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 duopoly of Manchester City and Liverpool – how long will it go on?

IT is clear English football has become a duopoly comprising Manchester City and Liverpool. It’s not necessarily a good thing for the game, but these two teams are among the best in Europe at this precise moment. Interestingly, Real Madrid beat both in the Champions League.

Many years ago, football folk in England laughed at the duopolies that existed in Scotland, Portugal, the Netherlands and other continental European countries. English football, they believed, was more open, more democratic and anyone could win the top trophies. In those days, the Football League Cup had been won by a couple of third division clubs (QPR and Swindon) and FA Cup lifted by no less than three second division clubs (Sunderland, Southampton and West Ham). Giant-killing was a peculiarly English thing, the classic David versus Goliath story. Perhaps this was why it took some time before English clubs could challenge for the European Cup, their opponents from Italy, Spain and Portugal just didn’t know how to lose the big games.

Most two-team rivalries have been short-lived

Twenty-four clubs have been English champions, 10 of whom were crowned for the first time before the first world war. The leading clubs of that era had emerged from the industrial regions of the country, places like Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and the north-east. Although there were fierce rivalries in the pre-WW1 footballing universe, such as Villa and midland neighbours who loved to beat them, and Newcastle and Sunderland, there was a broad range of contenders. In the Football League’s first 12 years, 10 clubs achieved top three placings and in the period 1900 to 1915, there were 14 top three teams. During this time, one of the most exciting seasons was 1912-13, when Aston Villa and Sunderland were the dominant forces. Sunderland won the league and Villa beat them in the FA Cup final. Both teams could have won the double that year.

Most two-team rivalries have been relatively short-lived. For example, in the 1930s, when Arsenal won five league titles, there were four different runners-up. Quite simply, most of their opponents didn’t have the consistency or financial resources to challenge them every year. At the same time, it should be noted Arsenal were never runaway winners, they won four of their five championships in the 1930s by four points or less.

The Manchester United team that came to an end in the tragedy of the Munich air crash may have gone on to win many more prizes and given Wolverhampton Wanderers took over as the leading side of the day, winning the league in 1958 and 1959, there might have been a two-way struggle for supremacy in the late 1950s. Furthermore, the Tottenham double winners of 1961 may have added to that equation, although would Spurs have been so successful had United’s young team not perished in the snow. We shall never know, of course.

The Liverpool age of 1975 to 1990 was an incredible chapter of success and came after teams such as Leeds United and Arsenal had developed a brief and abrasive spirit of competitiveness. Leeds were consistent and too manic for their own good, yet they were the best team in England between 1968 and 1972. Arsenal won the double in 1971, overtaking Leeds right at the death, but didn’t have the players to go beyond that memorable year. Leeds United’s real rivals were themselves, although Liverpool were waiting to become the new alpha club.

The big problem for English football was the lack of long-term competition for Liverpool. While the transition from Bill Shankly to Bob Paisley was seamless, they didn’t have a consistent challenger. Between 1975-76 and 1982-83, QPR, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, Ipswich Town and Watford all finished second to the Reds. Although fans from Forest talk about the time Brian Clough’s team went head-to-head with Liverpool, it was only really a two season confrontation. It was not until 1984-85 that Liverpool had a week-by-week rivals to push them all the way, and ironically, it came from their own city and just across Stanley Park.

For three seasons, Everton and Liverpool could barely be separated, with Everton winning two of three league titles in that period. The two Merseyside clubs were two points apart in the league, the title being won by a Kenny Dalglish goal at Chelsea in his first season as player-manager. Then they met in the FA Cup final, with Liverpool winning 3-1 and completing the double with arguably their least effective side in a few years. But in truth, the Liverpool golden era was drawing to a close and in 1990, they won their last league title for 30 years.

Manchester United took over as the top side in the country, partly due to their sheer size and financial power, but also because they had the game’s top manager in Alex Ferguson. United had also tapped into youth development, bringing on group of highly talented players that would form the core of their team for the next decade, the so-called “Class of ’92”.

This is where the Premier League, which was formed in 1992, experienced its first two-team battle for power in the often fractious relationship between Arsenal and Manchester United. The dynamic between these two clubs saw some titanic struggles for the league title. Between 1998 and 2001, the two teams filled the first two places in the Premier every season. In a seven-year period ending in 2004, Arsenal won three titles to United’s four. The two teams were superior to the rest of the Premier because of their management and methods, Arsenal benefitting from the progressive approach of Arséne Wenger, which not only brought foreign talent to the club, but also a more scientific regime for players that included diet, training and mentality. In 2004, Arsenal under Wenger reached their zenith with the Premier title and an unbeaten league programme. But this duopoly was coming to an end as Chelsea became the richest club in the country thanks to their new owner Roman Abramovich.

Arsenal drifted away from the forefront gradually and Chelsea took up an arms race with Manchester United. For a while, the league’s chief rivalry was between these two clubs, but it was never as hectic as the Arsenal-United bout. Wenger was never happy about Chelsea and their sudden wealth and to some extent, this became something of a psychological hurdle for both club and coach.

The Chelsea-United period of dominance began in 2004 and really ended in 2011. Chelsea’s second season under Abramovich – and first with José Mourinho – saw them win the Premier League with 95 points,12 ahead of Arsenal, they retained the title a year later with 91. From 2004-05 to 2010-11, United still managed to win more Premier Leagues than Chelsea, four to three, and although they were both champions afterwards, their position was now under threat from Manchester City.

If Chelsea’s success was considered “bought” by the club’s critics, the same could be applied to City’s elevation. Both clubs, along with France’s Paris Saint-Germain were examples of a new breed, clubs who climbed the ladder thanks to huge investments of cash. In the case of Chelsea and City, they were both relative underachievers before being taken over. They were now looking the traditional giants of the English game, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool in the eye, much to the irritation of the establishment.

City and Liverpool simply have the best squads, the smartest management

But City’s wealth was enormous compared to Abramovich’s money and so the advantages Chelsea had between 2003 and 2010 were no longer quite as significant. Similarly, Manchester United and Arsenal’s US ownership, were now running their clubs far differently, no longer able to compete with the model adopted by City or Chelsea. The financial position of both United and Arsenal eroded over a period of time and they were no longer certainties for Champions League football.

Although Liverpool were also owned by Americans, the club started to break free of the malaise that descended upon Anfield after a prolonged period without the league trophy. They pulled off a major coup in hiring former Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp and although the trophies didn’t flow at first, a new, vibrant team was moulded at the club. City, who by 2016 had secured Pep Guardiola, were also building something more substantial than their rivals off the pitch. The City project was not just about playing success, it was also about creating something with much more depth and longevity. By 2021, the club had overtaken United in terms of revenue generation, which underlined the stagnation at Old Trafford after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson as much as it emphasised the smart thinking of City’s owners and management.

Between them, City and Liverpool now had the best coaches, the most intelligent approach to transfer market activity and the most fluid teams. In 2018, there were signs Klopp was creating something special at Liverpool when they reached the UEFA Champions League final, trouncing City on the way. A year later, Liverpool finished just one point behind City in the league and returned to the Champions League final, beating Tottenham in Madrid. Liverpool lost just one game in the Premier and notched up 97 points, but City were still ahead of them as they won the domestic treble. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, City won five of the six domestic prizes on offer.The power and consistency of the front two was also evidenced by the 15-point gap between Liverpool and Chelsea in third.

The Premier League was arguably the most coveted prize for Liverpool after a 30-year gap since their last triumph. Liverpool topped the table from the start and lost only three games, winning 18 of their 19 home games. City were 18 points behind in second place, but scored 102 goals to Liverpool’s 85. The two teams were still way ahead of the competition, Manchester United, in third, were 15 points worse off than City.

Winning the title may have taken more out of Liverpool than they expected, for they seemed to run out of steam in 2020-21, but in 2021-22, with some squad additions, they chased City all the way. The two teams are finely matched and there’s very little between them, but there’s a considerable gap between City and Liverpool and the team just behind them.

City topped the Deloitte Football Money League for the first time in 2022, their revenues rising 7% to £ 571.1 million. This is an impressive statistic given the pandemic and impact it had on club income. Manchester United, traditionally the highest-placed English club, generated £ 494 million, while Liverpool were not far behind with income of £ 487 million.

The simple fact is, City and Liverpool are now standing astride the Premier League because they have the best squads. A remarkable 20% of the Guardian top 100 for 2021 comprised players from these two clubs, while 13 of the top 40 most highly valued players are from Liverpool and Manchester City (Football Benchmark).

But is this really good for English football? Will we look back in five years and see the continuation of a two-horse race? It is unlikely for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a certainty that neither Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp will still be in charge at their respective clubs. In fact, their reign may end sooner rather than later. This is important because they are arguably the two most influential managers of their generation, and there are not many coaches to compare. Secondly, the two teams will need to rebuild at some point, they have players who are past or approaching the end of peak marketability. Thirdly, other rivals will come to the fore – Newcastle United will be a rising force in the next year or two as their new ownership starts to really shape their playing resources. Other clubs will also be beneficiaries of investor money and become challengers. Finally, nothing lasts forever in football, just recall the fall of Liverpool after 1990 and the current mess that is Manchester United. And who would have predicted Abramovich leaving Chelsea? The current duopoly, by historic standards, is approaching maturity and may have already peaked. For the game’s sake, it needs to change, even if we do enjoy the high quality of two excellent teams.

Return of the pitch invasion

JUST HOURS after Manchester City clinched their fourth Premier League title in five years, the club issued a statement about the alleged assault on Aston Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen, who was struck on the back of the head by a supporter. City’s triumph led to a pitch invasion and a period of mayhem where the safety of the players and officials came under threat. Naturally, City’s fans were happy and wanted to party, but they, like all the other fans who decided to break with convention, “crossed the line”.

Some might argue a pitch invasion is merely high spirits, the overwhelming desire of supporters to join in the fun and be among their heroes. But it is not their place to do that, they have no right to be a part of the players’ celebrations and they are not permitted to enter the field of play. The onrush of thousands of stampeding fans is a public health risk and those mostly in danger are the players, the club’s most valued assets. Moreover, that they should disregard the security of the very players they wish to slap on the back or carry shoulder high contradicts the obsessional devotion of the football fan. You always hurt the ones you love?

But should we be surprised about this unwelcome development? There appears to be a growing disrespect for authority in Britain at present, not helped by the antics of government officials and the current economic, social and toxic political climate. Add to that the debacle at Wembley in 2021 before the European Championship Final when barriers were scaled, authority challenged and values discarded, and thoughts of a new age of hooliganism emerge.

The fact is, we now find scenes of depravity, senseless violence and mob rule more shocking and distasteful than we ever did in the 1970s and 1980s. Claims that football hooliganism is a minority sport are true to a certain extent, but when a pitch invasion ends with players being assaulted, such as Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp and Olsen, then the old boundaries have been hurdled. In the past, a pitch invasion was a sign of discontent, a bid to reach the opposition fans or a sign of protest. But even then, while disorder was rife, violence was limited and players were not the target. There was a theme at one time that fans of a losing team might try to get the game abandoned, but the authorities wised-up to this.

Fences went up at grounds as early as the 1970s, giving the impression fans could not be controlled but they might be supressed. After Hillsborough, they came down for obvious reasons. An element of trust was needed and fans started to see the pitch as sacrosanct. Isolated incidents such as a protesting individual, were easy to stop, but a mob breaching the dam is impossible to deal with. Pitch invasions became very rare for a long while.

Fans should protest if they are unhappy with their club, but pitch invasions never solved anything. They damage the club’s precious turf, they have consequences, such as bigger policing bills, and they also harm the prospect of the return of terracing. And today, it would seem, they have moved beyond mere nuisance to include the possibility of violence.

Why have fans become so bold and why now? One could argue there was a lot of pent-up frustration during the height of the pandemic, but it is more likely fans are being set a poor example by some players and the passion of the game in England is simply getting out of hand. Look at the way every match is treated like a cup final, every goal greeted with hysterics, every disappointment accompanied by tears. Fans are increasingly bringing pyrotechnics into games (how the hell do they get them in?) and the opposition is pelted with missiles when they score. There seems to be no fear of breaking the law, which is more worrying than any amount of bad manners at a football match.

Goodness knows how many clubs are going to get fined for pitch invasions, but it is a trend that has to be stamped out before it is normalised. We really do not want to see fences return and if we are to rekindle the terraces, trust has to become a prerequisite again. As we have seen in the past, governments do not need many excuses to clamp down on football, let’s not give them reasons to do so.