When the plans for a European super league were first presented in the German media, reactions were as vague as the proposals themselves. Most Bundesliga club officials grieved over the loss of morality in sport in a rather populist manner, knowing that the vast majority of German teams would be excluded from the feeding troughs of the ESL and may have their very existence threatened. But even for those who will be involved in it, the new era may bring about just as many problems as advantages.
In fact, only two Bundesliga clubs, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, have the resources and ambition to be part of the new league. Others who would love to be included, like Stuttgart or Bayer Leverkusen, don’t dare say it out loud because they know they would be rejected, whereas most other clubs are simply not equipped for an undertaking of this kind. German clubs are still run rather amateurishly, with many big decisions taken at the annual meeting of their members, and the board consisting mainly of honorary officials. To the respectable architects, doctors and brewers who are in charge of most Bundesliga clubs, this super league stuff is all a bit too audacious.
Bayern and Dortmund, on the other hand, are run by business and marketing specialists. They have by far the largest turnover in the German league and view themselves as “global players in a worldwide enter-tainment industry” as Dortmund’s financial manager, Michael Meier, puts it. To him, the club “has a leading role in the Bundes-liga that is unrelated to our position in the league table”.
The league table is indeed a nuisance to the likes of Michael Meier. Last season, Dortmund finished tenth and failed to qualify for Europe. Bayern’s team of superstars came second, behind newly promoted Kaiserslautern. To both clubs, the ESL represents a welcome opportunity to rule out the uncertainties of the game, especially now that executives at both clubs intend to transform them into limited companies. According to Meier, a steady flow of cash is vital for a club that has taken on long-term liabilities like players’ contracts and mortgages for ground modernization. Meier, you see, is an accountant by trade.
So far, the prosperity of Bayern and Dortmund has been viewed with a mixture of envy and admiration by the rest of the Bundesliga but, with the ESL in sight, the predominant sentiment is now fear. It is not the rich clubs’ domination of the national league that worries the remaining 16 so much, given Kaiserslautern’s success and Dortmund’s failure last season, it is the feeling that in the long term the Bundesliga may become simply a second division beneath the ESL.
A decline in the reputation of the national league could prove disastrous for middle-ranking teams. Most German clubs struggle financially and depend heavily on TV money. The current TV contract, which provides between a quarter and a third of each club’s annual budget and grants less prominent teams nearly the same amount as the elite few, will expire in 2002.
It is doubtful whether the same profitable conditions will exist again. With the ESL established, the TV market will be dominated by European matches, club-owned stations and pay-per-view. Expanded TV coverage of football, moreover, would bring down advertising rates. Average Bundesliga matches would lose their appeal and less money would trickle down to the smaller clubs.
The DFB, Germany’s FA, has exclusive control over Bundesliga TV rights and still has a say in the distribution of money from European club matches (a monopoly the European Broadcasting Union is far from happy about). Although the DFB’s influence has been gradually getting weaker, it is the only institution able to look after the clubs at all levels of the game. It will probably call on the big clubs to continue to subsidize the rest but, no matter how hard it tries, the majority of Bundesliga teams are facing hard times should the ESL be introduced as planned.
Bayern and Dortmund, however, will be confronted with a different kind of problem if the ESL progresses further. Bayern’s and, to a lesser extent, Dortmund’s huge national fan bases were recruited as a direct result of the clubs’ success in the German league. They draw massive crowds everywhere and their home matches in the Bundesliga are permanently sold out. However, last season Bayern’s Champions League games against Paris St Germain, Besiktas and Gothenburg were played in a half-empty Olympic Stadium.
Obviously the club’s general manager Uli Hoeness is “very interested in a strong Bundesliga”, knowing that despite their European ambitions, the top teams need the national competitions to maintain their popularity. Bayern and Dortmund would like to see the ESL prosper without the Bundesliga suffering, which is a contradiction in terms.
“When we play Juventus, people are going to watch. It’s as simple as that,” says Michael Meier, the accountant from Dortmund. Perhaps. But then again, if they no longer play against Rostock, Bochum and Freiburg as well, perhaps not. Karsten Blass
In Italy, popular attitudes towards the European super league differ greatly from those in Britain and elsewhere. Most Italians, at heart, follow very few clubs – in fact , it has been calculated that two thirds of all fans “support” either Juventus, Milan, Internazionale or Napoli (even though they are now in Serie B).
This was backed up by the announcement, at the end of August, that the big four have sold the rights of their home games from 1999 to 2005 to TELE+, the Italian subsidiary of France’s pay TV station, Canal+. The other 34 clubs in the top two divisions, including such giants as Roma and Lazio, have been left out in the cold. The big clubs, who could afford to put out second string sides comprised almost entirely of international players, are so far ahead of the rest these days that many supporters of smaller clubs seem much happier to have their favourites playing well in Serie B rather than suffering a one-season humiliation in the top division. The lesser teams don’t always lose to Juve and Co but they almost never win. Likewise, the national cup is seeded from the early rounds so that there is no chance of a Juve-Milan clash until the latter stages.
Some people, no doubt, think such a clearly defined hierarchy is unhealthy, but you almost never get to see such views in print. Italian newspapers are very regional and reflect the view of their local readership. In sporting terms, this means that the Gazetta dello Sport is aimed at the supporters of Milan and Inter while Tuttosport of Turin does the same for Juventus. Other daily newspapers, such as Il Giornale in Milan and La Stampa of Turin are owned respectively by Silvio Berlusconi and Juventus’ patrons, the Agnelli family, and so are highly unlikely to provide unbiased coverage of the super league debate.
There is little culture of protest here, no Italian equivalent of Charlton’s Back to the Valley campaign. Several mergers of long-established clubs have gone through without a squeak in recent times. Most fans regard the arrival of a European league as only a matter of time. The signs are they will shrug and accept it. Richard Mason
Nowhere is the European super league’s preference for wealth and influence over sporting merit more obvious than in the inclusion of Paris St Germain and Marseille among the 16 clubs invited to become founding members. While these are two rich and famous clubs, they are by no means the best in France – or at least they have not proved themselves to be the best by winning the French championship in recent years. This, however, seems to be incidental in the philosophy behind the super league.
In the language of Media Partners boss Rodolfo Hecht, Marseille and PSG are underexploited assets, excluded from top European competition by the obligation to qualify from their domestic league. They are two of the richest clubs in France, along with Monaco, they have the highest number of supporters – and they just happen to be run by some of the most influential businessmen in Europe’s football economy.
But the truth is they simply are not good enough to win the French league. The super league wants to ignore the fact that Marseille finished fourth and PSG eighth last season – and it certainly wants to ignore clubs like RC Lens, the upstarts who are current French champions and therefore – by the quaint measure of sporting achievement –France’s best club team.
PSG are refusing all comment on the super league, denying having even participated in the various meetings. It would be nice to think they are simply embarrassed by the idea that they could leapfrog into the European Cup, despite having only won the championship twice since its inception in the Thirties (1985-86 and 1993-94). It is more likely, however, that the silence is due to the fact that PSG’s owners, the media group Canal+, are in direct competition with the TV companies suspected to be behind the super league.
Canal+ has pay TV stations in France and Spain and owns the TV rights for league matches in both countries, as well as the exclusive rights to broadcast league matches involving the big four Italian clubs. Canal+ risks losing out financially if a private European league ran by Silvio Berlusconi or Rupert Murdoch ever sees the light of day.
Marseille dominated French football and won the European Cup during Bernard Tapie’s reign as president from 1987 to 1993. But in retrospect they were hardly glory years: condemnations for match-rigging and financial irregularities saw the club stripped of their European Cup title and the 1992-93 French championship. More punishment followed in the form of automatic relegation to the Second Division for two successive seasons, and Marseille found itself on the brink of bankruptcy before a consortium, led by Adidas France’s president Robert Louis-Dreyfus, stepped in to save it.
Louis-Dreyfus’s personal contribution of F280 million (£28 million) – and a kit deal from Adidas – helped propel Marseille back into the top division in 1995, and winning a place in this season’s UEFA Cup was a considerable achievement. Yet Dreyfus has no qualms about Marseille jumping straight into an elite league of European football clubs. In an interview with the Sunday paper Journal de Dimanche, he underlined his support for the super league while hinting that it was merely being used to put the frighteners on UEFA: “UEFA has two options: adapt to modern times, or see the super league take over,” he said. “Watch Out! There is no football without us, no business without us.”
By “us”, the Marseille president does not mean championship-winning teams across Europe, but the other top clubs in which Adidas has a major influence: Bayern Munich, Milan, Real Madrid and Benfica. None of these teams actually won their domestic league last season, and as RC Lens president Gervais Martel puts it: “The only truth is out there on the pitch and the big clubs seem to be frightened by this idea.”
In short, it is a group of little rich boys who, if you don’t let them win, will go home with the ball. Neil McCarthy
From WSC 140 October 1998. What was happening this month