By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 21, 2012) US Soccer Players — About a decade ago, I was working on a series on the potential for a European Super League and talking to people who knew enough to have an opinion one way or the other. Most believed the big clubs of Europe would get what they wanted one way or another, either through an actual breakaway league or through pushing UEFA toward the equivalent but keeping it within the existing soccer setup. Obviously, the breakaway didn’t happen, and there’s a good argument that neither did the UEFA scenario.
We’re far enough removed from the changes to the Champions League that there are a few generations of fans that don’t remember when it was a knockout tournament, much less the revamps that got it to its current state. The Champions League has been normal for years, an overlooked but important point when talking about what the big clubs might really want.
The quick answer is guaranteed games, creating an elite and highly lucrative circuit without the need for an actual week-by-week league. But it’s still not a league in any meaningful sense. There’s no season-long guaranteed schedule, a limited safety net for underperforming teams through the Europa League, and the potential for significant impact on the finances of even well-funded teams when the Financial Fair Play rules take hold.
Since Financial Fair Play is a UEFA invention, there’s no downplaying what it means in relation to the Champions League. In a new Europe where revenue counts more than the ability to pay, making the knockout stage of the Champions League could become a requirement for being able to afford to compete domestically and in Europe.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of insight into the inner workings of European club soccer to see why the vision of UEFA for an equitable future and the vision of the elite clubs to remain that way might not be aligned. In fact, if the big clubs are thinking in their own best interests, they should be divergent.
UEFA has spent many months talking about fairness without really acknowledging the multiple levels of competition at work in any professional club sport. Clubs and their owners are supposed to spend, they’re supposed to take risks on and off the field. It’s a sporting agreement to impose limits, but regulating finances in such a way that owners can’t act as benefactors downplays a considerable amount of European soccer history.
That might be fine for UEFA in theory, looking towards their new Europe, but the impact might be considerable. Though some fans don’t want to think of clubs as brands, that perception normally changes when the brand is in trouble and the ramifications are felt on the field and shown in the standings. Some of the most public fan protests in recent years involving at least one of the biggest clubs in the sport has been about where the money is going. The fans want it going to transfer fees to make great teams better. Few, if any, welcome financial responsibility if it means less money for improvement and a likely step backwards. Appeals for better business practices normally happen after things have gone horribly wrong.
Again, none of these are new arguments or insights. However, they take on a new emphasis when the biggest league in Europe is down to their last viable team in the opening round of the Champions League knockout phase. For those laughing along as the Premier League can’t push forward a Champions League contender this season, there’s a message being sent to the other elite leagues in Europe. This could be you, and in some instances you’ve already been there.
What pushed the breakaway Super League to the forefront of so many conversations in the early 2000’s was the obvious. The ambitions, and to a large extent the needs, of the truly elite clubs had very little to do with what was happening with the other clubs in their own domestic leagues. In the big picture sense, what UEFA accomplished with the Champions League was to apply that at European level. High profile finals tend to overshadow the cracks in that model, along with the torrent of money cycling through the competition and how it’s distributed. But more and more that feels like a temporary situation.
For too many, this is being lost as UEFA talks of a new ideal of fairness. Fair and sporting aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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