Balance of power

The continent’s richest clubs are attempting to wrestle wealth and influence from more traditional places, reports Alan Tomlinson

In the context of Sepp Blatter’s stated intention to push through reform of FIFA practices, various groups have been claiming to be the true voice of football, none more robustly than the European Club Association (ECA). This is the self-proclaimed “nuclear family of the football society”, the successor to the elite G-14 group established in 2000, which was expanded to 18 in 2002 and disbanded six years later.

In its metamorphosis into a champion of club football, the ECA now claims to represent the interests of more than 200 European teams from 53 UEFA national associations. It campaigns for a more democratic governance model for the game, with clubs seeking rights equal to those of federations and associations. The ECA also calls for transparency in decision-making, not least in relation to UEFA and FIFA revenues.

The association appoints members to UEFA’s Professional Football Strategy Council. These are currently from AC Milan, Manchester United, AZ Alkmaar and Real Madrid. ECA members also appear in FIFA’s Committee for Club Football. This group has 25 members, drawn from 20 countries. In confederation terms, Europe provides eight countries, Africa, South America and Asia have three apiece, while central and north America give two and Oceania provide just the one.

France, Spain and Italy have double representation, as does the US, though two of these representatives have observer or consultant status, rather than full membership. It is arguable, therefore, that FIFA’s club forum reflects the global power relations of football politics, with 11 European members of the 25 committee members. Who are these stakeholders, then, and what are their stakes in the game?

England’s representative is Ivan Gazidis, the Arsenal chief executive. From France there is Lyon’s Jean-Michel Aulas, as well as UEFA president Michel Platini in the chair. Portugal send Diogo Brandão from Porto. Italy’s interests are represented by AC Milan’s Umberto Gandini and Michele Centenaro, the ECA general secretary. The Spanish contingent comprises of Barcelona president Sandro Rosell and club director Raúl Sanllehí. Igor Surkis from Dynamo Kiev represents eastern Europe. John McClelland of Rangers was in attendance too, though he resigned his position at the Scottish club in mid-October. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, of Bayern Munich, talked up the profile of the ECA in the maelstrom of allegations and condemnation of FIFA practices and bribery revelations. Rummenigge has been pitching the ECA’s line through tough talk in the corridors of power.

It is a new twist on the old tale of club versus country. The clubs claim that the international calendar disrupts the rhythm of the season and that their investment in the human capital of the game – the players – is not realistically acknowledged by FIFA, the money-making machine that profits so much from the World Cup.

They argue that a more transparent redistribution of this money should compensate clubs for their release of players for international tournaments. A deal was struck on the formation of the ECA, in which UEFA allocated $62.8 million (£39.4m) to the clubs of players that participated in Euro 2008. Similarly, FIFA allocated $40m for the 2010 World Cup. But this is seen as petty cash in relation to the billions FIFA generate in World Cup revenue.

The ECA creates networks of lobbyists. A meeting with the European Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, in July 2010, might have focused upon mundane-sounding items like club licensing and financial play. But the ECA would be talking big issues here – the nature of European markets and FIFA’s monopoly on global rights for the World Cup cash-cow.

Within weeks of Sepp Blatter’s unopposed re-election as FIFA president, Rummenigge announced that Blatter was unfit to hold the position, that FIFA lacked “serious and clean governance” and its president needs to be “fair, serious and democratic”. The ECA discusses “good governance” at its annual assembly and disputes the historical model whereby UEFA and FIFA are based on the national associations alone. ECA insiders call this a “governance system of a bygone era”.

A more commercialised game demands fuller representation of the clubs, they insist. But of course the ECA really mean the top clubs, and so Rummenigge also allows talk of a football revolution in which the Champions League might be threatened by a new elite league. The ECA is raising the stakes here, though this breakaway route is far from likely. But the voice of the clubs will not be silenced and Rummenigge, like Platini, has the credibility of a former top player.

As Blatter tries to varnish his own image and legacy, perhaps Platini is on his way to FIFA House and Rummenigge has his eyes on Platini’s UEFA position. There is a long way to go in this football revolution though, as FIFA statutes can only be changed by a majority vote at its congress and that’s three-quarters (or around 150) of the members and national associations eligible to vote. The beneficiaries of the historical model of governance are unlikely to accept the richest clubs as the proponents of a more democratic approach. But even if the FIFA Committee for Club Football has no clear brief or agenda, the club bosses are in there, claiming to speak for the wider football world.

From WSC 298 December 2011