Javier Tebas has a point about state-owned clubs, but is there an agenda?

JAVIER Tebas doesn’t like state-owned clubs, but here’s news for you, Señor, not many people do. They unsettle the playing field still further and although their wealth may level-up clubs alongside those who have been at the top for decades, their presence makes imbalances even worse. In other words, they might create greater competition for football’s hierarchy, clubs that feel their place is at the forefront of the game, but they cast-off so many who simply cannot compete anymore.

As president of La Liga, Tebas has to do the bidding of Real Madrid and Barcelona, among others. This is no easy task, you would assume for these clubs like being the Alpha males of European football and don’t enjoy seeing their position threatened. So Mr Tebas undoubtedly comes under pressure from all directions, but he will surely be aware that a successful Real Madrid does more for La Liga’s marketability than any amount of advertising spend. And ultimately, football is an industry where growth is mostly achieved “organically”, mergers are not really part of the equation. As long as clubs stay within their defined financial boundaries, they can go hell for leather in building their global footprint.

Tebas has launched a few clumsily-guided verbal attacks on Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, questioning many different aspects of their operations. It is not out of the question that some legal action may be coming in the opposite direction, but the simmering conflict between Tebas, PSG and Ligue 1 will do nobody any good, and it could even drive a wedge between top European leagues and reignite the European Super League project. Let’s not forget PSG were not among the clubs advocating the ESL and City were quick to withdraw when PR turned nasty. But Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners to the end. Tebas may actually be sitting on something of a powder keg – if European football becomes more divided, opportunists may decide the big clubs really do need their own party.

PSG were not advocating the ESL but Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were all willing partners.

Tebas has, in the past, spoken negatively about the Premier League and its broadcasting fees. La Liga have made a lot of positive modifications to their own model in recent years, but it’s a fact their blue-riband clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are not as influential as they once were. They may still have enough clout to remain among the elite and Real’s Champions League victory this past season demonstrated they are always capable of winning the major prizes. And while they keep winning the trophy that is most associated with their history, the state-owned clubs have yet to lift it themselves. Of the “new money” clubs, only Chelsea have won the Champions League (in 2012 and 2021).

Are PSG and Manchester City ruining European football as Tebas suggests? Certainly they have artificially raised the bar in both England and France, although in the case of PSG, their extraordinary financial power does make them the ultimate flat-track-bullies. Tebas was very direct in his criticism, which comes after Real Madrid were gazumped by PSG’s huge new deal for Kylian Mbappé. “Listen, Nasser (Al-Khelaifi, PSG’s President), what you are doing is screwing football. It’s as dangerous as the Super League project.”

The news reports claim La Liga understands that the irregular financing of these clubs is carried out either through direct injection of cash or through sponsorship contracts that don’t make sense. As well as the Mbappé deal, Tebas cites the Manchester City signing of Erland Haaland. Interestingly, Real Madrid and Barcelona were both interested in Haaland at some stage. PSG, aware of the concerns around the Mbappé contract, commented: “The first person who needs lessons on conflicts of interest, financial management and market distortion is Javier Tebas.” Furthermore, Al-Khelaifi responded: “Tebas is afraid of Spanish top flight clubs being inferior to Ligue 1 in terms of quality.”

Ligue 1’s Vincent Labrune called Tebas’s outburst “disrespectful smears” and reminded him Real and Barca have broken the world transfer record six times and their salaries remain huge. Although Tebas may feel he is doing the right thing in “calling out” PSG and City, it also sounds like a case of sour grapes given the position some of his clubs have in football’s hierarchy.

That said, Tebas will have significant support from across the football world for being outspoken. Losing out on both Haaland and Mbappé wasn’t just a blow for the clubs willing to buy him, it was also a setback for La Liga, who are eager to replace the Ronaldo-Messi dynamic that has now gone. Over more than 10 years, these two players represented the face of La Liga. Mbappé and Haaland are the next generation, but they are now plying their well-compensated trade in France and England.

And there’s more to come. Newcastle United are likely to fall into this gilded category in the next year. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is behind the consortium that now owns the club, so in theory, they are the richest, or one of the top three richest, in the world. Tebas has already remarked the Saudi takeover was a case of “stealing football”.

The only way anyone can control this type of investor activity is through a type of governance that becomes the antithesis of the free market. Football is, all said and done, a competition and despite the claims the current set of uber-clubs make for an uneven playing field, the game has never been about a level field of play. The more money that is poured into football, the higher the stakes when investors are looking to buy a club. The obscenely-rich come in small numbers, so there’s no way the top 20 or 30 will all be bought by the type of owner PSG and Manchester City have. Levelling up would create the type of league that exists in the US, and that would not sit comfortably in Europe. Salary caps and transfer limits may well have the desired impact, but they, in themselves, would have drawbacks. However opponents of elite football couch it, there’s no easy way to change the status quo. Taking the very rich out of the competition and creating their own plaything may actually help the rest. The inauguration of a super league, perhaps? Whoops, we’re back where we started.

Pep’s City may need a clenched fist

ANOTHER drama, another collapse. Manchester City, European champions-elect virtually every year since 2016, crashed out in the most bizarre circumstances. City went to Madrid with a one-goal advantage from the first leg, but they also conceded three goals in the process. In another age, a one-goal lead would have been considered precarious. Riyad Mahrez extended that lead to two goals and that should have been it, but then the world caved in. Madrid had discovered from that chaotic first leg that City let goals in.

Notwithstanding the durability of Real Madrid and their European heritage, City’s inability to hang on to a 5-3 aggregate lead demonstrated a certain weakness in their make-up. Although Pep Guardiola claims the club’s owners have never insisted tthe Champions League is a priority, no investor would spend as much money to merely win a domestic league that could be won by far less. Paris Saint-Germain have the same issue in France, although they are not as stretched as City.

The target has to be European domination, but the problem is, that is also the goal of the elite band that City now belong. They may have a big advantage locally, but moving into a different socio-economic group means fiercer competition from clubs with more know-how.

As we have seen with PSG, failure on the European stage triggers a release clause in the form of a manager getting sacked. City, to their credit, are not quite as impatient, although after six years of Guardiola they must be wondering what they have to do to win the big prize. Progress has been made, however, with the last two seasons delivering a final and semi-final, the two best seasons under Guardiola in the competition. The expectation hasn’t necessarily come from the coach or the club, City have been relatively quiet about their hopes and they have generally been very respectful about each and every opponent.

City’s league form under Guardiola is beyond impressive – 167 wins in 225 games, a win rate of 74.22%, 2.47 goals per game and a yearly average points haul of 88. In the past few years, they have been egged-on by the emergence of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and the two teams are far more advanced than the rest of the competition. This pre-eminence simply places these teams among the best in Europe, but the dynamic changes at this point, although it is very clear that the Premier League’s wealth is starting to move City and Liverpool ahead of the game. If the Champions League was a genuine league, these clubs would be at the top, because financial power, coupled with an intelligent approach to coaching, player acquisition and a sustainable structure, will always give them a big advantage.

Knockout competitions are different, especially those that included two-legged ties. Ask most football followers and they will tell you the Champions League becomes exciting when it reached the KO phase. Excitement doesn’t just come from predictable, attritional league games, it comes from the unexpected, from the sheer theatre of it all.

Maybe, just maybe, City need a different, more industrial approach for these games than the purist technique and long-distance running of the Premier League. Guardiola’s City have won five Cups, four of which have been the EFL Cup, a competition that doesn’t seem to overstretch them. Only once have they won the FA Cup. Their real strength lies in the long-haul competition, where class prevails and victories can be notched-up at their own pace. Hence, City slipped back into gear quite easily against Newcastle United, winning 5-0. Klopp knew what he was talking about when he said he could not see City dropping points.

At the same time, the vision we all have of Manchester City is not of a team scrapping for points and success, it is more of a sweeping tide of beautiful, skilful football that overwhelms the opposition. Perhaps there is one element that can be improved in the City set-up, but it may not be aligned to Guardiola’s character? He has coached Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, clubs where he has had the pick of the best talent and financial power over the rest of the league. Has a fist ever been clenched in the City dressing room?

Manchester City will, one day, become European champions, but it may not be in Guardiola’s time. The club is wealthier than almost every rival and can attract any players they choose to focus on. But they may have to develop a harder edge and that doesn’t appear to be Pep’s way. Serial champions is one thing, but achieving greatness among a select peer group could require muscle and blood. Right now, in Abu Dhabi, they will be casting their eyes enviously at Liverpool and Real Madrid, two clubs that have solved the mystery of the holy grail.