With Euro 2004 and the G-14 slumping in the Champions League, it's time to send European football for a medical. To assess the game in their own countries and across the continent, Andy Lyons talked to Spanish journalist Guillem Balagué, Holland's Ernst Bouwes and France's Xavier Rivoire
This season’s Champions League last four contains only one G-14 club, Porto. Would they still consider a league of their own if their members were to fail regularly?
GB The new format is a compromise. It protects the big clubs, gives them second chances, while keeping the number of matches down. But the G-14 are not united. Real Madrid want to take one direction, Man Utd and Bayern want to do something slightly different. There is a new middle class coming in – Lyon, Valencia – who may decide differently. Bayern also wanted to stop Depor getting in to the G-14 because they fell out over the transfer of Roy Makaay. The Depor president, Augusto César Lendoiro, was one of the first to say clubs should be paid when players go on international duty. He will try to make it an enclosed league – and that sort of thing has been stalled.
XR UEFA aren’t united, either, in what they want from the Champions League. You have some people who support what Michel Platini has said about wanting to go back to the pure European Cup format, others who still want two group stages as we had until this season, so it’s not one voice internally.
EB I can’t see why UEFA would go along with it. The chairman of Feyenoord has also said they want money when players are away with the Holland team, but financially this would ruin the Dutch federation. If he blocks them from going, then who would want to play for Feyenoord? If the G-14 continues to expand as it has been doing and there are 30 of them in the future, some would have to play in a second division, which would destroy the whole point. The PSV chairman, Harry van Raaij, has also tried to get support for a league with the few top teams from Holland, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries, but he was never able to explain how teams from that league would qualify for Europe, or whether they would all expect to play in Europe automatically.
GB What is clear is that we are in transition. Changing the format every year doesn’t help the prestige of the competition.
XR But changing the format hasn’t harmed it. The TV audience is better than last season, which was up on the year before.
GB The big clubs have to make sure they are in the quarter-finals every year. Now if others get into the G-14 let’s see what happens. Teams that aren’t guaranteed to get through to the knockout round may fight for a return to the second group stage.
So it’s a vicious circle: clubs are spending to get into the Champions League then saying they must be in it each year because they have spent so much.
GB I think the first change is going to be not so much to the Champions League – everyone seems more or less happy with it – but to the domestic leagues, which will continue to suffer. In Spain nobody says it’s a brilliant season when they’ve only won the league, no one is working really hard to make sure the domestic league keeps what it still has. What I think this means is that the leagues will be cutting clubs, down to 18 or 16.
EB In Holland there is a vicious circle because most TV income goes to the top three. The rest have less money with which to get good players so it perpetuates the gap. It also influences the Dutch league’s representation in Europe: the lesser teams tend to go out of Europe earlier, lowering the Dutch league’s coefficient, so fewer teams get to play. My team, NEC Nijmegen, were in the UEFA Cup but lost in the first round. Maybe if they got more money from TV they could have better players... So they’re biting their own tail. Then again, no other club would be able to propel themselves into the elite in Holland because no one has enough support to fill a 30,000-capacity stadium.
So is public interest in domestic leagues being damaged by the Champions League ?
EB When Ajax draw at home with a lesser team, people say it’s a Mickey Mouse league, but then if the three are way ahead of the rest it’s also a Mickey Mouse league. But spectator interest in the league is quite healthy. A bit like in England, there has been a general upsurge in interest since the early Nineties.
XR I saw Christophe Bouchet, the Marseille chairman, and they had just been kicked out of the Champions League, though they have since had a good run in the UEFA Cup. I asked him about Lyon, and he said no one cares about them, they could win the French league ten times and no one outside France would take them seriously until they won the Champions League. Marseille see themselves as a super brand, like Man Utd except with the difference that when you go there, instead of the superstore they have this little boutique selling postcards from the Seventies and old scarves. Even though they portray themselves as a big actor in terms of merchandise, they haven’t learned anything.
GB Chelsea can sign the marketing guy from Man Utd, but you can’t sign the buyers: the fans. It’s one of the leads that has to be followed by Real Madrid. To do that you have to create an artificial interest, not from the domestic league but from the prestige gained by international competition.
XR United are powerful, but are always playing on their reputation. If you look at the way United are run, they have gone through a lot of turbulence with changes behind the scenes. Bouchet said he was impressed by Porto, even Red Star Belgrade: they know they are minor players but have a clear idea of what they can do within their financial restraints. But both United and Real think that because they are such big names they can do whatever they want.
GB Bayern and Man Utd unofficially asked the European Union to investigate Real selling their training ground, but it’s gone through, even though they still need confirmation that they can build what they want.
XR Talking about customers, I noticed something when I was working on UEFA’s website on a panel during the Champions League matches. They were getting huge numbers of emails from North America and five to seven million hits a night on uefa.com. There you don’t have a fan of, say, Barcelona, you have people who have a different favourite club in each major country. If clubs think they have diehard supporters who are going to spend so much money just because they have found this love, I think they’re wrong. Beckham, for instance, will take fans with him if he leaves Real for Chelsea.
GB Yes, but we’re talking about labels like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Man Utd and Real can happily say they will be recognised around the world as brands no matter who they’ve got in their side. But it’s the second level of clubs who haven’t been able to concentrate on that in the past few years because they have been organising their finances. In the case of Barcelona now they’re coming back not just in the sport side but, as they let everybody know because they leak every single meeting they have with agents, they are talking to Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Trezeguet, other coaches such as Hector Cúper, etcetera.
EB There isn’t a natural market overseas for Dutch clubs – Surinam is hardly going to fill that role. Ajax have tried to push their brand in South Africa where they have a feeder club, Feyenoord had an association with a club in Ghana. PSV sold their matches to TV in South Korea, but they dropped that because it didn’t work. I think people around the rest of Europe like to see Ajax play but they’re not going to become fans as such.
Can clubs such as Real and Barcelona build up as much debt as they want without it being called in?
GB That’s not true. At the moment there is an investigation into who hasn’t been paying taxes. So you get some negotiations – they owe so much they couldn’t pay it all back, but that happens at lower levels too. Everybody has done it once.
EB Ajax have a big international bank, ABN, as their shirt sponsor and Feyenoord have a connection with an insurance company so if something goes really wrong they could step in. Philips have scaled down their investment in PSV but if there are real problems they would help out because it’s still a good public relations thing for them. Philips’ business connections in Brazil, for example, helped PSV get Ronaldo and Romário.
XR I think clubs such as Real and Man Utd go for obvious and tested marketing targets: open a superstore, tour the Far East. But you have to be imaginative. Arsenal have done a deal with a private sporting club in Egypt, bringing kids to get coaching. The rich kids have to pay and the best of the poor kids get in for free. In the short term this isn’t bringing in money, but already you see Arsenal shirts there. In ten years they will have so many fans. I think that’s a much better approach as you make an impact in the community. Yes, there is a commercial interest, but I think it’s nice to see you can give something back too. If more clubs did that in smaller and poorer countries...
GB Real are working in the short term, so the search for customers is messing with their sporting polices and that’s where clubs get it completely wrong. They signed Zinedine Zidane partly because of who he was but also as he would open up a new market, namely North Africa. Now they want to sign Francesco Totti, not because they need him as a player, they already have about five who do what he does, but because he might open the Italian market, which Real have never able to break into.
Are the big European clubs set on a collision course with FIFA over the amount of international matches?
XR It will happen. Already you see club managers in England are powerful enough to ask Sven-Göran Eriksson not to call up players or only use them for 45 minutes. Jacques Santini, the France coach, has been quite firm, saying: “I can call anyone I want and I make them play for how long I want.” When Arsène Wenger sent Thierry Henry with the instruction that he was to play for only 45 minutes and Arsenal had hired a plane to fly him straight back, Santini, being tricky, made him play the second half. So you do have people trying to stand up for their rights and saying international football is paramount. But the managers at big clubs and their directors are so strong, usually backed up by UEFA, that I think you will see more conflict.
Are FIFA right to try to regulate the international fixture list?
GB I cannot recall a sport that was successful and started taking fixtures off instead of adding. It happened with basket- ball in Spain, which became the second sport after the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics. It was more, more, more basketball. It was dying because of the explosion of fixtures.
XR It’s been proven that the more football is on television the more interest there is.
GB Clubs spend so much time looking for new markets because they they know that the current level of TV interest isn’t going to be sustained forever. Nowhere is more dependent on TV revenue than the Spanish league, but still we’re not going to see a cut to 18 or 16 teams just yet because there are too many vested interests. You see the contradictions in football. The same people who want a reduction in the number of matches, such as Depor coach Javier Irureta, are also asking for the Spanish Cup, which has just been cut to one-legged ties until the semis, to be kept at two legs because you have more chance of being knocked out in a shock in one game.
XR What has been great in the Champions League is that you have Real Sociedad, struggling in the league, getting to the quarter-finals. That’s what people love to see. In the UEFA Cup, for instance, you don’t have major names but if the BBC didn’t have rights, Five would take it up, or another broadcaster.
EB In Holland the TV interest in the Champions League is enormous. Even the most inconsequential game can get two million people watching, more than for almost any other type of programme. Football is always in the top ten for viewing figures so every network wants to have it.
A smaller league in Spain could mean that Espanyol, say, who get good crowds relative to their status, might spend most of their time in the second division and would lose potential fans.
GB OK, but Espanyol and loads of clubs will always be at best fighting for UEFA Cup place or against relegation. By making the league smaller you don’t change that fact. Will the gap between the rich and poor get bigger? Probably, but at the same time the influx of people following it will increase.
But the wealth gap would continue to expand.
GB Because football has become a very successful market and as in all markets some sell better than others. But I don’t think we need to accept that proposition that football will have to look different. There are compromises. There are so many different forces involved – UEFA, FIFA, the clubs, the fans. The easy solution, where everyone would be happy, is with fewer matches in smaller domestic leagues, as FIFA want, plus continuing with the Champions League and the main international tournaments.
Why do you think the English league has become so predictable?
GB The first reason is that money is better distributed in Italy and Spain than in England. Certain English clubs have been using marketing cleverly to generate extra revenue. If Real, Barça and Atlético Madrid, who in terms of fans should be the third team in Spain, are able to improve their marketing side, you may see them moving ahead of the competition. At the moment in Spain you have teams with a similar budget in the top six. So it is partly down to money. But it is also partly down to understanding the changes in European football, in coaching and signing players, studying the market. I think no one has had better signing policies than Man Utd and Arsenal.
XR But it’s not just down to money. If you also look at what David O’Leary has done at Villa with no money, or Raynald Denoueix last season at Real Sociedad. I think we will see more surprises in Spain, at least because the policy being followed in Madrid is failing. Big stars don’t always make a team.
Why is the Spanish league so strong?
GB I think Spanish football changed a lot through two men, with Johan Cruyff and with the Butragueño generation. Cruyff produced a Barcelona team that played really good football. Emilio Butragueño made Spanish people and coaches believe that it was possible to succeed by using skill and cleverness, not just what is called the “Spanish fury”, which is all about clenched fists, “come on let’s go, kick the opposition in the bollocks” and all that. Plus there have been lots of foreign coaches coming in and pitching different ideas. Previously most of the coaches just adapted to the situation they found in the Spanish league, they didn’t innovate. But football developed tactically in the 1980s and 1990s when people started thinking more about what they were doing. Here in England I think it has taken clubs decades to listen to foreigners. There are loads of different tactical ideas in Spain, more than in other leagues, I think. Osasuna play different to Racing, they play differently to Barcelona, and so on. You don’t get that in Italy where you’ve got three ways, the Italian way, the Lazio way and the Milan way.
EB I’d say the Spanish league is by far the best for both the playing standard and the level of competition. The top ten teams can all beat Real Madrid. Italian games I nearly always turn off because it is so boring. They still have that catenaccio feeling, with so much time-wasting and fouling. Canal Plus show an Italian game on a Sunday night only if there isn’t a Spanish game on that day. The pundits, Wim Kieft and Wim van Hanegem, are always complaining about being bored and wondering why such good players play in such an unexciting way.
Would you agree that top players leaving the French league has actually improved it?
XR The fact that the top 40 players are playing elsewhere has made the clubs more inventive. For instance, Monaco have a back four whose average age is about 24, which is amazing. I’m not sure those players would be playing regularly had Silvestre, Gallas, Desailly etcetera stayed in France. It has been said that maybe the next generation was not going to be as focused, that French clubs were going to be weaker. But if you look at Auxerre, for instance, the team is stronger than it was back in the 1990s.
GB You also have a whole other continent in which to find players.
XR But Spanish clubs do that too with South America.
GB That’s actually another reason why Spanish teams do well in that they don’t sign Norwegians – it’s Brazilians and Argentines, who know more about how to play football. Clubs such as Monaco and Auxerre have done well partly because the transfer market has nearly collapsed and they’ve been able to keep the same group of players. But they are going to break up this summer, they won’t do what they’ve done this season again.
What’s the current standard of the Dutch league?
EB Dutch football goes in cycles. There has been a pattern since the Cruyff generation. When there’s a group of good young players in the first team at the major clubs, the players coming through who are a few years younger have to leave because there’s no room for them, so you get some, not internationals, going to mid-ranking clubs in Spain or Italy. The lesser ones who have stayed at home finally get into the team but it weakens as a result, so you have a wait a few years for the next crop to come through. The other thing that has changed in Holland recently, though, is that there are a lot of foreigners with Dutch clubs at youth level. Heerenveen, for example, have a lot of Scandinavians. The Dutch youth international teams, though, have tended to do quite badly. Often it seems that other countries are physically better.
Vitesse Arnhem recently tried to join the top three but have flopped badly – does their failure prove that it can’t be done?
EB They were the first club since AZ 67 Alkmaar in the early Eighties to spend big money in an effort to join the big three. AZ at least won the league then, but Vitesse will probably be in the relegation play-offs this season. They still get crowds of 20,000 or so but even with that the president says that with every game they lose money. They’ve made so many mistakes with transfer fees and salaries. Their yearly expenditure went down from €50 million to €16m, but their income was only €10m or €12m each year, so the debt was accumulating all the time. They couldn’t get rid of their top-paid players, such as Dejan Stefanovic who finally went to Portsmouth and Bob Peeters who has been a flop at Millwall, who cost something like £3m. And the size of the salaries damaged the atmosphere, they weren’t unified. There was an “always next year” feeling about the team, they just managed not to make it into the Champions League and then not to get into the UEFA Cup on the last day. The smaller teams can still have a healthy existence in Holland provided the board don’t do stupid things – Utrecht, for example, built a stadium that was too big and had problems last year, but they’re still operating.
Are Spanish regional rivalries overstated?
GB I think the different national identities in the Spain squad have weakened the team in the past. I’ve seen people in Barcelona in bars celebrating a Spanish defeat. But I think there is generally more interest in the national side now, a feeling that it’s the best players from the clubs coming together. A bigger problem is the Spanish mentality: we don’t have that feeling that we’re going to win each competition, like the English have. They’ll say: “We’re really going to win.” You ask them: “But how many times have you seen Italy or France play this year?” and they say: “It doesn’t matter, we can do it.” It’s very helpful when you come to play in tournaments.
But it doesn’t work because they don’t win...
GB But I think English players generally go into a match believing they’re going to win. Whereas we go into a game against, say, Italy knowing that we’ve got no chance. Also, if you get into a physical battle, or you need extra concentration at the end of the match, we can’t do it. When our clubs win in Europe the Spanish players are surrounded by foreigners who make the difference. The one Spanish national side that did do anything was in 1984 where instead of thinking that we’re Brazil or France we fell back on the “Spanish fury” thing I mentioned earlier and it nearly paid off. But that was a very dull team and what happened in the end? They still lost.
Predictions for Euro 2004?
EB We’re lucky Germany are in our group, because they’re frightened of us and all Dutch players like to go against the Germans. But of course we know that if we get to the knockout stage and it comes to a penalty shoot-out it’s over. Any team who play the Dutch know they can go for a draw safe in the knowledge that they’ll win on penalties. It’s a strange collective lack of confidence among players. They say they can’t practise properly because you can’t recreate the match situation in training. Against Italy at Euro 2000 they missed five out of seven. Seedorf missed in the Champions League final and his nephew missed in a league match recently so it’s becoming a family tradition.
GB As usual everyone says the Czechs will do well and I agree. I think it has something to do with a lot of their best players being middle-ranking players at their own clubs: they need to prove constantly that they’re good enough to keep their place. I think Portugal might do badly but they have to play us in the group stage at the end where we both might need a draw. From then on it’s going to be hard because they will have to play probably either France or England in the quarter-finals. I think Portugal would lose to either of them, though I think Spain might beat England.
XR I think Russia as a surprise from the Spain-Portugal group. And England as a surprise flop. Sol Campbell has physical presence but isn’t quick enough. Steve Gerrard is great but he is not a real “No 10”, a playmaker. And up front if Owen doesn’t find his rhythm you’re not going to win with Emile Heskey.
GB They have the right mentality and they defend well, but they don’t attack in numbers and haven’t got the midfield creativity. Big teams have got three paces and England have only two.
From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month