubs are teams of short-term hired hands from across the world, with very few players having any affinity with the club, city and country. The one constant in the game is the old-style supporter who has often had his allegiance decided at birth by parents or grandparents. This is an aspect of the game that detached owners from another land don’t necessarily understand. It was surely overlooked when the European Super League powerpoint presentation was circulated among the “demolition dozen” as they assembled with their rubber stamps in nervously sweating palms. They’re now deeply sorry, of course, but they are probably so contrite because they got found out.
The rise of the big five leagues, coming after a period of economic collapse and dwindling audiences in many post-soviet/eastern bloc states, has kicked many clubs with good names into the shadows. The power in European football has concentrated among less than a dozen clubs, while big names from the past can no longer count on European success. Clubs from the Netherlands (Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven), Portugal (Benfica, Porto, Sporting), Belgium (Anderlecht, Bruges), Russia (Zenit, CSKA, Spartak), Scotland (Celtic, Rangers), Poland (Legia) and others have had to be content to be on the outside looking in, although some have the potential for periodic, unsustainable success on a continental scale. Even clubs from the big five leagues who were once contenders have declined as the elite greedily grab trophies. Arsenal, Everton, Manchester United, AC Milan and Marseille have all suffered from diminished status, although one would expect them to regain their footing in the not-too-distant future.
The European Super League’s membership was attempting to guarantee its place among the top clubs, but in truth, there’s no such thing as permanent membership of the elite, as Benfica, Ajax, AC Milan and Celtic will testify.
Within most leagues across Europe, one or two clubs dominate, which underlines how the high and mighty have already taken control in their respective backyards. In the big five, Bayern Munich have won eight of the last 10 titles, Paris Saint-Germain have won seven, Juventus nine and Barcelona and Real Madrid nine between them. England has had five champions during that timeframe, arguably the most open of these leagues.
In the UEFA Champions League, the big five leagues dominate, the last “outsider” to win the competition was Porto in 2004. Others rarely get a look in, in four of the last five seasons there have been no representative in the last 16. Clubs who have had a “past” in Europe such as Red Star Belgrade, CSKA Sofia, Steaua Bucharest, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk can only pray for a place in the competition, let alone the knockout stages.
Since 1992, when the Champions League changed and the Premier League started, many European leagues have seen their match attendances plummet. While gates have increased in the Premier League (+77%), Ligue 1 (+98%) and Germany (+79%), countries like Hungary (-40%), Romania (-46%) and Bulgaria (-70%) have experienced dramatic drops in appetite.
Should a European Super League eventually happen, in the format proposed, then there is a danger domestic leagues all over Europe will be devalued in one foul swoop. Of course, nobody will say it too loud, but if a club is jetting-off every other weekend to play a top team from Spain or Italy, how will they treat that fabled Tuesday night in Stoke in a humdrum domestic game. The effect will be smaller TV audiences and before too long, players will turn their noses up and have a sister’s birthday party to attend when that trip to the midlands comes around.
It’s not hard to imagine that attendances will suffer and top players will gravitate towards the super league members. In England, for example, 14 teams would see their status diluted, not just because of the money, but also because they are not one of the six. The super league would destabilise the leagues, the clubs and possibly compromise the broadcasting contracts that have been so vital.
When the European Cup was instigated in 1955, European togetherness was one of the happy by-products of the competition, not unlike the Common Market. In Britain, those that yearn for a cohesive continent have received a number of blows to their philosophy, notably Brexit and less mobility. Dismantling European club competition would be another setback.
The very idea of a closed shop European league, not only embodies the preservation of the wealth of a handful of clubs, but hits at the spirit of unity. Should it ever come to fruition, we will undoubtedly look back on it as the day the football world turned truly mediocre. And the reason – it was easier to champion exclusivity than work on a solution that made things more democratic, more equitable and ultimately healthier for the game’s eco-system. Thankfully, it didn’t happen this time, but it is unlikely to go away – attempts at manipulation are becoming more frequent as big business tries to get its own way.