Many object to Sepp Blatter’s plan to cut the number of teams in Europe’s top divisions to 16, but Roger Titford is keen to examine the full horror of what the plan would entail

Last month FIFA president Sepp Blatter had another go at flying one of his favourite kites – reducing all Europe’s top divisions to 16 clubs each. Even Arsenal, usually so protective of how many games their delicate flowers have to play, spoke out against the idea. So universal is the condemnation that few have paused to consider in detail what a 16-club top division would mean. In England (and also Spain) it would mean a lot less top division football – 240 games in total instead of 380; that’s a 37 per cent reduction. As recently as 1994-95 the Premiership offered 462 fixtures. Reducing the number of clubs makes the league competition both much smaller and more occasional – more gaps for international weeks and quite possibly a mid-winter break too.

At the same time as the num­ber of fixtures goes down there is pressure towards show­ing a greater number of matches live on television. The pre­sent TV deal means over a quar­­ter of games are cov­ered live and there­fore not kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday. The new deal, from next season, raises the live-on-TV proportion to over a third of Premiership games. If a reduction to 16 clubs came in during the life of that contract, the proportion of live-on-TV matches would rise to well over half. While midweek matches would probably be among the first to disappear, the chances of more than four matches kicking off at 3pm on Saturday would be very slight indeed. An alternative future option could be an all-televised Premiership fixture card kicking off on a Sunday afternoon.

English fans want, almost crave, an ordered routine of football: home and away alternate Saturdays is the not-yet-forgotten “gold standard”. One of the great marketing successes of “new football” has been the far greater take-up of season tickets. Back in 1989 even Manchester United and Arsenal sold only 10,000. Being a season-ticket holder binds fans into coming to games that kick-off at awkward times (and also liberates them from attending cup matches that are not on their season ticket). But if your season ticket only covers 15 home league matches, few of which take place on a Saturday afternoon and many of which are also covered live on TV at awkward times, is it such a good buy? And will the price come down pro rata, by more than 20 per cent? There will come a point for some people when football becomes an unpredictably occasional and expensive event rather than part of a routine to enjoy for the greater part of the year.

Players are customarily portrayed as the principal victims of “too many games”. But there is a strong correlation between the number of games played and the more successful clubs with the bigger squads to cope (see table opposite). No longer do we see the absurdity of Ipswich playing 66 games and almost winning three trophies in 1980-81 with a squad of, essentially, 13 players. Players hate having to play twice a week, week in week out, or twice in three days. Three times a fortnight seems manageable and two-week gaps are disliked. Players want to play regularly – a season that could last 30-odd games with early cup exits simply is not very much football for players or fans alike.

The effect on clubs would be massive. For a start, four clubs would be thrown off the Premiership gravy train and into the Football League. There would be a knock-on effect through the divisions to accommodate them, as the three other divisions have 24 clubs each (there used to be a regulation some­where that stated no division anywhere in English football could have more than 24 clubs). Four would be dump­ed into the non-League arena, where again the ripple effects would continue on down­wards.

Meanwhile, back at the top, the idea of three up, three down with a 16-club Premiership could be rather too frightening and therefore two up, two down might be likely to come back, making Division One a more difficult place to escape. If 16-club top divisions happened today, fixtures such as the north London, Manchester and Merseyside derbies could all be lost and there would be similar effects in the other major European leagues.

Reducing the number of domestic games is not an end in itself; it is Blatter’s way of opening up the calendar for more “suitable” matches. For the 1974 World Cup England’s qualifying group op­ponents consisted of just Wales and Poland. For the 2006 tournament there will also be Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and Austria. Instead of six matches the group will take 30 to settle; matches which all need dates. In other groups there are Andorra v Armenia and Liechtenstein v Luxembourg – some time in the Blatter vision of the future, will this meaningless kind of match replace, say, Arsenal v Tottenham and Everton v Liverpool?

There are quite contradictory messages being offered. Why in the European qualifying competitions are all countries from Italy to San Marino treated on an equal footing in terms of status? In most other international conferences, the weaker nations go through pre-qualifying stages. By the same logic surely the Champions League should be equally open to the champions of all European nations? One suspects that votes within FIFA influence the international scene while TV money and the absence of votes determine the Champions League.

Not all new ideas from FIFA HQ actually happen – the game of four quarters has thankfully disappeared from recent view. The world presently seems dead-set against 16-club top divisions. Indeed, Italy, following France’s recent example, is expanding to 20 teams from 2004-05. Blatter himself has back-pedalled slightly, by suggesting a 45 domestic-game maximum, in which case our League Cup is a more likely victim than a couple of Premier League clubs. However, there is surely a greater case for looking at the unwieldy structure of European football which, after all, is the new element disturbing a previously quite satisfactory football calendar.

From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month

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