The Champions League reaches the final knock-out stage this evening, with an all-British match between Arsenal and Celtic taking centre stage as twenty clubs play off against each other for the right to join the lucrative group stages of the competition. The big question facing the competition as it kicks off, however, is whether the Champions League is lucrative enough for its biggest clubs any more. In an interview on the eve of the match between Arsenal and Celtic, the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has given a tantalising hint at the machinations that may already be taking place behind the scenes towards the formation of a European Super League. According to Wenger, this isn’t mere speculation:
The national leagues will survive but maybe in 10 years, you will have a European league. I’m not sure 100% that I’m right but I feel inside our game there are some voices behind the scenes coming up to do something about that, especially if the rules become too restrictive for these clubs.
Such secrecy is understandable. A European Super League wouldn’t be universally popular at the moment. It may take a few years of planting stories in the press to change people’s minds before the idea of a European Super League would gain any significant popularity amongst the general public. The battle for hearts and minds, however, seems to be set to begin. The biggest clubs will be more than aware that they have to tread carefully. They’re not so stupid as to put forward proposals for a breakaway league because they want to make more money and own the television rights to such a competition themselves. Alternative reasons to win the support of the fans will have to be found, which would explain Wenger’s comment about the rules becoming “too restrictive”.
We can speculate for hours on what he means by being “too restrictive”, but we it’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to assume that the people running Europe’s biggest football clubs are the European equivalents of American neo-liberals. They take the game’s authorities to be the biggest enemies in their hunt for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and, it’s highly likely, are starting to come to see any attempts at financial redistribution within the game as being something akin to a form of taxation upon their success. It is unlikely, however, that the biggest clubs will engender a great deal of sympathy of they try to pull on the public heartstrings because they only make £50m per year rather than, say £200m per year from a pan-European competition, so they will be more interested in planting seeds of doubt over the competence in the minds of the media and the public over the competence of FIFA and UEFA.
In Arsene Wenger, however, they hardly have a friend. “The way we are going financially is that even the money that will be coming in from the Champions League will not be enough for some clubs because they spend too much money”, he said, in a statement that will be widely attributed as a thinly-veiled attack on the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City throwing money around like confetti this . Wenger describes himself as believing “only in sporting merit”, and it is here that his vision is likely to differ to that of the biggest clubs. A breakaway league would have a difficult decision to make in terms of how it will run itself. Will it have promotion and relegation? If so, how much? If clubs are going to take the calculated gamble of severing their links from the rest of the club system, will they want to expose themselves to such risky variables as getting relegated?
What it will come down to is likely to be a balancing act on the part of the clubs. Do they go for, say, four clubs from each of the Big Four of England, Italy, Spain and Germany, or do they invite clubs from “smaller” nations such as the Netherlands or Scotland? What is the market for seeing, say, twelfth placed Arsenal play thirteenth placed Bayern Munich on a Tuesday night in February? Would a European Super League invite Russian teams? After all, they are still not perceived as being terrible glamourous in the Western media and the time differences and winter weather conditions in Russia may be problematic, but it would grant a European Super League access to a massive and increasingly affluent television audience.
It’s worth also remembering that the “power” wielded by the European television audiences is likely to decline considerably over the next decade or two, and that any European Super League would be likely to have at least one eye on markets in the USA and the Far East. Any decisions on what form a European Super League would take will be focussing its attention on how to maximise its influence there. The prevailing attitude seems to be that UEFA, with its pesky redistributive policies, will only inhibit the biggest clubs from spending the hundreds of millions of Euros that they seem to believe that they are entitled to spend on players.
One of the most noticeable things to happen in football this summer was actually something that didn’t happen. Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool were all relatively quiet in the transfer market. This is, to a lesser or greater extent at each club, because of restraints that they have imposed themselves. Each of those clubs has its own reasons for their lack of activity in the transfer market but, if what Wenger is saying is correct, they are working to the assumption that they have to seek new revenue streams rather than seeking to change the nature of how they are organised financially or curbing what they spend on wages and transfer fees in the long term.
What we can be certain about when looking at any proposed European Super League is that any breakaway will not come to pass because of the best interests of supporters, and that Arsene Wenger would be barking up the wrong tree if he assumes that his own vision of “sporting merit” will have any significant say in the behaviour of the cartel that moves to seize control. The hopes of some – that they will bugger off to their Super League and leave the rest of us to it – also seems unlikely to happen, because the gap between the elite and the rest seems likely to grow to such an extent that even their reserves could continue to dominate the domestic leagues, and the biggest clubs are unlikely to give up that particular revenue stream either.
It may still be a long way off, but the fight for overall control of European football could be about to begin in earnest, with still all to play for at the moment. With Game 39, the Premier League was forced to back down oover plans that managed to upset just about everybody in the global football community apart from themselves. A European Super League – arguably the biggest money making scheme that the game will ever see – will be more difficult to see off, but this is no reason why it shouldn’t be opposed. Whether our opposition will make the slightest bit of difference, however, is a different matter altogether.