Who are G-14 and what do they want? More money, as if you didn't know. John Sugden investigates the gathering threat to UEFA's control of European club football
Manchester United, Arsenal and Leeds are all through to the second group phase of the Champions League but, while that may induce a sense of well- being in England, we should not be blinded by the glitz and glamour to the reality that European club football is mired deep in crisis. Already reeling from the unfolding consequences of Bosman and the latest European Union attack on the transfer system, UEFA are faced with a new double challenge to their monopoly over the European game. As usual, the essence of the latest crisis boils down to money, or, to be more precise, who generates the cash and who gets their hands on the lion's share of it.
Leading the challenge to UEFA’s authority are G14, the self-styled elite of clubs who have established an exclusive lobbying cartel and set up offices in Brussels. The G7 group of the world’s most powerful national economies inspired the name and G14 comprises mainly the richest clubs from Italy, Spain, England, Germany, Holland, Portugal and France.
Like the Cosa Nostra, the exact formula for membership is mysterious, but it clearly has to do with money, success and potential television audience. Not surprisingly, the richest club in the world, Manchester United, is in, but Chelsea and Arsenal, ranked fourth and tenth respectively in the world club rich list, are not. Liverpool, at No 11, are included, whereas Lazio, ranked No 8, are not.
G14 portray themselves as nothing more than a group of like-minded football club owners and administrators, but the fact that they head-hunted UEFA’s fixtures co-ordinator to head their Brussels operation suggests otherwise. There can be little doubt that G14 is the thin end of a wedge that looks likely to pioneer the establishment of a breakaway European super league. What sets G14 apart from previous failed breakaway attempts, such as the Murdoch-backed Media Partners initiative of 1998, is the fact that G14 includes the clubs which are the leading producers of the European football industry. Without their co-operation, UEFA are out of business.
The motive behind the G14 initiative is blindingly simple – greed. It is estimated that globally football generates in excess of $250 billion, of which more than 75 per cent comes from Europe. The G14 clubs argue that it is they who provide the facilities, fans, and muscle and blood, without which none of this cash would flow, and therefore they should have more say in how the spectacle is produced and where the money ends up. Incidentally, this is the very argument that G14 club presidents decry when it comes from players and agents, accusing them of being too greedy.
Under UEFA’s current arrangements for the Champions League, G14 feel they are getting a raw deal. In response to earlier threats of secession, UEFA relaxed the criteria for inclusion in the Champions League, allowing entry for up to three clubs from the strongest leagues and two from the weaker countries, in order to ensure that as many of the big clubs as possible qualify. This led to an expanded format within which the mega-clubs, somewhat ungraciously, now claim they are required to play too many meaningless games against lesser teams in an already over crowded dom-estic and international football calendar.
As illustrated by Barcelona’s untimely exit this season, no matter how hard UEFA try to rig it, there can be no guarantee that the big clubs will always get through to the lucrative final stages of the competition. With massive wage bills, impatient and success-hungry shareholders, sponsors and fans, “maybe next season” is no longer good enough for the business planning of Europe’s top clubs.
The G14 also object to the way UEFA taxes the rich to feed the poor, taking a slice of Champions League revenue, ostensibly to prop up weaker European clubs and leagues, but also to bankroll its own operation in Switzerland. If G14 set up on their own, they reason, payments such as these would be unnecessary.
UEFA’s initial response to the establishment of G14 was bellicose. With the backing of most national football associations, UEFA threatened to expel G14 members from all European football, domestic or otherwise. It was a threat that didn’t cut much ice with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who, speaking on behalf of G14, pointed out: “Twelve of these 14 clubs are Champions League clubs. The same day that they kick us out of UEFA they can close their Champions League shop.”
To make matters worse, clubs on Europe’s northern and western fringes, including a sprinkling of G14 members, have also proposed the establishment of an Atlantic League, a trans-continental, weekend competition for clubs who have significant local and continental followings, but who play most of their football in relatively minor leagues. The odd derby match notwithstanding, clubs like Rangers and Celtic, Ajax, Benfica and Anderlecht cannot sustain big enough television audiences to attract the massive media-sponsor contracts that have inflated the football cash bubble elsewhere in Europe. Combining would give them a potential TV audience of 60 million. Of course, the Atlantic League would require participating clubs to withdraw from existing domestic leagues, virtually guaranteeing the collapse of professional football in some countries, particularly the smaller ones such as Scotland.
Faced with this second front, UEFA’s hard man tactics look to be failing. General secretary Gerhard Aigner has conceded: “The Champions League in its current format has reached the end of its life. We must find a new formula in which there will be fewer matches, but the proposal to install a special league for a limited number of clubs is not the solution.”
We have heard this all before, of course. In fact, it was the same argument that led to the development of the Champions League in the first place and its subsequent expanded format. It usually results in a fudge, whereby the big clubs get most of what they want in new and increasingly elite competitive structures, but still nominally under UEFA control.
In a belated attempt to limit the scope of such restructuring, UEFA have immodestly issued what they call their “ten commandments” as a framework within which European club competitions can be discussed. This smacks of high-minded protectionist hypocrisy. The Champions League was always a business concept and never a football development. From day one it has been driven by a closeted network of media and commercial interests held together by TEAM, UEFA’s media-marketing partner.
If between them, instead of looking after their own short-term financial and status interests, UEFA and FIFA had established and operated principles such as these 20 years ago, then perhaps football might have been saved from total surrender to the entertainment industry. Now it’s probably too late. Rather than protecting the European game from the more pernicious effects of naked entrepreneurialism, UEFA have been serious collaborators in its total commodification. It is naive of UEFA to think that they, the instigators of the Champions League, can now hold back the commercial tide.
Paris St Germain
UEFA's 'Ten Commandments'
1. Domestic football is the lifeblood of the domestic game and must be protected
2. UEFA’s club competitions should be in juxtaposition to the domestic programmes – a stimulant, not a dominant or damaging influence
3. Club traditions should be recognised, respected and maintained
4. The demands made of the players must always be considered
5. Competitions must be authentic and based on sporting criteria
6. Fan attendance must be the key objective – the safety and comfort of the supporters in the stadia must be a priority
7. A balance must be maintained between commercial interests and football as a sport
8. Solidarity must be maintained
9. The UEFA Champions League should be the benchmark for international club football
10. There can only be one governing body for European association football (UEFA) and transnational competitions in Europe
From WSC 168 February 2001. What was happening this month