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A Reactionary Response to a Likewise Football

A Reactionary Response to a Likewise Football From Conference League to Super League

Suggestive Prologue 

Context: TheChampions League (CL) is the greatest inter-club football competition in Europe and the entire world. Organised every year, it includes the best 32 European football club teams: 26 qualified in advance, while six of them have to go through a preliminary round, three qualifying rounds and a play-off round, all played over two legs (except in this “pandemic” year when only the play-off round was played over two legs). Eight groups are formed; each team plays every other team in its group twice (once home and once away). At the end, the first two teams of each group with the highest number of points progress to the knock-out stage, therefore 16 teams. The teams which finish 3rd in their CL groups relegate to the second-tier competition, the Europa League (EL), which works basically in the same way as the CL, except that the team that finishes third in its EL group goes nowhere (at least so far). Then, a draw takes place in Geneva. A kick-out style tournament commences, with double-legged matches until the last act of the competition is reached – the big final.

Teams which play either in CL or EL are selected by the “UEFA coefficient”, a complex system of calculus which analyses teams’ performances over a certain number of years. One would imagine that “Champions” League is a competition reserved for champion teams. In reality, it is a “Coefficient” League. Depending on the coefficient, each country can give four (such as England) to no teams (see Romania and almost all the other non-major countries) directly qualified to Champions League.

What’s in it for the players? Astronomical salaries, incommensurable fame and a place in sports history. What’s in it for the fans? Enormous joy, unforgettable experiences and numerous opportunities to live sentiments and feelings only one of the best football competitions on Earth can create.

Football means competition, duel, passion and challenge. It stirs up fans all around the world and heats up immagination and hope in so many fanatical hearts. Rinus Michels, Ajax Amsterdam and Barcelona legend, exponent of the famous Dutch football school of thought and tactics, used to say that “Football is not played on paper, it’s played on the pitch. This game is not mathematics and in football, two plus two rarely equals four – it’s usually three or five”. Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest managers in the world with a similar story as Michels, once said “Why couldn’t you defeat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal”. And this seems to be true, as each Champions League and Europa League season, “underdog” teams manage to obtain resounding wins against multi-millionaire aristocratic clubs with astronomical budgets. In truth, a “football bag” will never win a match by itself, but it will unite the best world players and bring high performance to teams which invest enormous amounts of money. More often than not, when financial differences between two teams are extremely high, in 9 out of 10 mathces the wealthier team will win. A lot of football fans live for that one unrepeatable match which takes place at least once or twice a year in the European competitions. Now, a dark shade of disbelief floats over these Davids, as the few Golliaths of football can no longer assume such risks as being defeated by “second tier” teams or being eliminated from competitions that award unheard-of financial prizes. 

Separation of (Football) Powers 

“Mister” Cornel Dinu – Romanian football legend and a man of haute culture, once a great defender for Dinamo Bucharest – now an (almost) unreprochable pundit for a well-known sports channel, sitting behind the oval desk in the studio of the television he works for, declares: “Back in my days, one would become a footballer [...] in order to graduate a university, obtain a diploma and secure a decent future for oneself and one’s family. Now we see how footballers earn amounts of money that can undoubtedly secure not only their very own existence, but also that of two, if not three following generations”

“King” Gheorghe Hagi, arguably the best Romanian footballer ever, added: “We must forward a paper to UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) and talk about discrimination (!).The 32 European champions (in the first 32 leagues) have to be in the Champions League groups. They (the wealthy occidental teams) have reached a 300 million euros budget, while we have reached 10 million euros”. UEFA removes football teams from its most prestigious competitions “with a trace of pen”. In other words, UEFA has a total monopoly over its own competitions and the European football, as no inter-club competition can be organised without UEFA’s “blessing”: UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.

“SuperDan” Petrescu, ex-Chelsea right back, raised his voice during a press conference after an important victory against Scottish team Celtic Glasgow: “One thing I cannot understand in any way is why can we not unite and go to UEFA together?” He then proceeded to explain that the Scottish Football Federation ought to join his cause, together with Mr. Hagi and other inhabitants of small nations in the quest for a more equal competition which lives up to its name.

Champions League prize money is distributed as follows: the Winner earns €19 million; Runner-up - €15 million; Semi-finalist - €12 million; Quarter-finalist - €10.5 million; Last 16 - €9.5 million; Group-stage win - €2.7 million; Group-stage draw - €900,000; Qualifying for group stage - €15.25 million (data available for the 2019-20 season). In the most recent pre-pandemic season, CL winners FC Liverpool pocketed a total of 110 million euros. In the most recent season, 2019-2020, winners Bayern Munich earned a similar amount, even though earnings from ticketing were much lower, as restrictions were introduced in order to combat Covid-19 infection rates.

And here comes the principal matter of this paper. Rumors about a European Super League have been confirmed by a shocking informational leak – Football Leaks (the largest leak in the history of sports) announced exactly one year ago that UEFA is considering the creation of a transnational league. In October 2020, ex-Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu confirmed that his former club is considering adhering to the Super League concept, this time seemingly supported not by UEFA, but by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the other big football forum of our planet. Competitors Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are so far the only other clubs which also confimed that they back the creation of this new competition. What does that exactly mean anyway? Don’t we already have UEFA Champions League? Well, things would be quite different in this case. The European Super League would be formed as a futuristic football league in which only the “big bosses” of the European football have access – teams with the largest monetary revenues and greatest financial power and influence. A new championship comprising only such teams which would play one against another each week assures that “the best always plays against the best”, as Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez said years ago. But is this true? As there will be no possibility of relegation due to eventual poor results in such a championship, the only relegation would be an (impossible in such a context) bankruptcy of any of these “mega-teams”. The criteria of selection are purely financial, solely materialistic and exclusively “pragmatic”, as some of the supporters of this concept would reply. It is also highly possible that these teams will play their matches all over the world, from Lisbon to Jakarta, from New Dehli to New York, possibly everywhere except where no significant money can be earned by ticketing, marketing and commercial activities.

Rumors have it that not four, but six English teams have already applied for a spot in this super-championship: Liverpool, Manchster City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. All are owned by billionaires and financial conglomerates. That would mean that England wants a third of the championship for itself!

Paris Saint-Germain from France, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus from Italy, Bayern Munich and Borrusia Dortmund from Germany, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona from Spain have a reserved place in the competition. In total, 15 teams. Three empty spots. Time will tell us what other billionaire-teams will occupy them. 

“The Americanization of Our Sport” 

In American football, referees can rewatch a disputed sequence of the match once again on a separate screen and judge it accordingly. Football federations all over the world followed this example and the VAR (Video Assistance Referee) has been intrduced. Moreover, in the United States, each wealthy individual can create his own sports league. Separate sports leagues can exist as well, in parallel with other leagues of the same sport. Let us remember the USFL (United States Football League) – none other than President Trump was once the proud owner of an American football team, the New Jersey Generals, in this short-lived league. Nowadays, chairman and CEO of WWE Vince McMahon owns XFL, a soccer league which runs in parallel with Major League Soccer (MLS). There are no restrictions and barriers stopping players to tranfer to franchises belonging to different leagues.

On the other hand, in Europe, UEFA has monopolised the football scene ever since its establishment in 1954. No other additional international league will probably ever compete with the UEFA competitions. In fact, when the 2020 leaks about FIFA looking to create a “European Premier League” were revealed, UEFA vice-president Fernando Gomes called for teams all over the world to reject such an “exacerbation of selfishness and greed[...] at a time of global uncertainty”. What about the after-period? Hopefully, Covid-19 will disappear one day, and the Super League can benefit from a “morally” different evaluation on behalf of football fans, many of them probably unhappy to learn that UEFA is posturing while almost everyone on earth, from individuals to small businesses and larger organisations, suffers the disastrous effects of this pandemic and the enacted restrictions that followed it. So now, it is UEFA that accuses FIFA of greed, while the former was the first one to come up with the idea of a Super League back in the 1990s.

Let us get real now: this time UEFA/FIFA proposes something seemingly different – a league for the financial elites. Huge markets and fanbases around the world would lead up to an indestructible financial plan. Fans are perceived as customers first, and only then as supporters. If, say, you are a FC Barcelona fan, you might not even see your favorite team play a single European match at their magnificent stadium in Barcelona, Camp Nou, as they would need to travel the world in their quest for profits and money. Another example: Manchester United alone has over 190 million fans in East Asian countries waiting for them. One could imagine what will happen if Manchester United fills an entire stadium in places like India, Indonesia or China. On Weibo, one of the most popular social media in China, the English team has the most followers of all the other big clubs: 9.3 million. Each year, the “Red Devils” sell around 1.75 million jerseys all over the world, and not a few end up all the way to the aforementioned countries.

Here are a few more facts that demonstrate how much of a financial game football has become. When Cristiano Ronaldo was transfered to Juventus for a reported fee of £105 million, the Italian club pocketed £46 million worth of his jerseys in just 24 hours, thus aproximately 44% of the transfer fee on the Portuguese superstar. Moreover, since “Ronaldo-fever” gripped Juventus, the club’s share price has doubled from €0.69 ($0.81) on July 3rd, when credible transfer rumours were first reported across Europe, to €1.57 ($1.84) at the time of writing — that is an increase of 127%, which has raised the club’s market capitalisation to €1.5 billion ($1.75 billion).

Football has gone crazy, and most of its fans know it, especially since Neymar Jr. was transfered to Qatari Government-sponsored French giant Paris Saint-Germain for 222 million euros. It was “the transfer that changed everything”, as prices for the best players have in some cases doubled. No earlier than 18 years ago, Ballon d’Or, World Cup and Champions League winner Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima was transfered from Internazionale Milano to Real Madrid for “only” €45 million, five times less than what PSG paid for the Brasilian “magician” in 2017. Five Ronaldos for one Neymar!

All these facts add up to the conclusion that a European Super League is at least... extremely tempting. One just has to look at the numbers. And ticketing is “a big deal” as well. According to the UEFA annual Club Licensing Benchmarking Report(1), total matchday revenues in 2018 were the following: £35-40m for AC Milan, Olympique Lyonnais, West Ham United, Eintracht Frankfurt, Celtic Glasgow, AS Roma, Borrusia Dortmund, Athletic Bilbao; £49-70m for Atletico Madrid, Juventus Turin, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur (with their $1bn Stadium); £77-100m for FC Liverpool, PSG, Manchester United, Arsenal; £100+m for Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona. Needless to say that most of these teams would have earned even more in 2020, had it not been for the pandemic. Juventus and most Serie A teams have increased their ticket prices 30% ever since Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Turin in the summer of 2018. Of all these teams, West Ham, Celtic, Eintracht Frankfurt, Athletic Bilbao and possibly Roma would not be included in the Super League, as they do not have the “glamour” and influence that the other teams possess. 

What about “us”? 

What about us, football fans all around Europe who are not lucky enough to have fallen in love with any of the “top 16/18 teams” or at least any team from the “top 5” leagues (Ligue 1 in France, Serie A in Italy, La Liga in Spain, Bundesliga in Germany and Premier League in England)? Well, in the next year of 2021, a brand new third-tier competiton will be created exclusively for our needs and desires – the UEFA Conference League, a sort of “grandson” of the long-ago defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup. The concept is once again similar to the other UEFA competitions: knock-out stages, group stages and so on. As the future Super League is reserved for the few, provided it will be created, Europa League would also be out of the question for national championships which do not hold the first 15 positions in the coefficient table. Briefly, it is one big “Get lost, guys” (to put it softly) for “guys” like Dinu, Hagi or Petrescu, or for football leagues like the Romanian, Irish, Swedish, Polish, Bulgarian and many others. Little does it matter that Croatia is the world’s vice-champion in football or that Romania or Hungary have a prestigious history at the same sport. Not much else matters other than how the highest amounts of money can be “extracted” from wherever possible. Furthermore, financial prizes in the new UEFA Conference League will be significantly lower than in the Europa or Champions League, contradicting UEFA’s statements that the new UECL is meant “to help smaller nations play in European competitions [...] and develop”.

Out of the 40 nations whose dream to play in superior European football competitions will be forbidden almost entirely, only nine are occidental nations, while 27 are from the Wastern half of Europe (“lilliputian” countries like Andorra and Liechtenstein not included). Once again the differences between countries behind and outside the Iron Curtain increase. “The rich of this world eat caviar and drink champagne, while we scratch through the garbage!”, as one Romanian sports journalist remarked commenting on the present subject. 

“Proletarian sufferings” 

Petrescu’s proposal is not lucrative, nor is any other kind of “union” of these “unthankful” participants in UEFA competitions, since they cannot create their own football competition for obvious reasons: firstly, that financing would be hard to receive (banking giant JP Morgan is expected to finance the future Super League with $6bn) and, secondly, that it is impossible – plain and simple – as UEFA has monopolized all official football competitions in Europe. At the end of the day, we will probably have to settle for UEFA’s terms and conditions without having any say in this. Hopefully, the UEFA Champions League will not be replaced by a Super League for the rich, as that would leave the smaller nations with only the Europa League as the highest possible level their clubs could play in. Although seemingly dreamy, two separate independent competitions, one in the East and one in the West, ought to be at least a possible solution in the long term. Dissatisfaction with FIFA and especially UEFA conditions is on the rise, and it will hopefully keep rising, until we “the less fortunate” wise up and demand nothing else than (financial) alternatives that would situate us on par with the conditions available before this unwelcome transformation. Champions and Europa League closing their door to more and more small countries and clubs is acceptable as long as financial incentives do not go down for such countries and clubs. Why? Because the surplus of money once given to these clubs will be distributed to the “elite” clubs, while differences were already getting bigger and bigger. Not many people necessarily share Hagi’s or Petrecu’s opinions, which can arguably be deemed as “unrealistic”, and without asking for undeserved spots in the group stages of one of the most beautiful competitions on Earth, this paper speaks for those football fans and underdog nations who ask at least for the same number of chances as before, provided the Super League is created and provided that the UEFA Conference League is already a reality.

There is also an “ideological” approach to this matter, as attitudes similar to those presented in the previous pages will extend to areas which do not necesarily concern football. The fight against “Uefamafia” will be doubled by unfriendly calls for revolt against “the financial elites”, “(capitalist) greed”, globalism, Americanization and other terms which divide the world into a binary antagonistic paradigm. Various UEFA and FIFA corruption scandals, football teams financed by “petrodollars” and foreign goverments from the Middle East, the rich clubs not respecting the financial fairplay rule, anti-poverty campaigns, naive calls for “equality”, “justice” and, as one of the UEFA Champions League sponsors has it, “responsible socialisation”, induce a state of nervousness and even irascibility in a lot of football fans. But the truth is that these fans are citizens of “irrelevant” nations on the football scene, therefore in no way being able of turning any of these “menaces” into a reality that would interfere with FIFA’s/UEFA’s plans.

Professional sports and especially football are seductive, mesmerizing and populated by God-like figures in front of whom a lot of fans bow to the ground. In a stressful “métro, boulot, dodo” modern civilisation which has depression as its most common illness, football is desired to be high-quality entertainment and, if it is ever “socialised” by football giants with junior players’ academies all over our planet, the reason for it consists in feeding the ever-growing businesses the giants signify. The unconquerable cliff on which modern sport is situated does not reach for social achievements, particularly for creating healthy and athletic nations, unless possibly by means of “social corporate events” pressured with cries for social justice and, as seen before, equality and equity which are less and less to be seen within sports. The longing for fashionable progressive values is “every now and then” overcome by a greater lust, that of gain and fame... now also within “the beautiful game”.

Football passion acts as a temperamental buffer against the inescapable civil unrest taking place within an open democratic society in which different views have to compromise until an agreement is reached on what is best for the people of a nation. Football, as in the economy, is a mirror of the performance that characterizes one people or another, regardless of diversity or homogeneity. For the big crowds, international competitions are unique opportunities to express their (civic) nationalism and passionate patriotism, and for others great occasions to turn on marketing machinations and financial systems such as the possible Super League – the billionaire’s banquet – and the already certain Conference League, where the scraps from the table of the rich will compete.

So if not religion anymore, what is the “opium of the (Western) peoples”? Maybe more football watching and less football playing, and maybe less in-the-street football and more sports arenas and entertainment channels competing for our leisure time. In any case, not long ago, sport was the only disinterested human activity done for its sake and nothing else, for a sense of might of character and strength of body, most of the times without someone witnessing one’s athletic performance and daily work. And it still is this way, with all the “gym workout” phenomena, during this novel epoch under the sign of modern sensuality, “sex-symbolism”, arousal of stimuli and darwinistic desire for ascension up the social ladder; if anything, let us not be this “severe” and remember that circumstantial necessity (de-tensioning of the nerves and muscles after a busy and stressful workday) plays a role in this in the same measure. If a Super League is created, football fans are going to watch it, face the facts, embrace the wave and accept the reality. A Super League is for super players and megastars, and, last, but not least, for some of the most dedicated football fans in the world. At the same time, it represents an amazing business opportunity whose time will probably come.

This “little manifesto” draws the following conclusion: the creation of a Europen Super League is not desirable, especially as long as there is a monopoly on European football competitions and no financial alternatives are offered! 

References 

(1)See the 2020 UEFA annual Club Licensing Benchmarking Report here

Chirea, G. (2020). “OPINIE | Gabriel Chirea, despre marile schimbari din fotbalul european: « Bogatii au caviar si beau sampanie. Noi cautam prin tomberon »“, (online) sport.ro. Available at: https://www.sport.ro/opinii/opinie-gabriel-chirea-despre-marile-schimbari-din-fotbalul-european-bogatii-macanca-caviar-si-beau-sampanie.html

Telekom Sport Romania, “Minutul 91. Transferurile lui Dinamo, analizate de Cornel Dinu: El e unul dintre cei mai buni”, youtube.com, Telekom Sport, Oct. 6, 2020, (Online). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFkoxACA1Q8

Popa, E. N. (2019). “Gică Hagi acuză UEFA de discriminare: « Ne-au eliminat din pix! Ne trimit în liga a 5-a pe hârtie! »”, (online) fanatik.com. Available at: https://www.fanatik.ro/gica-hagi-uefa-discriminare-18901475

Goal. (2020). “How much money do the Champions League 2019-20 winners get?”, (online) goal.com. Available at: https://www.goal.com/en-us/news/how-much-money-champions-league-2019-20-winners-get/1b78sfes1al5k1cxve9ld1wp48

Díaz, J. F. (2020). “El proyecto de Superliga europea que desveló Bartomeu en 11 respuestas”, (online), marca.com. Available at: https://www.marca.com/futbol/primera-division/2020/10/28/5f995525e2704eb97f8b45fd.html

European Football. (2020). “European Super League 'exacerbation of selfishness and greed' - Uefa vice-president”, (online) bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/54719633

Dawson, A. (2020). “Shares in Juventus FC have doubled since it bought Cristiano Ronaldo, and it's probably only the beginning”, (online) businessinsider.com. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/juventus-fc-stock-has-doubled-in-the-cristiano-ronaldo-era-and-its-probably-only-the-beginning-2018-9

Glendenning, B. (2020). “Uefa’s Europa Conference League likely only to keep big fish happy”, (online) theguardian.com. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/sep/25/uefa-europa-conference-league-big-fish-happy

 

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016