By J Hutcherson (Mar 16, 2021) US Soccer Players – Since what sounds like fairy tales should start with “once upon a time,” why not? Once upon a time, the Belgian and Dutch leagues produced some of the most competitive teams in Europe. That time all but ended when Ajax lost to Juventus as defending champions in the 1996 Champions League final. Belgium didn’t get that far, with Royal Antwerp’s loss in the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup final the last time one of their clubs played for a European trophy.
It wouldn’t be much of a story if it was always like this. In the 70s and 80s, Dutch and Belgian teams were regulars in the late stages of European competitions. It wasn’t just mighty Ajax, either. Feyenoord won the European Cup in 1970. Club Brugge went to the final in 1978, part of a run that had them playing in the UEFA Cup final two years earlier. Anderlecht lifted the UEFA Cup in 1983 and went back to the finals the following season. PSV won the European Cup in 1988, the same season Mechelen won the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Then there’s Ajax, one of the dominant teams of the 70s putting together a three-peat as European Champions from 1971-73, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987 and returning to the final the following season, winning the UEFA Cup in 1992, and winning the Champions League in 1995.
Why the history lesson is important is simple. Both leagues were competing for and winning European trophies from the 70s through the mid-1990s. There was no big five back then. Leagues from smaller countries produced clubs that factored in European competition. That’s become such a rarity that it felt like RB Leipzig and Lyon making last season’s semifinals was a big deal. Ajax getting there the season before was clearly a project, the club choosing to hold onto players for one more season.
It’s that reality that has loomed over the smaller leagues since the economics of top level European soccer changed. Most point to the Bosman ruling and the end of overt club control of contracts. That’s certainly part of it, but the elite clubs were already pushing towards global brand status alongside the increase in broadcast rights and an international approach to sponsorship.
Figuring out how to address that has been an issue for those leagues since they fully realized what it meant to them. There was the Atlantic League plan, linking the Netherlands and Belgium with Scotland, Portugal, Sweden, and Denmark. That stalled out in the early 2000s, but the idea continues to resonate. A merged league across two or more countries might have a better chance of competing.
A quick list of problems. Without special dispensation from FIFA, leagues are supposed to be fully domestic. Major League Soccer is an exception because Canada didn’t have a fully formed topflight when MLS expanded. So are the Welsh teams in England. With the Dutch and the Belgians, we’re talking about two fully operational domestic leagues with long histories. The rumors linking Liga MX and MLS with a merger is in the same category. Once allowed, there shouldn’t be much stopping other leagues from considering the same.
Tuesday’s news that Belgian’s Pro League is pushing forward with the BeNe League concept is interesting, but those hurdles remain. The valuation of the potential rights for a merged Pro League and Eredivisie requires what we’re going to politely refer to as novelty. That changes as soon as other leagues decide to try something similar. It also risks redrawing the map of European domestic leagues in a way that isn’t likely to please some stakeholders.
Let’s assume that UEFA and FIFA decide a joint league for these two countries satisfies a set of specific criteria that makes it a one-off. Point to the shared border, the relative size of countries, and direct competition from Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1. The BeNe League goes ahead, highlighting the top clubs in each country and potentially increasing their UEFA coefficient for more representation in Europe. By 2024, this would be the revamped Europe where UEFA is likely to appease its primary club stakeholders. That means more guaranteed places for the top three or four leagues.
That’s where competitive projects like the BeNe League run into significant issues before they play a game. The Champions League has to be the ultimate goal. Getting there is difficult now and only getting harder. The Eredivisie is up to 7th in the UEFA coefficient. Belgium’s Pro League is 9th. That has both with two Champions League spots, one Europa League, and two in the new Europa Conference League that starts next season. Should the Eredivisie move up a spot, they get an extra Champions League place. Considering where things stand, there’s no reason to think that a BeNe League does much better than where the Eredivisie already is.
It’s that distinction between the leagues in the top five and everywhere else that’s so tough to ignore. The top leagues are fully formed in a way that isn’t happening elsewhere. Though talking about attendance seems ridiculous in the current environment, it’s worth pointing out that only five of the current 18 Eredivisie clubs play in stadiums that hold over 25k. Nine of them are at 15k and under. It’s no surprise that the three biggest clubs in the country play in the three biggest stadiums, a distinction that’s rarely lost on the rest of the league. There’s no sleeping giant hiding in the Eerste Divisie either, a league with no team playing in a venue larger than 20k.
Staying with stadium size as the obvious distinction, only one stadium in the Pro League is over 30k, Standard Liege’s with a listed capacity of 30, 023. Nine of those teams are playing in buildings with listed capacities of less than 15k.
Easy enough for a joint league to set a stadium requirement and leave clubs on the outside looking in. Belgium’s announcement talked about a new national first division, not to be confused with the BeNe League’s mini-breakaway. That will undoubtedly have people writing lengthy pieces on the plight of clubs left out, but it’s worth asking why any club staying in a stadium that holds less than 10k expects to operate in a European topflight. Leaning on competitiveness and the wonders of promotion fail to answer the financial question the BeNe League concept is trying to address. It’s a “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” scenario. Unfortunately for the promoters of a merger, that works in both directions.
There’s no direct line between a merged league and greater relevance except for potential broadcast rights and sponsorship. Competitively, there’s no indication of cross-border rivalries or a new system that would push those clubs higher than where they already are. Sure, more money could mean greater spending alongside the ability to perhaps keep players. There’s also the feeling that staying put means letting Europe’s true elites push leagues and clubs further away from ever contending again.
For the domestically elite in Belgium and the Netherlands, that’s also a push against their histories. That alone is enough of a motivating factor to act. Even if, like so much in European soccer, it feels like something that should’ve happened a long time ago.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- The Deutsche Fussball Liga’s pandemic finances
- Is European club soccer set for this much change?
- Major League Soccer’s next geography lesson
- Fulham experiences Premier League parity
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