Ah Tuesday night lights, the return of the Champions League proper and an excuse to watch football five nights a week. The midweek games are now such a fixture of our footballing calendar that it seems as natural as the changing colour of leaves as Autumn descends. However more than once I have heard football fans dismiss the group stages, saying things don’t get interesting until the knock-out rounds of the competition.
Many national champions are roundly dismissed in this manner as the ubiquitous “minnows”. But how true is this assertion? Is football being dominated to a greater extent than ever before by an ever decreasing number of leagues and clubs? The more that I think about it the more I’m inclined to believe that it is. With the beginning of the Champions League group stages how many teams have a realistic chance of winning the tournament? Have a think about it for a while. Most of you probably came up with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich right? Taking it a bit further who else PSG, Manchester City, FC Porto, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund? Maybe you even fancy an outside bet like Zenit St. Petersburg (even after their recent result against Malaga) or are impressed by the early season form of Shaktar Donetsk?
There are some long shots in the list above, clubs who have never won a European Cup before but does their presence suggest at least there is a greater level of competition emerging in the Champions League? Of the clubs I’ve mentioned PSG, Man City, Zenit are relative neophytes to the idea of challenging for Europe’s top club prize but it’s worth looking at how they got to this position; pretty much through the massive capital injections from oil and gas billionaires. The TV revenue of the Premier League as well as that of Spain’s big two all built on the commercial base of the clubs well-established “brand identities” mean that the only clubs outside of this group that can realistically hope to challenge are those who have spendthrift billionaire owners.
To counter this point we may look at the emergence of the Financial Fair Play guidelines as a positive step to curb these excesses as well as structural changes to seeding and the Champions League which mean that previously unheralded teams like FC Copenhagen and Apoel Nicosia have progressed past the group stages. However laudable as the achievements of Apoel and the aims of Financial Fair Play may be there is a striking disparity between the haves and have-nots. It’s not that far back in history that European Cup/Champions League finals were contested by teams from amongst others, the Netherlands, Sweden, Romania and Serbia. As time has passed and the competition and its financial rewards have grown, conversely the truly competitive field has diminished. Both a virtuous and vicious cycle have emerged with the bigger clubs and stronger leagues benefitting most, look at it this way, last year Wigan Athletic received over €53 million in TV revenue. Ajax a club that have won four European cups, produced Cruyff, Van Basten and Bergkamp and helped create their own unique style of revolutionary football earned about €3 million. To put this sort of revenue into greater perspective Real Madrid recently announced an annual turnover of just over €500 million, it’s worth noting that less than 10% of this figure came from ticket sales and match day revenue, the rest from TV, prize money, and lucrative friendlies. An upper caste has been created in European football, it tends not to grow but only shrinks, 7 times Champions AC Milan are slipping away as major challengers, their billionaire owner not quite rich enough anymore, it seems the only way onto the top table is through gas or petro-wealth, Russian oligarchs or Gulf state Sheikhs.
Earlier this year Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Chairman of Bayern Munich used his role as the self -proclaimed spokesman for Europe’s wealthiest clubs to take some swipes at UEFA and pressure them into changing the scheduling of International friendlies. The ace up his sleeve was the casual way that he dropped the threat of a break-away European super league into conversation. UEFA duly acceded to Rumenigge’s requests.
Personally I find the idea of a closed shop league of a super-wealthy elite somewhat abhorrent, not to mention rather tedious and boring, a fat cat, self-congratulating plutocracy where the self -proclaimed big guys never have to lower themselves with playing “little” teams and maybe even losing to them. Part of me doesn’t really see the appeal for the clubs either; would a team like say Inter Milan or Arsenal like to be at the bottom of a 15 team super league when they’re usually at least challenging for honours? Part of me thinks that it would fail, that the marketing theory behind such a venture: huge teams playing each other all the time, tapping into massive potential markets for supporters (for supporters read consumers) in Asia, the Gulf States and so on wouldn’t catch on. But then I think about being surrounded by jersies, scarves and merchandise for teams based hundreds or even thousands of miles my home town every time I go out, or the Madrid and Barca jerseys I’ve seen throughout Spain even when the local city has a team in the Primera Liga. There seems to be a movement towards the centre, the mainstream, a centralising of power in the hands of a few. Towards the biggest clubs, towards hype, towards a need to validate oneself through reflected glory and constant victory and I think that maybe a “Superleague” would work. Maybe I’m wrong but I’ll be a long time waiting before Ajax win a fifth cup.