Excellent article on European Top 16 proposals

Bradnor

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A long read, but a good one, with some glowing comments on LCFC, from Oliver Kay:

There was a meeting of La Liga’s audiovisual rights control body last month. So far, so very, very dull. The first two items on the agenda — reviewing the body’s constitution, approving the minutes of a previous meeting — did not exactly hint at excitement.

The third item was more eye-catching: “the European Super League project” and its effects over the short, medium and long term.

When the agenda was sent out beforehand to the various club representatives, there was fury and indignation at Barcelona and Real Madrid, who decided to boycott the meeting in protest. How dare La Liga propose such a conversation? Because surely they should have known that, in a twist on Tyler Durden’s line from Fight Club, the first rule of the European Super League project is: you do not talk about the European Super League project — at least not in a formal meeting and particularly not with clubs such as Alaves and Ponferradina. And the second rule of the European Super League project is: you do not talk about the European Super… etc.

It is high time they came clean. Not just Barcelona and Real Madrid, who still have the nerve to suggest they have outgrown Spanish football while trailing Atletico Madrid in La Liga and suffering one reality check after another on the European stage, but all of the plotters — not least Liverpool and Manchester United with their “Project Big Picture”, a blatant power grab that was condemned by the rest of the Premier League and memorably derided by the Football Supporters’ Association as “a sugar-coated cyanide pill” for the English game.

Right now, European club football is hurtling towards a seismic change. It seems likely that change post-2024 will come in the shape of a bloated, even more elitist version of the Champions League rather than the long-threatened breakaway “Super League” competition. But this time, in proposals supported by UEFA under pressure from the most powerful clubs, there will be far more matches and the suggestion of some qualifying places based on past performance in the competition — raising the unedifying possibility of, say, a wildcard space for Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan, Real Madrid or Barcelona if they are not good enough to finish in the top four of their domestic leagues.

“Everyone realises that the current competitive environment must be reformed as soon as possible,” Real Madrid president Florentino Perez told an online assembly of the club’s members in December. “The competitiveness and quality of our competitions must improve.”

Well, yes, Florentino. Some of us have been saying that for years while you and the rest of the self-perpetuating elite have been using every Champions League broadcast rights negotiation to push for a greater share of the revenue and even greater certainty of access, always with the threat of taking your ball elsewhere if you don’t get your way.

The European football landscape has been transformed over the past couple of decades — and not for the better. Competitive balance has been lost, whether it is the stratification of certain leagues, the domination of other divisions by one or two clubs whose exposure to UEFA competition has brought revenue far beyond the dreams of their rivals, or the depressing fact that the Champions League has featured only one semi-finalist from outside the “Big Five” leagues since 2005 (Ajax in 2019). This season the knockout stage features just one team (Porto) from outside those five leagues. Last season there was none.

The need to make European club football more competitive — both the domestic leagues and the continental competitions — is clear. In sport, that should mean trying to create a more level playing field, urging Real, Bayern, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and the big Premier League clubs, who already generate far more commercial and match-day income than everyone else, to allow broadcast revenue and prize money to be distributed more fairly so that perhaps, over time, a semblance of competitive balance returns to European football.

But that is not what Perez, Andrea Agnelli or, closer to home, the men in charge of Liverpool and Manchester United want. The great restructuring they have in mind is the complete opposite — something that embraces and enshrines the elitist trend of the past two or three decades, taking the great inequalities of domestic and European football in 2021 and preserving them for eternity.

So much of what is being proposed is obscene. The notion of clubs qualifying based on historical performance — hypothetically, Liverpool or Manchester United finishing seventh in the Premier League but taking a Champions League place at the expense of, say, a fifth-placed Everton, or, even more egregiously, ahead of the champions of Scotland, Turkey or Ukraine — is an insult.

Liverpool (sixth in the Premier League) could feasibly miss out on Champions League qualification this season. So could Borussia Dortmund, who are sixth in the Bundesliga, and Juventus, who face an unexpected battle to secure a top-four finish in Serie A. But so what? Arsenal are absent from the Champions League for the fourth consecutive season, AC Milan for the seventh. Should we shed tears for those big clubs who underperform?

A reality check in Sunday’s derby notwithstanding, Milan’s resurgence this season has been an uplifting story after the mismanagement of recent years. They didn’t have a safety net to protect them from abject underperformance. Nor should they have done. Why on earth should a club that kept finishing between fifth and 10th in Serie A, in what could not be described as a golden age for Italian football, have been allowed into the Champions League at the expense of, say, Lazio, Napoli or Atalanta?

Agnelli, the Juventus president, gave his view at the Financial Times “Business of Football” summit in London last year. “I have great respect for everything that Atalanta are doing, but, without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition,” Agnelli said. “Is that right or not?”

Yes, Andrea. It is right. Or at least it is right if you feel — as you clearly do — that Serie A deserves four guaranteed places in the competition while, for example, Ajax, as champions of Holland and losing Champions League semi-finalists in 2019, had to go through two qualifying rounds the following season. If you feel Italy should have four teams in the Champions League, then of course Atalanta deserved one of those places. They have been one of the most watchable teams in the Champions League over the past two seasons. To suggest the tournament would have been better served by offering Milan or Roma a wildcard entry at Atalanta’s expense is, frankly, pathetic.

Oh, but maybe “watchable” was the wrong term. Because people like Perez and Agnelli (and let’s be clear about this, people like Manchester United’s Joel Glazer and Liverpool’s John W Henry) don’t seem to care about the quality of the spectacle. They are interested in how many people watch and how much they can generate in broadcast and commercial revenue. And it is undeniable that more people, whether in Europe or worldwide, are interested in watching Milan, Arsenal and Manchester United — even the bland, poorly assembled, mismanaged versions of Milan, Arsenal and Manchester United that we have seen in recent years — than in watching genuinely enterprising teams such as Atalanta, RB Leipzig and Leicester City. And, in the eyes of Perez, Agnelli et al, that is all the validation they need.

Leicester have been one of the great success stories of the past five years, bucking what had seemed an irreversible trend by smashing through the glass ceiling to win the Premier League as 10,000/1 outsiders in 2016 and now, after a difficult few years, re-emerging as top-four contenders thanks to some excellent recruitment and coaching. But their admirable efforts — and the long-term aspirations of others, such as Aston Villa, Everton, Leeds United, West Ham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers — are threatened not only by the plans of Perez, Agnelli and the rest on a European level but by Glazer and Henry, who believe the answer to English football’s own competitive-balance issues is… to funnel even more broadcast revenue towards the biggest clubs, who would also get increased voting rights at stakeholder meetings.

What the hell is happening? There is little evidence from the past 16 years to suggest Glazer knows what is best for Manchester United, let alone for the rest of the Premier League or European football as a whole. Perez is Real’s most successful president since Santiago Bernabeu, but he has never given the slightest impression that he truly knows or cares much about the sport. The last regime at Barcelona ran up debts of £1.1 billion, according to the most recent financial figures, while presiding over the on-pitch decline of a great team.

It seemed to be primarily with Barcelona in mind that Christian Seifert, the Bundesliga’s chief executive, took a swipe at those clubs leading the constant drive for more, more, more. “The brutal truth,” he said, “is that a few of these so-called super clubs are in fact poorly managed cash-burning machines that were not able, in a decade of incredible growth, to come close to a somehow sustainable business model.” If they succeed in driving revenues up further, he said, “they will burn this money, like that they burned in the last few years”.

Seifert’s comments were withering — encouragingly so. Richard Masters, his counterpart at the Premier League, was rather more reserved except in repeating his commitment to an ongoing strategic review. Glazer and Henry haven’t said a word about “Project Big Picture” since being irked when details were leaked four months ago. They just want the rest of the Premier League to leave them to it. They were, after all, plotting quite happily until the Daily Telegraph ruined their fun in October. Move along, Everton, Leicester and the rest. Nothing to see here.

One of the most dismal things about this whole movement is the push for more games — a bigger Champions League with more guaranteed matches for all, a bigger World Cup, a bigger Club World Cup, bigger and more lucrative pre-season tours — has come at a time when it is widely agreed that the year-round demands are already putting an intolerable strain on the leading players in terms of recovery time between one season and the next.

And yet… “More European matches are important in the development of football,” said European Club Association (ECA) chief executive Charlie Marshall last week. “We absolutely feel there is room to play more European games. That’s bang in the centre of where we are coming from.”

The problem here is that the only way to create room for more European games is by streamlining domestic schedules that have already been ravaged over the past couple of decades by the ever-increasing demands from the European and international schedule. It is certainly easy to understand why the owners of Liverpool or Manchester United would willingly lose two clubs from the Premier League and lose the League Cup altogether if it created space for more fixtures in a vastly more lucrative European competition, but why on earth would Aston Villa, Everton or Newcastle United (for all their lack of recent trophy success) sign up for that?

What exactly are we talking about here? A 34-game Premier League season with no FA Cup replays and no League Cup? All for the benefit of an elite that wants its own expanded European competition and wants to make it almost impossible for others to qualify? And still, the other clubs are accused of self-interest when they suggest, as Everton chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale did at the Premier League stakeholders meeting last October, that the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United should not be plotting behind the backs of other clubs.

What is the right balance between domestic and European football? The balance certainly seems better now than it did in the 1980s, when you only had to play four two-legged ties to reach the European Cup final, while playing at least seven games to reach the League Cup final, plus unlimited replays in the FA Cup and a 42-game league season. But a 34-game Premier League season and a minimum 16-game campaign in the Champions League (not to mention expanded Club World Cup)? Yes, European football, at its best, is enthralling, but so too — at least if the league in question hasn’t fallen into monopoly territory — is the domestic game. And when it comes to the idea of saturation coverage of European football, there is no better analogy than that of the fillet steak, which is best enjoyed as an occasional treat rather than every night.

“It’s about creating a really, really strong product,” said Marshall of the expansionist movement — perhaps forgetting that the ECA purports to represent the interests of 246 clubs rather than a dozen. “It’s not the greedy clubs taking all the money. But they are the ones who drive the value.”

That is true to a large degree. Barcelona and Real Madrid drive the global commercial value of La Liga, just as Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea are the foremost drivers of the Premier League brand. But that is a two-way street; you only have to see how unfavourable the modern era has been to clubs beyond those “Big Five” leagues — let’s say Ajax, Benfica, Celtic — to see how beneficial it has become to belong to one league rather than another.

As for clubs seeking revenues that better reflect their value to the competition, good grief. Arsenal had only the sixth-highest revenue in the Premier League in 2018-19 — a result of another year without Champions League football — but it was still double that of West Ham, who were next. Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s revenues were both more than double that of Atletico Madrid, the third-richest Spanish club, which in turn was only slightly less than double that of Valencia, who lie fourth. And if the biggest, richest clubs want an even greater share — a vastly greater share, along with a series of measures that would ringfence them even more than the existing arrangements do — then yes, that is appallingly greedy and it should be called out as such.

It is undeniable that football is big business these days, but nobody should ever lose sight of the fact it is a sport and that its popularity in Europe, going back to the 19th century, is based on the idea of a meritocracy, with promotion, relegation and, from the 1950s onwards, a continental competition for those clubs who qualify.

Well, actually, the European Cup started in 1955 as an invitation-only tournament and, as Perez mentioned proudly recently, Real were chosen to be among the pioneers. So, too, were Milan, Sporting Libson, Anderlecht and PSV. But so were Hibernian, Rot-Weiss Essen, Reims, Servette, Aarhus, Djurgarden, Gwardia Warszawa and Voros Lobogo. There was also a place for FC Saarbrucken, as representatives of French-occupied Saarland. (England? The FA and Football League, ever distrustful of any innovation that was not their own, vetoed Chelsea’s invitation before Matt Busby refused to take no for an answer the following season with Manchester United.)

Soon enough, though, qualifying places were awarded purely based on achievement, which is the way it should be. And the point is that, if the same spirit of elitism and rampant greed had existed in the mid-1950s, or at any time since, then the clubs benefiting would not have been the same as those who wish to draw a line in the sand nearly seven decades later.

Bayern Munich were not among the 16 West German clubs selected to join the inaugural Bundesliga in 1963. PSG were not even founded until a merger in 1970 and had only won two French league titles until the transformation that came upon being acquired as a soft-power asset for the Qatari state in 2011. Did Borussia Monchengladbach and Saint-Etienne miss a trick by not pulling up the drawbridge in the 1970s? No, they just played by the rules of the sport, rather than seeking to exploit their excellence at a certain point in history.

Football isn’t meant to be a closed shop. It isn’t meant to be as uncompetitive as it has become over the last decade in many leagues and it certainly isn’t meant to be a sport in which clubs like Real, Bayern and PSG are guaranteed a place on the biggest stage even if, as appears unlikely given that their positions have quickly become entrenched, their on-pitch fortunes dip dramatically. Liverpool have illuminated the Champions League over the past few years, but the Liverpool of a decade ago would have stunk the competition out. Who on earth would have wanted Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool in the Champions League at the expense of Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur or, say, Mircea Lucescu’s Shakhtar Donetsk?

So much of this elitist movement is based on the flimsy premise that football needs to reform if it is to continue to thrive. “Football is still growing in some countries, but in others, it is falling into irrelevance,” Agnelli said in October 2019. “If we are not progressive, we are simply protecting a system that is no longer there, a system that is made up of domestic games that will have little interest for our kids.”

But this is exactly what the biggest clubs have created by continually pushing for bigger and bigger slices of the broadcast revenue, advancing their own commercial interests and having no regard for those clubs or leagues further down the food chain. For all the complaints about declining interest in domestic football and the supposed need to reform European competition to generate more interest, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the format of either. The problem is the lack of financial equality within leagues and between leagues — the increasingly intolerable gap between the haves and the have-nots. And the proposed solution? More power, more revenue and even greater certainty for those clubs who already have everything stacked in their favour.

It is pure greed, dressed up as concern for the future of the game. And it needs to be condemned as such. Clubs, leagues and national associations should be lining up to denounce plans that threaten to make the class divide even more unassailable than it already appears. But, of course, they hesitate to do so because they are frightened of antagonising those clubs that are so keen to remind them who “drives the value” in European football these days. Even around the Premier League table, the clubs outside the elite are walking on eggshells, wondering how to state their opposition to some of the nonsense in “Project Big Picture” without facing serious repercussions further down the line.

At this point, it is standard to consider the possibility that the rest of football — the Evertons, the Leicesters, the Valencias, the Lazios — should just leave this self-absorbed, self-interested, self-perpetuating elite to itself, waving them off into the sunset and letting them get on with whatever monstrosity they have in mind. Sixteen “super clubs” in their own breakaway league? Wait until the big eight decide the not-so-big eight are holding them back. Because the thing about greed is that they will never be satisfied. They will always want more.

Leaving them to it, sending them off on their own merry way, is not the answer. The answer is to condemn these plans and, in doing so, call for reforms that will benefit the whole game rather than the owners of a handful of clubs. As was spelt out in a statement by Football Supporters Europe (FSE), signed by 139 fan groups of leading clubs in 16 countries, the “Super League” proposals “would destroy the European model of sport” and “undermine the economic foundations of European football, concentrating even more wealth and power in the hands of a dozen or so elite clubs”.

“We recognise that the game is in desperate need of broad reform,” the FSE statement continued. “But proposals to this end must seek to revive the competitive balance in European competitions, protect domestic leagues, promote the interests of fans and encourage fairer revenue distribution. A European Super League would achieve none of these objectives — quite the opposite.”

Perfectly put. For the past two decades, in particular, the European football landscape has been transformed to reflect the commercial priorities of the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues. The answer is not to turn the clock back to the 1970s and create a champions-only competition, but somewhere there is a balance to be found between the meritocracy of those days and the plutocratic greed of the modern era. And that involves giving the big clubs less of what they want — not more.
 

George Ferris

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Thanks Bradnor. Excellent article well written. Why did you not get past the 10,000 /1?it may have been wrong but the rest of the article raised some points that resonate with us all.
Many people have had enough of the way football is going, the big six(yawn), VAR, feigning injury and squealing like Boris taking it up the rear end at Eton when tackled, Football will eat itself with greed and its bloated belly will explode disgorging dollars and replica shirts into the atmosphere until we are all poisoned into supporting the TV endorsed teams a la Rollerball.
Jonathan Jonathan Jonathan.
 
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