In early June it was confirmed that the Premier League and Bundesliga would vote against plans by the European Club Association to radically revamp club football on the continent.
The plans, championed by Juventus and ECA President Andrea Agnelli, would have seen European matches played on the weekends in a very different Champions League. Four groups of eight clubs would compete in an expanded group stage, with the four winners going on to face each other in the semi-finals. There would also be a system of promotion and relegation with the Europa League, meaning 24 teams would remain in the Champions League for the following season regardless of whether or not they’d qualified via domestic competition.
It was, in all but name, the oft-mooted European Super League, in which the continent’s biggest clubs would leave behind their domestic Leagues and simply compete against each other in the primetime weekend fixtures, perhaps deigning to face teams from their own country in midweek games.
Understandably, those outside the elite were unimpressed by the proposals. Urbano Cairo, President of Juventus’ city rivals Torino, claimed the idea would destroy football as we know it, while La Liga chief Javier Tebas was also strident in his opposition. When the Premier League and Bundesliga vetoed the proposal it was effectively dead in the water.
Does that mean that football as we know and love it has been preserved? Or was this merely the aborted first step toward the formalisation of the gap between the haves and have-nots of the game?
For European fans, the lack of promotion and relegation in MLS, and indeed all major American sport, is hard to understand. Whereas in England, France or anywhere else a team could theoretically rise from the very bottom to the top — financial realities notwithstanding — in the States a team has to bid to become an expansion franchise. For some fans this is baffling, but for owners it’s a hugely desirable situation.
While financial power is a good predictor of success in football, it offers no guarantees. This season Atalanta finished third in Serie A, despite having a fifth the budget of Milan, who finished outside the Champions League places. The Rossoneri are a storied European club, their seven titles second only in number to Real Madrid, but they haven’t competed in the Champions League since 2013-14.
For owners, who want to make money, it goes against good financial sense. Milan are one of the biggest names in football, and their matches will attract far more interest than Atalanta’s. That’s why the Super League is so seductive: the elite could ensure they’re always competing with each other, thereby theoretically boosting the revenue from television, merchandise and tickets.
In many ways the issue stems from the Premier League and its mammoth television deal. The English League has a deal worth close to £9bn when domestic and overseas rights are combined, with over half of that coming from domestic money. Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 all have deals of around €1bn for their domestic rights.
Unable to compete with English teams on those terms, ECA members have drawn up plans to create a sort of uber-Premier League, where instead of Bournemouth and Brighton, you’d have Bayern Munich and Barcelona. This incarnation has been staked at birth, but like Dracula it will return in one form or another.
The reality is that the super clubs are outgrowing their domestic Leagues. Juventus have won Serie A for eight years in a row, Bayern Munich have been German champions for seven. Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, financed by Gulf states, are dominant in France and England while Barcelona and Real Madrid rule Spain.
Further down the ladder Celtic have a £100m revenue in Scotland, where third-place Kilmarnock have £5m. Ajax and PSV Eindhoven can’t be touched in the Netherlands, and it’s the same for Porto, Benfica and Sporting in Portugal. BATE Borisov have 13 Belarusian titles in a row.
None of this is particularly healthy, but none of these clubs would ever agree to a redistribution of wealth — not with shareholders, fans and emirs to please. No, it seems inevitable that they will one day take to the football skies together, occasionally throwing some morsels to the have-nots they’ve left behind.