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.

The most dominant football teams in Europe

THE popular myth is that the Premier League is won by the same team virtually every year, but in the past decade, five teams have won the title: Manchester United, Chelsea, Leicester, Manchester City and Liverpool. The highest number of clubs that have won a domestic title in the period 2012-13 to 2021-22 in any country is six, so it doesn’t get much more open than the Premier.

However, ask the same question in a few years and the answer will almost certainly be different – we will see the true effect of Manchester City’s dominance in the coming seasons. But at the moment, there are quite a few leagues that have a far higher level of one-club superiority across Europe. These include Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Moldova, Scotland and Wales.

If English football was so very predictable, it is doubtful the crowds would continue to grow and it is clear that demand for the game appears to show no sign of diminishing. In fact, in 2021-22, Premier crowds increased to an average of 39,600 while most other leagues, for various reasons including restricted attendances, actually fell from pre-Covid levels. The 2022-23 campaign will provide a far more accurate picture, but Premier football came out of lockdown with public appetite as strong as ever. We are still waiting for that bubble to burst.

The club with the longest period of superiority – in terms of titles won – is Ludogorets from Razgrad in Bulgaria. Although they come from a city of barely 35,000 people, they have won their domestic league 11 years in a row and finished 12 points clear of second-placed CSKA Sofia. They also reached the semi-final of the Bulgarian Cup and played 14 games in Europe – eight in the Champions League and another six in the Europa League. Ludogorets are quite unpopular in Bulgaria and there are always rumours and suspicions suggesting they are run by organised crime and that corruption prevails across Bulgarian sport. But Ludogorets are actually owned by influential oligarch Kiril Domuschiev, a shipping magnate who leads the country’s chamber of commerce.

In Germany, Bayern Munich have had sole possession of the Bundesliga, with 10 consecutive titles. Bayern have won 17 trophies in 10 years, including two Champions Leagues. The last side to win the Bundesliga other than Bayern was Borussia Dortmund in 2012, whose manager was none other than Jürgen Klopp. Bayern’s hold on German football is becoming a little worn at the edges and they desperately need greater competition, as do Paris Saint-Germain in France.

Ludogorets and Bayern are the only clubs who have enjoyed a 100% success rate over the past 10 years. There are four nine times winners including Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb, Sheriff Tiraspol and Celtic and a cluster of clubs with eight wins under their belt: Qarabag, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympiacos, Juventus and New Saints.

Nine champions in Europe were also cup winners in 2021-22 – Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Red Star Belgrade, Ferencvaros, Lincoln Red Imps, Qarabag, Sheriff, La Fiorita and New Saints all won their respective doubles.

The club with the biggest margin of success in 2021-22 was Zrinjski Mostar, who won the league in Bosnia & Herzegovina by a substantial 27 points. They won 26 of their 33 games and lost just once and conceded a mere 14 goals. The next highest was recorded by New Saints in Wales, a margin of 21 points.

Some countries have more than one big fish, such as in Serbia, where Red Star Belgrade and their neighbours Partizan stand head and shoulders above the rest. In 10 years, Red Star have won seven and Partizan three and this season, the margin was just two points. Furthermore, Red Star completed the double by beating Partizan 2-1 in the cup final.

These clubs may be giants in their own leagues, but the imbalances in European football mean that most champions cannot compete with the continent’s elite institutions. Although most of the big clubs seem well established and comfortable, things can suddenly shift. The declines of Manchester United, AC Milan and Inter Milan in recent years remind us that nothing lasts forever, so despite wealth, success and heritage, even the very biggest can fall from their pedestals. Remember that 50 years ago, clubs like Red Star Belgrade, Celtic and Ferencvaros were among the most formidable in Europe. Nevertheless, the champions of 2021-22, whoever they are and wherever they might be, deserve due respect from the football community.

A Spaniard in the works – Champions League frustrations

THE first legs of the Champions league semi-finals are over and there’s still every chance that Liverpool and Manchester City will meet headlong in the final in Paris.

Liverpool showed they are simply too good for Villareal, Manchester City demonstrated they are vulnerable at times, allowing Real Madrid to score three times at the Etihad. According to TalkSport’s Jason Cundy, who spent several minutes shouting at clouds after watching the game at Anfield, Villareal were a disgrace and shocking and might have been better served to field fans instead of some of their players. Cundy, by the way, was a player, appearing for a poor Chelsea side in the days before they rediscovered silverware. If he had played in a defence as one-dimensional and determined as the Villareal back-line, would he merely have said, “we done a professional job, didn’t we”?

But no, Cundy was going for the throat of Villareal, completely dismissing the approach of Unai Emery’s side, who had a game plan against a vastly superior team. Were they supposed to allow Liverpool to thrash them, to lay back and be ripped apart by Salah, Mané and co? So they made it hard for the home team for maybe 45 minutes and then they were prised open. Villareal are not a title-chasing Spanish unit, they are good at cups and can be difficult opponents, but they are not Real Madrid.

It was pretty obvious Villareal had little chance once Liverpool had scored, but Cundy’s narrative was fairly typical of some sections of the English media. This was all about Liverpool and their chase of the quadruple, never mind there’s also another team involved. The pundits now have this quest firmly between their teeth, praising Liverpool to an embarrassing level (or they really the best ever Liverpool?) and canonising Jürgen Klopp. We all appreciate Liverpool are very, very good, but we need a balanced view from the media, there’s absolutely no way a pundit would lambast an English club like that, reducing considered discussion to tap-room yelling. There are many ways to play a game, that’s what makes football so interesting and Villareal went to Anfield knowing their best bet was to stifle the life out of Liverpool. Can you really blame them for playing so unimaginatively in the circumstances?

Is there an anti-Spain thing going on at present? Or is it a little bit of xenophobia in the night? Many pundits don’t know a thing about the teams English clubs come up against, they simply play to the narrative, and that is: Liverpool and City are great, they deserve to meet in the Champions League final, and all other teams are either dirty, negative, past their best, lacking the team ethic or very good at rolling around after getting fouled. But let’s not forget how Phil Foden showed he too can roll with the best of them. Some of the comments remind you of an age when foreign players were treated as if they had two heads, tentacles and ray guns.

Real Madrid were dismissed as being “over the hill” when they arrived in London to face Chelsea. The assumption was they had too many old players, their coach was too laid-back and on his retirement gig and Chelsea should be too strong and vibrant for them. Last season, nobody fancied Villareal and they went out and disposed of Arsenal and Manchester United. The fact is, English clubs invariably get knocked out by Spanish clubs. In the past five seasons, it has happened eight times, including 2021-22 when Chelsea and Manchester United were ousted by Real and Atlético.

There seems to be a certain arrogance circulating the English game that’s becoming a little unpleasant. For once, it isn’t the fans, although you didn’t need to be an expert in sign language to understand some of the comments at the Etihad and Anfield. English clubs have an advantage because of the extraordinary wealth that has been created by broadcasters and owners. Success is almost always bought.

This is now starting to show through in the Champions League, hence we could be looking at a third all-English final in four seasons. There’s no disputing Liverpool and Manchester City are the best teams around at present, but that doesn’t mean other clubs do not have the right to challenge them. Villareal and Atlético Madrid have enraged people because they have dared to take the English on, but the anger doesn’t always reflect well on the Premier clubs – Atléti manager Diego Simeone was pelted by missiles as he left the Old Trafford pitch and United were fined, albeit a paltry, spare change penalty.

Ultimately, we should also be aware there is very little that is English about the current dominance of English clubs – only 20% of the Liverpool and City players used in their first legs were English, the coaches were Spanish and German, the club owners from America and Abu Dhabi. A victory for globalisation.