THE POPULAR view is that Europe’s dominant clubs, those with more money, fans and business acumen than their rivals, will never get relegated again. To some extent, closed leagues, the rationale for the aborted European Super League, have almost been created in some countries in all but name. But how do you define a big club and just how secure are they?
A truly huge footballing institution earns its status based on a number of criteria, including: heritage, financial strength, spectator appeal, cultural position and influence, contribution to the development of the game, contribution to their home country’s national team, and ultimately, success on the field of play.
When these things become disconnected, a big club can suddenly find itself falling into decline. The assumption is that the group of elite clubs are so well insulated that failure is not necessarily relegation, but more likely not qualifying for the Champions League or delivering a trophy-less campaign.
At the end of 2020-21 season, Schalke 04 finished bottom of Germany’s Bundesliga and were relegated. Schalke are regularly named among Europe’s top 20 (KPMG #15, Deloitte #16, Soccerex #97, Brand Finance # 20) clubs and one of the most passionately supported in Germany. They are underachievers, but their position in German football is very significant, even though they have been relegated before. Furthermore, they are one of the biggest clubs not to have won the UEFA Champions League.
Germany’s footballing structure and its conservative ownership rules mean that Bayern Munich aside, the rest of the league is fairly democratic. Hence, in recent years, some of the top names have suffered relegation, including 1FC Köln and Hamburg. Schalke’s collapse has been building over three seasons. In 2018, they were runners-up to Bayern Munich, admittedly by 21 points. But since then, they have finished 14th, 12th and 18th.
Schalke’s relegation is the culmination of a broad range of problems, not least financial issues. The club has a high level of debt – € 200 million – and saw its revenues fall by 31% to € 222.8 million in 2019-20, largely due to a 41% decrease in broadcasting income. The club’s chief financial officer, Peter Peters, departed in June 2020 to add to the gloom.
It’s hard to think of a bigger club going through relegation in recent years, which does feed the theory about the rich having some level of immunity, but is a reminder that if things get out of hand, the mighty can fall.
Clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona would seem to be among the most fortified against relegation. In England, the big six clubs would also fall into this category, but Manchester United and City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool have all been relegated at some stage in their history. The most recent was Chelsea, who were relegated three times between 1975 and 1988. Tottenham went down in 1977 but bounced back immediately.
Manchester United’s demotion in 1974 is now the stuff that legends are made of: the famous Denis Law backheel (in the colours of Manchester City) that was NOT responsible for sending his old club down, the feral crowd invasion and the club’s bounce-back in 1975. City have been relegated several times in the past 50 years and as recently as 2002, they were in the second tier of English football and even had a year in the third tier in 1998-99.
Taking the formation of the Premier League as the start of recent football history, of the 49 clubs that have played in the top flight, only seven have never been relegated: Arsenal, Brighton, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham.
Over the past decade, the average time in the lower division for a relegated Premier team has been just over three seasons, which is comparable to Ligue 1’s average. Only Spain’s La Liga among the top five leagues has a higher number – 3.36 seasons. The lowest is Serie A at 2.80 seasons per relegated club and the Bundesliga is not far behind at 2.90.
Unsurprisingly, since 1992, most of Europe’s blue riband clubs have remained in their top divisions: Real and Barcelona in Spain; PSG, Lyon and Bordeaux in France; Inter and AC Milan in Italy (Juventus were “relegated” in 2006 as punishment for their part in the Calciopoli scandal); Bayern and Dortmund in Germany; and five of England’s “big six” (Manchester City the exception).
What would send a major club down in this age of hubris and elitism? The obvious answer is financial crises, either macro problems or a club losing its benefactor, owner or main sponsor. Over-leveraged clubs are particularly vulnerable when an unexpected event occurs. Given that success is now so tightly bound to financial power, it is perfectly conceivable that we may witness a transformational event that sends a club to the wall or, at best, enforces relegation upon a club. In some ways this is more likely than a conventional relegation created by poor performances on the pitch.
Most football clubs have golden periods but these can end and often they are never reclaimed. Scan the names in England’s Championship and the lower divisions and you will come across former champions Nottingham Forest (also twice European Cup winners), Sunderland, Derby County, Portsmouth, Huddersfield Town and Preston North End. No club has a divine right to enjoy prolonged success.
Schalke 04, for example, have long been considered to be on the fringe of the elite, thanks to their huge support. Like Tottenham in England, their last league title was over 60 years ago – Schalke fans can barely remember being the top club. They will, of course, be favourites to win promotion, but 2. Bundesliga also includes Werder Bremen, Hamburg SV, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Hannover 96, clubs who may feel they belong in the top flight. They may have a competitive advantage if the crowds return to the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen. If they don’t or normal services becomes further delayed, then Schalke may find it just that little bit harder to return to the Bundesliga.