If there is one old adage that football has chosen to ignore above all others, then that which states that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ must be amongst the contenders for pole position. Barely a year goes by without something being rebadged or rebranded, as if applying a tenth new coat of polish to our clubs and competitions will definitely this time lead to a hitherto elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Michel Platini hasn’t been entirely bad as the president of UEFA – occasionally misguided, perhaps but nowhere near approaching what we might describe as Blatteresque levels of appallingness – this mornings announcement that European club football needs to be rethought is a potential minefield of disaster for UEFA which should be negotiated with the utmost care.
It is possible to view this latest proposal for tinkering through a prism of outside forces being quietly at work in the background. When the G14 cartel of big clubs was jettisoned in favour of the European Club Association, the more innocent amongst us might have thought that a new era of co-operation between clubs and the regulators might be about to dawn. As time has worn on, however, an alternate possibility in which the hydra that was G14 was decapitated only for innumerate self-interested heads to appear in its place has come to feel considerably more likely. It hardly seems improbable that hissed threats containing the word that UEFA dreads more than any other, ‘breakaway’, have become louder and louder in recent months and years, and those who dismiss this as a conspiracy theory should probably bear in mind the tendency in recent years for the television companies and the biggest clubs to get exactly what they want. It happened two decades ago with the reinvention of the European Cup as the Champions League and it happened again with the ill-fated decision to introduce a second group stage, which was only put back in its box after it flopped at the level which really counts above all others – that of television ratings.
Where does this, however, leave those whose best interests usually seem to be something approaching invisible when this topic comes up, namely, supporters? There is no scientific way of measuring what we want, but it has long felt as if there is a fundamental intransigence between the best interests of television companies and, by proxy, the biggest club and those of supporters. Television companies want ratings and advertising revenues. This means more matches and less chance of big clubs getting accidentally getting knocked out early on. Supporters, if given the choice, want the spectacle of the one-off drama, and this best served by knockout football, which means by definition fewer matches and the current format of mini-groups followed by a knock-out competition often feels like a compromise between these two ends of the spectrum. Television companies are guaranteed a block of matches throughout the autumn, clubs get guaranteed gate receipts from three matches if they reach group stages and supporters get relatively few completely meaningless matches. It’s a format that isn’t completely without merit.
It is understood that the Champions League, which has become a goose that lays annual golden eggs for UEFA, isn’t particularly the issue for the confederation. The issue is the Europa League. This isn’t surprising. A desire to maximise Champions League revenues means that Champions League rounds are spread around over Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, whilst the Europa League passes by on Thursday nights, an evening that is unpopular with both clubs and supporters. Having spent years sacrificing the viability of the Europa League at the altar of the Champions League means that the former is now considered an also-ran in comparison with the former. Michel Platini may have heard the “Thursday night, Channel Five” song being sung at Premier League venues. He may not have stopped to consider that his organisation is as responsible as anyone else for the development of this opinion. Shunted away on an otherwise unwanted night of the week, used as a consolation competition for those not good enough to get through the group stages of the Champions League, worth a pittance in prize and television money and stretched out like a marathon over the course of the season, it’s small wonder that it is somewhat unloved, something which a rebranding from its previous name of the UEFA Cup may even have exacerbated rather than addressing in the manner in which it was intended to.
The problem with European club football, just as it is in domestic football in the Premier League, is competition, or a lack thereof. Capitalism makes much noise about a love of “competition”, but the truth of the matter is that increased naked capitalism loves nothing more than to destroy competition. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer or, if they are lucky, stay exactly where they are. The likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona have become financial juggernauts off the back of having embraced a free market model which would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. In Spain, the concept of anybody other than the Barcelona or Real Madrid winning La Liga is now inconceivable in what was once one of Europes most competitive leagues. In England, meanwhile, Manchester United have been at the top for two decades and will probably now remain there in perpetuity, whilst the only way to get near to challenging them is to win a round of benefactor bingo and come across an owner who can afford to throw half a billion pounds into a football club with no great expectation of turning a profit. And not only might those days be coming to an end thanks to UEFAs Financial Fair Play regulations, but for even those that have spent so lavishly, as Manchester City and Chelsea have found to their cost this season, success on a consistent basis against the landed gentry of European football can remain elusive.
And with the greater polarisation of resources comes a greater polarisation of interest. A global television audience, for better or for worse, doesn’t want more Maribor vs Genk or more Sparta Prague vs Grasshoppers. It wants more Barcelona vs Chelsea or more Internazionale vs Manchester United. Places in the Champions League for the finalists of the Europa League may provide more interest in that competition for those with a chance of reaching the final, but it feels unlikely that they would be the panacea that some believe that they would be. Ultimately, more European football means, using a modern definition, more “meaningless” matches unless a straight knockout competition becomes the answer to these questions. It seems unlikely that television companies or the most powerful clubs are going to vote in favour of anything that could theoretically see the biggest clubs eliminated before summer has even turned to autumn, and it is ultimately here that the power lays as far as any substantial reorganisation of European club football is concerned.
Platini has told the French newspaper Ouest-France that “Nothing is decided yet.” Everything is still up for grabs and it will be interesting to see whether supporters groups can arrive at any sort of consensus over what they want and can then seek to influence whatever grand scheme UEFA concocts. We are are not especially optimistic that this will happen, though. Self-interest tends to rule everybodys hearts when it comes to this sort of debate, and it’s not unreasonable to argue that the horse bolted through the stable door leading to a more level playing field in European club football many years ago. It s difficult to see how UEFA can do the one thing that will increase competitive balance – a more equitable distribution of income between clubs – without infuriating considerably more people than they could ever make happy. Unless that particular circle can be squared, business will, in a broad sense, most likely very much as it has done for many years in European football. UEFA has an opportunity to construct a new vision for European club football in the twenty-first century. Whether this opportunity will be grasped rather than fumbled into the path of the biggest and strongest yet again, however, is not something that we could predict with any confidence based on the experience of the last few years.
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