Football clubs need a voice

THE FRAGMENTATION of top-level football has been challenged by the creation of the Union of European Clubs (UEC), an organisation that doesn’t yet have any official members but is gamely attempting to create a forum for the clubs outside of the elite band that are dominating and over-influencing the game in Europe. In theory, UEFA should be filling this role, but there is general disenchantment with football’s governing bodies and it is easy to see why. 

There is a conflict of interest in any body that has individuals who have their fingers in many pies. Take the head of Paris Saint-Germain, who is not only on the board of UEFA, but is also deeply involved with Qatar Sports Investments and Bein Sports – both parties that operate and compete for attention in the football industry. Given Qatar’s controversial World Cup and the continued endorsement of the state, an unhealthy situation is already at play. It is inconceivable that UEFA should have a board member with such connections, if only for the sake of fair play.

Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has spoken out about the lack of support offered by the European Club Association (ECA), which appears to have become the tool of the rich and famous, for the vast majority of clubs. Never afraid to voice his opinion, Tebas believes the small and medium-sized clubs across Europe need proper representation. This has been endorsed by club officials such as Crystal Palace’s Steve Parish, who considers his club have no true voice on a European level. 

The UK government, in its Tracey Crouch-led initiative, concluded that an independent governance model for football was needed in England, but while most fans, tired of the increasing imbalances and ownership issues, were in agreement, some clubs were less enthusiastic, seeing restrictions that could be a threat to future profitability and expansion. 

Football is clearly not a democracy, the market leaders are mostly free market advocates with little concern for the little man or indeed their immediate rivals. Survival of the fittest – or richest – is the name of the game, even though football’s breadth and depth, the combination of the big and small, the rich and the poor, is what makes it such a commercial and social attraction. As Crouch said: “The introduction of a new independent regulator of football will strengthen our incredible pyramid, giving investors, fans and communities confidence in the governance of our clubs, enabling them to thrive.”

UEFA and FIFA don’t really help or drive any attempt to “level up” the landscape. UEFA, for example, in paying out € 22 billion in recent years, gave 34% of the money to 12 clubs and a total of € 11 billion was awarded to just 24. Just to be clear, there are around 1,500 clubs that do not qualify for European competition. Little wonder that the underlying feeling among football people is that little clubs are getting smaller and the big entities are just growing more powerful by the year. There is a huge swathe of clubs, more than 90% of Europe, that are not enjoying the full benefits of inclusion. 

The founder of the UEC, Dennis Gudasic, the executive director of Lokomotiva Zagreb, commented at the launch: “It is crucial that small and medium-sized clubs gain a voice. Over the past decades football has become increasingly a game of the elite, this trend needs to be reversed or the beautiful game will suffer irreparable harm.”

Unsurprisingly, there are fears that if the current trend continues, football may face existential threats. The smaller clubs have long been the lifeblood of the game, often providing the raw talent that later becomes expensive human assets for the crème de la crème. But we have seen in recent years how the top leagues have become so polarised. 

Using the just published Sportico list of the world’s most valuable clubs, the top 10 have won 35 of 50 “big five” leagues (70%) in the past 10 years, with Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Barcelona leading the way. Juventus, who are just outside the 10, have won seven of the last 10 Serie A titles. This top 10 have also won the last 10 Champions League competitions.

Look at the composition of the 2022 World Cup squads and the picture is slightly different. These top 10 clubs provided 14% of the players for the competition, which demonstrated how multi-national squads have become in domestic football, but also the value of players from smaller clubs. The top 10 also have the most highly valued players in global football; according to Football Benchmark, 31 of the top 40 players by valuation are playing for these clubs, with Manchester City, Real Madrid and Liverpool all employing five apiece. The domination continues into the transfer market; since 2018-19, Sportico’s top 10 have spent (gross) almost € 7 billion. Chelsea, at € 1.23 billion, have the highest gross outlay in the period.

Around 40 clubs have expressed an interest in the creation of the UEC, including Aston Villa, Brighton, Brentford, Crystal Palace, Watford, Valencia, Sevilla and Borussia Mönchengladbach. The next stage will be actually joining this fledgling association but presumably, everyone is waiting to see who moves first. 

How will it impact the ECA and could it reignite the concept of a European Super League? The idea of the UEC is a worthy one, because all clubs should be appropriately represented, but could it also be interpreted as a sign of submission, that reforming the ECA to be more inclusive should have been the optimal direction? Will it merely push the elite further away from the rest of the football community? 

Having various governing bodies points to further fragmentation and could possibly act as a ring-fence for the elite. The UEC has said that it wants to fill the governance gap in Europe, surely it would be right and proper to fill the gaps with reorganisation of existing structures to ensure the game thrives on transparency, meritocracy and unity?

7 days in football: This week’s big action

THE FA Cup reaches the last 16 with the eight ties being played in midweek, while domestic league title races heat up across Europe, including the Premier and Championship in England and the Bundesliga.

Monday February 27

A relatively quiet start to the week with games in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Portugal, but few standouts. Lazio versus Sampdoria looks the best bet for something interesting as the Roman side look to challenge for a Champions League place.

Tuesday February 28

In Italy, it’s the Turin derby between Juventus and Torino. The FA Cup fifth round is being played in midweek this season with Bristol City hosting Manchester City and Stoke City at home to Brighton, who must fancy a trip to Wembley. Fulham are at home to Leeds United and Leicester City welcome Blackburn Rovers. The Championship has a cracker this evening in the form of Luton Town (6th) versus Millwall (5th) at Kenilworth Road.

Wednesday March 1

Premier League leaders Arsenal play Everton at the Emirates, a vital game for both clubs. Arsenal are still two points ahead of Manchester City at the top, but Everton are back in the danger zone after their home defeat against Leeds United. Stuttering Liverpool are at home to Wolves. More FA Cup action sees EFL Cup winners Manchester United hosting West Ham United and Tottenham travelling to Sheffield United in a repeat of the 1901 FA Cup final (!). Elsewhere, Southampton are at home to Grimsby Town and Burnley play Fleetwood at Turf Moor. Incidentally, there is a house close to Fleetwood’s stadium entrance called Turf Moor, no doubt an exiled Burnley fan’s home!

Thursday March 2

In the Copa del Rey, Real Madrid versus Barcelona is the tie of the round. Real last won the trophy in 2014 and Barca’s most recent victory in the competition was 2021. The two teams meet again on March 19 in the league at the Camp Nou. The Copa Libertadores is underway and there’s  a curious tie in the form of Always Ready of La Paz in Bolivia (La Banda Roja) against Magallanes of San Bernandino in Santiago. Magallanes, who won Primeira B in Chile last year, also won the Copa Chile to qualify for the Libertadores.

Friday March 3

An interesting game this evening; Irish Cup quarter-final between Harland & Wolff Welders and Larne. The Welders are from Belfast and play at the [Danny] Blanchflower Stadium. They are in the second tier of Northern Ireland’s football structure. They’ve beaten two top flight sides on their way to the last eight, Newry and Glenavon. In the Bundesliga, title chasing Borussia Dortmund play fourth-placed RB Leipzig with BVB looking to put pressure on top-placed FC Bayern. Italian leaders Napoli have a tough home game against Lazio.

Saturday March 4

The Premier title race hots up with Arsenal at home to Bournemouth and Manchester City meeting Newcastle United at the Etihad. In the Championship, there’s two top clashes, Millwall versus Norwich City and Blackburn Rovers versus Sheffield United. 

Sunday March 5

In Austria, it’s old money versus new when Rapid Vienna play Red Bull Salzburg in the capital. Salzburg, of course, are top of the table, while Rapid are in fourth. Over in Catalonia, La Liga leaders Barcelona will be hoping to bounce back from their surprise defeat against Almeria when they welcome struggling Valencia to the Camp Nou. Champions League-chasing Roma are at home to hit and miss Juventus, who are languishing in eighth place in Serie A. It’s the Women’s League Cup final in England, Chelsea versus Arsenal at Crystal Palace. Chelsea have now featured in fourth consecutive finals and last won the trophy in 2021. The Premier game of the day is Liverpool versus Manchester United, which may revitalise passions at subdued Anfield.

FA Trophy and FA Vase 

The quarter-finals in England’s major non-league competitions are on the horizon. The games will be played on March 11.

FA Trophy: York v Altrincham; Gateshead v Farsley Celtic; Maidstone v Barnet; Aldershot Town v Halifax.

FA Vase: Congleton v Bury AFC; West Didsbury & Chorlton v Ascot; Newport Pagnell (the holders) v Atherstone; Peacehaven v Corsham.