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?