Celtic’s loss is manageable, but the pain of the Rangers revival will be worse

CELTIC may find losing their league title was considerably more painful than the losses made during the covid-19 pandemic. Rangers ended the club’s nine-year run at the top of the table, but the manner in which they did it, going the entire league campaign unbeaten, signalled the end of an era for the hoops. From a financial perspective, an £ 11 million pre-tax loss probably seems a lot less damaging.

Scottish football has its cycles and Celtic have presided over the rest of the nation while Rangers recovered from their meltdown and climbed their way back to the top. When Celtic were all-conquering in the 1960s and early 1970s, they went nine years at the top of the league table. Rangers did likewise in the 1990s, just falling short of 10 years. Now Celtic have done it again. Modern football being what it is, it’s hard to see anyone outside the old firm winning the title in the foreseeable future.

Celtic’s revenues for 2020-21 held up remarkably well, a £ 10 million (13.4%) drop in a season without supporters coming through the turnstiles. Compared to the 25-point gap between them and Rangers, the discomfort is bearable. 

Celtic’s near decade of superiority, arguably, was never fully exploited. They were still found wanting in Europe, a sad fact for a club that has been to three major European finals. In short, they have been flat-track bullies in Scotland and, financially, they cannot compete with the elite clubs. Over the past decade, they have reached the group stage of the UEFA Champions League four times, winning just five of their 24 group games. Only once, 2012-13, did they get out of the group, no great surprise given they have come up against Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Ajax. The gulf between Celtic and the top names of Europe was highlighted when they were thrashed 7-0 by Barca in 2016-17.

Celtic’s current position in Europe can be determined by the status of the teams that have eliminated them from the Champions League and Europa League – Ferencvaros, CFR Cluj, AEK Athens, Maribor, Midtjylland, FC Copenhagen and Malmo.

Regardless of this, Celtic remain a big club with enormous cachet in Scotland and the United Kingdom and enjoy unwavering support from their fans. But the pendulum at home has swung across, perhaps temporarily, to Ibrox Park and the feeling of coming second in a two-horse race isn’t good for a club that won 19 of 27 Scottish prizes between 2011-12 and 2019-20, including four consecutive trebles.

While revenues dropped in 2020-21 from £ 70.2 million to £ 60.8 million, so too did expenses, which were down 7.6% to £ 74.4 million. Celtic managed to make a profit on player sales of £ 9.4 million, a drop from 2020’s £ 24.2 million, but still a demonstration of the importance of player trading to the club. According to Transfermarkt, Celtic spent £ 14.1 million in the market and recouped £ 16 million. Rangers spent £ 11 million and received just under £ 1 million. These figures dwarf the rest of Scottish football. Over the decade, Celtic spent over £ 100 million, Rangers around £ 50 million.

Of Celtic’s £ 60.8 million of income, £ 20.1 million was attributable to “football and stadium operations”, a third of overall earnings but some 56% lower than 2019-20. Merchandising rose by 50% to £ 22.6 million, but multimedia and broadcasting contributed £ 17.3 million, falling 11% compared to the previous season.

Celtic’s chairman, Ian Bankier, spoke of Celtic’s robust business model and how it allowed the club to navigate through the pandemic. “In the face of this adverse swing in financial performance, we are satisfied we took sufficient and appropriate steps to mitigate the losses and control costs in the business,” he said.

Meanwhile, with Celtic’s team now managed by Greek Australian coach Ange Postecoglou, they have had a mixed start to the 2021-22 season, losing three of their first six league games. They’ve also been knocked out of the UEFA Champions League and lost their first Europa League group game at Real Betis. Things will, surely, get better, both on the pitch and on the balance sheet. How they react will depend on what goes on over in the Govan district of Glasgow.

Regional football leagues in Europe – a solution to SuperLeagueitis?

THE RICH are trying to move out of reach of the rest of the football world. We are not talking about teams, we are referring to sporting conglomerates, wealthy beyond the imagination of the bulk of clubs across Europe, indeed the world. As we recently experienced, the concept of squeezing more juice out of the lemon and the creation of a self-serving model, is with us again. If we are not careful, we could be looking at the death knell for many national league competitions. This article was originally published a few years ago by GOTP, we felt it worth reminding people that there is another way to build a future for the European game.

If we assume that the uber clubs of Europe remain just that, perhaps it is actually time to start contemplating the unthinkable, but not on the terms of the elite. In other words, the separation of clubs that are simply too big for their current domestic competitions. It is not inconceivable that such a concept is already on somebody’s drawing board, possibly fuelled by TV or the deep pockets of oilmen and oligarchs. Obviously, the mere thought of such a venture will be totally unpalatable to many, but today we all but have a two-speed European football landscape.

Too predictable

The main European leagues have become too predictable, with the so-called “big five” now the property of a handful of clubs. In Italy, Juventus won nine consecutive titles, largely due to an overhaul of the club, the purchase of their own stadium – and groundbreaking move in Italy – and some smart marketing. 

The Juventus situation is typical of the situation in the major leagues elsewhere – Bayern Munich have won the German Bundesliga for nine consecutive seasons. Clubs like Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig have threatened to provide competition, but Bayern’s strength, financial acumen and track record make it difficult for any would-be contenders to mount a sustained challenge.

In France, money is making a very clear and controversial difference for Paris St. Germain. The backing of Qatar, highlighting the globalisation of the game, has created one of the most one-sided scenarios in world football, with PSG’s  budget more than double their nearest rivals. Undoubtedly the antithesis of the fabled “level playing field” (which has never existed in most European leagues), the situation in France also makes the club very unpopular, mostly because they can make the competition even more lop-sided at the click of a finger, as demonstrated in the transfers of Neymar and Mbappe.

Of course, Spain has long been dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona. Since 2000-01, La Liga been won by a club other than this duo just three times, but this season could be the fourth. It’s not a new phenomenum and to some extent, people are more accepting of the Real-Barca axis than other foregone conclusions. What is also notable is Spain’s domination of European club competition. Four of the last five UEFA Champions Leagues have been won by Spain and on two occasions, La Liga has provided both finalists. If there is variety, it can be found in England. Where the Premier differs from the other big five leagues is that there is just a hint of the unexpected, hence a club like Leicester City can – with some magic beans – win the title. That’s largely due to the huge broadcasting fees that are distributed more democratically than in other countries, and also the number of wealthy owners. 

Stale Europa

Champions League participation is, for the vast majority of clubs, merely a cash cow. Most have no chance of progression or getting close to the latter stages, but being involved is the key. It has created an industry that is no longer about clinging to hopes of winning a prize, but about generating revenues. The old romantic vision of pulling off a shock result or embarking on a glory-seeking run is all but consigned to the past – the very structure of the Champions League makes it incredibly difficult for a true shock to take place. Basically, league competition will almost always give you the correct result over the course of a campaign. Knockout football still has the power to deliver unpredictability. That’s why the Champions League second phase is always far more interesting than the group stage. UEFA’s latest remodelling does little but attempt to appease the bigger clubs.

The Champions League’s awkward cousin, the Europa League, struggles to gain critical acclaim, largely because the Champions League is too large and considered the be-all and end-all of European football. There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for the competition among certain clubs – English clubs, for example, often go out cheaply, and supporters often find it hard to get excited. 

Structural change?

All over Europe, cup competitions have become something of a hindrance to many clubs. The overwhelming emphasis is placed on leagues. As the main UEFA competitions gradually resemble leagues, perhaps it is time to dispense with the current format of both the Champions League and Europa League and to accept that a European Super League is the natural evolution of the UCL and that beneath that, a set of regional leagues could provide a stimulating development for teams outside the Super League.

Opponents of the Champions League – and there are many – may not wish to accept such a project, but the fact is, having cornered the rich pickings of European football, the elite clubs will not give up their position easily, and neither will the game’s wealthy investors.

If these clubs had their way, we know they would create a structure that preserves their status at all costs, with membership determined by financial strength and relegation restricted. However, closed leagues have limited attractiveness for the public and eventually become stale.

The creation of a European Super League that forms part of a pyramid could just make European football’s major leagues more competitive and could also be the catalyst for the redistribution of wealth. For example, if Real Madrid and Barcelona were members of the ESL, they would not be eligible to take a share of broadcasting revenues earned by the Spanish League. Some might argue that a Spanish League shorn of its two biggest clubs will weaken the competition. It might lower the quality but would undoubtedly make La Liga more competitive. The same would apply to France, Italy, Germany and England. Let’s not forget that Bayern Munich only visit every Bundesliga club once in every season, not 38 times. Hence, the loss of a monopolising club will be more than compensated by a more democratic league.

But there is another possible solution, the introduction of regional leagues that act as feeders to the ESL. Futbolgrad featured an article about a post-Soviet league, an entertaining exercise that effectively recreated the USSR domestic league. But in theory, such a league could be the prototype for a series of leagues that take the champions from across Europe and place them in regional groups or leagues that provide the next batch of Super League teams. These could be: Nordic & Baltics (Denmark, Norway etc); Mitropa (Germany, Austria, Switzerland etc); Atlantic (England, France, Belgium, Netherlands etc); Southern (Portugal, Italy, Spain); Eastern (Post-Soviet etc).

The regional leagues could act as a buffer between the ESL and the domestic leagues. But the big advantage of a pan-European structure is the idea that everyone is involved – effectively, every team from the domestic premier leagues to the ESL is playing European football, for promotion from the domestics means entry into a regional [European] structure. And with the behemoths extracted, clubs will have a better chance to be successful. Anybody mourning the loss of Real Madrid should consider that 16-17 clubs are stuck in perpetual mediocrity. A form of streaming could just breath life into old Europe and remove some of the imbalances.

Step 1  European Super League  
Step 2NordicsMitropaAtlanticSouthernEastern
Step 3  Domestic Premier Leagues  
Step 4-6 Domestic 1Domestic 2Domestic 3 

No easy task

It is no use pretending that such a structure would be easy to implement and there will always be questions about finance. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say, and the entire structure would need to administered by one body – UEFA, in terms of revenue distribution (TV, sponsorship etc), or national associations could retain control of revenue distribution in their own domestic competition. Once a club moves from domestic to regional, the national association could pass the club over to become part of a different allocation pot – run by UEFA. The regional leagues would effectively be part of the ESL structure and would therefore derive revenues from the ESL system rather than the domestic pots.

This might not be the answer, but it is merely one idea to combat and regroup European football in an age of tremendous inequality in European football. Let’s be frank, the UEFA Champions League, at its best, is a compelling product, but it is football for the wealthy, groups of multi-millionaires running around on the pitch with thousands of fans paying for expensive tickets. At the same time, the giant corporate football machines will not easily change a structure that is geared towards making them even richer. Therefore, it is a case of adapting the current paradigm to allow more clubs to share in the wealth and also give more hope to the smaller clubs with aspirations to play among the elite, even if it is for one season.

Club football in its best form has gradually replaced the corporate bun-fight that is the World Cup as the pinnacle of the game and a set of regional leagues can, effectively, introduce an element of healthy nationalism. As FIFA World Cups have declined in quality and excitement since 1970, although 2018 did provide a refreshing change, there is more fervour created by club games. The World Cup and the European Championship have become “events” that make money for the organisers and thousands of events companies. Major tournaments are as much a fund-raiser as they are an opportunity to pit nation against nation to determine who is the best in the world.

The future of international football is more likely to be influenced by clubs such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid than it is to rest in the hands of Brazil, Germany, Argentina or Italy. Try to name truly outstanding national teams from the past 30 years and you’ll come up with France 1998-2000 and Spain 2008-12. The most irresistible teams since globalisation took hold have arguably come from club football.

People are still struggling to come to terms with the new reality that the football industry has become a financial sector as much as it is a segment of global sport. It is, regrettably for some, all about money, and the clubs with resources will always rise to the top and be successful. It won’t easily change, so the best course of action may be to adapt to a system that allows more clubs to grasp the opportunity to be successful, creating a set of playing fields that are a shade more even than they currently appear to be.