Follow the money. If you want to get to the heart of the matter always follow the money, in life as in football. As our beloved sport emerged and was codified in Victorian Britain there was a strong attempt to keep football strictly amateur, and by extension out of the reach of the vast bulk of ordinary people and the preserve mainly or a network of public-school Old Boys. This resistance was Canute-like and eventually by 1885, some twenty-two years after the foundation of the FA, professionalism was permitted in British football. Money had always been in the game but now it was openly, if grudgingly accepted.
Even back then the sporting public were caught up in the drama of the transfer market, while many clutched their pearls and bemoaned the scandalous sums being paid to bring footballers to new clubs. By 1893 Willie Groves had become the first £100 player when he joined Aston Villa from near neighbours West Brom. Just twelve years later Alf Common became the first £1,000 player when he made the short journey from Sunderland to Middlesbrough. For the next three decades after Common’s move the transfer record would only be broken by English (and one Scottish) clubs. But the British dominance of the transfer record was smashed in 1932 as the world transfer record crossed the Atlantic to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. The buying club was River Plate and the player was Bernabé Ferreyra, signed from Tigre for £23,000, an amount that would stand unbroken for a record for seventeen years.
Argentina had seen a breakaway professional league emerge in 1931 and River Plate immediately went out and paid 10,000 pesos for winger Carlos Peucelle and signed Ferreyra just a year later, this helped give rise to the clubs’ nickname of Los Millonarios. Although English clubs would take back the transfer record in the late 40s and kept it until 1951 this was to be the last era of British dominance or record breaking transfer fees, only in 1996 when Alan Shearer joined Newcastle from Blackburn would a British club again be a record breaker. For the rest of the last 64 years the transfer record has been held by either Italian on Spanish sides. The last five record fees have all been paid by Real Madrid, from Luis Figo in 2000 to Gareth Bale in 2013.
But of course merely to view the transfer market as a marker of wealth, and indeed power and influence is reductive. For one thing the Bosman ruling has changed the nature of transfer deals to some extent and it also ignores things like the money spent on wages, amounts earned through sponsorship, TV rights and prize money. However, according to Deloitte in their annual football rich list for this year, Real Madrid are once again the top club with a revenue of £439m. They are followed by Barcelona, Manchester United in 3rd and Paris Saint Germain in 4th, Bayern Munich in 5th and Manchester City in 6th. Juventus come in at tenth meaning there is one Italian side in the top category. However the most telling statistic is that overall of the top 30 clubs on the list 17 are in the Premier League.
This wealth created in the Premier League, primarily through super-lucrative television rights, currently trumps anything that can be matched financially by other leagues. Arrangements in Spain mean that clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid get disproportionately larger shares of television revenue than other Spanish clubs, but the Premier League parity model has been suggested as one of the reasons that a club like Leicester have been able to mount their shock title challenge. While West Ham sit in 20th place on the rich list there is no place for the likes of Ajax, Benfica, FC Porto or many others. They are victims of geography and the rise of power or a super elite group of clubs forming out of the elite leagues. Some clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain have only been catapulted into these elite realms because of the massive recent investments of petro-wealth tycoons.
Yet despite these financial advantages there is always the search for more. Manchester United remain third on the rich list despite being very much in a period of transition. Real Madrid have sacked another coach and don’t look likely, at the time of writing, to be able to pip their great rivals Barcelona to the title. Their balance sheets are betrayed by their on-field performances. The present state of flux in the Premier League where it is conceivable that United, Chelsea and even possibly Arsenal could actually miss out on Champions League football, coupled with the natural nose for profit of other European football CEOs has led to talk of changes to the Champion’s League.
The Barcelona club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has already spoken about a type of fail-safe system that could reward under-performing big clubs who don’t progress to the Champions League, saying:
“Right now, we are lucky – because the important leagues, like the Premier League or the Spanish league or the Italian league – we have more clubs.
“But I’m sure that sometimes for the interest of football, why not give wildcards? Like in tennis – sometimes top players do not qualify and they get wildcards. Why not in football?”
Don’t you love the “important leagues” line? From a revenue point of view a match between Barcelona and an under-performing Manchester United has greater commercial incentives that a game against a more successful Leicester or indeed a Napoli who have gotten to the Champions League on merit. Such suggestions also undermine the whole basis of competitive sport. The notion that any team, on their day can beat any other team, and are thus rewarded accordingly are central to football’s appeal, history and excitement. We have reached a point that for World Cups the holders no longer automatically qualify, so why should say a Chelsea be rewarded to the tune of tens of millions for their gross mismanagement?
Should such suggestions be seen as a response to the moderate reforms brought in by Michel Platini which helped to ensure that club sides from smaller nations had a chance at more access to European competition? In recent years teams like APOEL Nicosia, Basel and this year Gent have made it through to the knockout stages of the Champions League on their own merit while supposed bigger names, and certainly wealthier teams have not progressed.
We might view Bartomeu’s comment in the context of the recent meetings of representative of the “Big Five” Premier League clubs (i.e. Man City, Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool) when they were forced to deny that the purpose for their talks was discussions of a breakaway European Super League. Interestingly this was some 25 years ago another “Big Five” met to form the break-away Premier League, they were Man United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal. It just goes to show what a Russian or Emerati oligarch can do for a club’s image.
While the current “Big Five” denied any talk of a break away they did start to talk about reform of the Champions League once the current agreements around structure and broadcasting run out in 2018. What this reform could mean has been described thus in a recent article in the Guardian and elsewhere as possibly including:
“…more knockout rounds before the revamped group phase. The top 16 seeds might enter the competition in the last 32, where they would not be able to draw each other. The established continental clubs believe this would allow them a better chance of avoiding lesser teams at the group stage, which in an eight-team format would mean 14 matches, played home and away. An example cited during discussions with UEFA came in 2008-09 when Real Madrid were drawn in a group that included Bate Borisov. The ties between the two sides attracted low viewing figures and there is a firm desire to avoid repeats in the future by having more high-profile games, generating a bigger income.”
Let’s just think about what that means. On the face that doesn’t sound too bad. More knock-out games just like the old European Cup? Seeded teams? Well top-flight teams don’t join the FA Cup until the third round, sounds fairly plausible. However in reality what it aims for is a fossilising of wealth and power in the hands of elite clubs and elite leagues. Whoever at this point in time has the wealth; the billionaire backers who are digging and gouging the earth for natural resources, or who are best at creating “global commercial partnerships” shall remain dominant. It is saying that even with all the advantages that wealth bestows that football is just too damn unpredictable for those in charge. Even Chelsea and Man United can fuck up and Leicester aren’t a big enough draw!
It’s worth thinking about this in the context of the recent passing of Johan Cruyff. The Netherlands only really began to embrace professionalism in the 1960s, but with the brilliance of a generation players like Cruyff and the vision and tactical ingenuity of managers like Rinus Michels Dutch clubs won four consecutive European Cups in the early 1970s. But that didn’t happen overnight, Ajax had been beaten finalists against AC Milan in 1969, before that they had destroyed Shankly’s Liverpool 7-3 in 1966 before being knocked out by Dukla Prague. They got game time against elite opponents, this gave players experience and allowed them to grow and develop and eventually become triple Champions. The plan outlined above effectively removes the number of games that teams from second tier nations get to play in the Champions League by putting in what is in effect an extra preliminary round.
Preliminary rounds already exist which significantly reduces the chances of a team from a smaller or secondary nation gaining access to the group stages, it would seem that Platini’s modest reforms are anathema to the conservative, insular forces of the elite clubs. This process would go against what has been shown to work successfully in International football. If one looks back to the reign of the last English head of FIFA, Sir Stanley Rous you can see how resistant he was to widening inclusion in the World Cup to teams from outside of Europe and South America. Primarily as a vote getting exercise his challenger Joao Havelange promised to open up the World Cup to more teams from Africa and Asia. Greater access to this level of competition has given nations experience to build upon and nowadays nations from throughout Africa, Asia and sides like Australia and New Zealand are less likely to be arrogantly assumed of being pushovers unworthy of entrance to competition. While there is a delicate balance to strike in making sure the best teams are represented for the World Cup to be truly be worthy of its name it needs participants from all over the globe.
The Champions League however has never been worthy of its name. If Mr. Bartomeu had his way this misnomer would be all the more inappropriate. What UEFA must decide is if it wants the Champions League to be a truly European affair, as a mechanism to grow the game in Europe and improve the level of participation and competition throughout the Continent. Or whether it simply wants a European Super League by another name. Just more of the same teams playing each other again and again with little possibility of change, calcifying an established order of the wealthy few for decades to come. It removes even the chance, the possibility of another Ajax-like success story.
Or… UEFA could have some guts. They could stand up to the biggest clubs and say that they already enjoy massive benefits from participation in the elite European club competition, that renegotiation of a deal will likely bring even greater prize money after 2018 and if they don’t like that then go and form a break-away Super League.
But… all players playing in the breakaway league would be removed from their domestic championships, all players playing for the breakaway clubs would be unable to take part in any UEFA/FIFA/CAF etc. tournaments or to play for their national team in any international fixture. Maybe the wealthiest clubs would relish the split with UEFA/FIFA, or maybe they would look at what having numerous governing and awarding bodies and a focus on pay-per view only policies has done to the sport of Boxing and balk at the idea. It could be the perfect opportunity for UEFA and FIFA to show some sort of commitment to fairness and inclusiveness after all the arrests, allegations and mountains of negative press. While the elite clubs and their participation in the Champions League is many ways the greatest advertisement (and revenue generator) that the governing bodies of European and World football could wish for, their power and wealth make them also their greatest threat, perhaps their only threat of a viable breakaway from FIFA hegemony. Such a breakaway however would be even more of a closed shop Plutocracy than what currently exists.
Perhaps the greatest test for the post-Blatter FIFA and post-Platini UEFA will be how they respond to the narrow commercial interests of a tiny number of hyper-wealthy clubs and whether they can take a view that sees that the Good of the Game can be distinguishable from the pursuit of ever-greater wealth. The elite clubs for their part seem prepared to follow a George W Bush era, corporate, “too big to fail” approach where their failures draw no consequence, while their triumphs, or indeed their mediocrity is subject to ever greater rewards. And the shape on football on this Continent will hang in the balance.
This article originally appeared in the Football Pink issue 11