Future visions

A pan-European league is never far off the agenda. What would the world look like if it ever happened? Adam Powley considers

“We have flirted with hell,” said Arsène Wenger, speaking of his club’s recent dalliance with life outside of the Champions League qualification positions. It is this kind of thinking – that the Champions League is the be-all and end-all – that has underpinned the latest rumours concerning a European Super League. The plot is a familiar one: murmurs of shady meetings between the various Mr Bigs of G-14, suggestions and then denials from Brussels politicians, and off-the-record briefings reported as plans set in stone.

The general idea is for a competition for the continent’s elite, with participating clubs opting out of domestic league football. This scenario was given added credence by the comments from MEP Ivo Belet (see left). Proposing changes that would ensure the game is “safeguarded”, Belet said that a super league that distributed cash across Europe was “a perfect solution”.

Such comments encourage the advocates of a new European league, opening the possibility for clubs to strike their own collective deal in pursuit of becoming even richer – the cream of the game, fattened on TV money and pitted against each other, without having to slum it with Bolton, Chievo and Villarreal and the like.

For many this would be the end of football as we know it. But there are reasons to wonder whether it would be so disastrous. Domestic leagues, particularly in England, Spain and Italy, are already a virtual closed shop, with a handful of clubs exerting a self-perpetuating monopoly on trophies, Champions League qualification and players. In England, in particular, the Big Four have an almost exclusive hold. If they left the Premier League, the rest would at least be able to compete on a relatively equal footing once more, particularly if TV rights for the rump were collectively negotiated.

Crowds may even increase. The current stalemate in England is alienating an increasing number of fans and is part of the reason why attendances outside the Big Four are under threat. Supporters tired of following also-rans may be more inclined to stick by their club if there is at least a chance of success. Such a scenario has played out in the Football League, where, despite prophecies of meltdown prompted by the rebranding of the top division and then the collapse of the ITV Digital deal, the game is in rude health with attendances high and competition more open than the Premier League’s PR department could dream of.

If the Big Four were to leave for Europe, it is almost certain that TV revenues and sponsorship deals would decline dramatically, precipitating the long-predicted bursting of the football bubble for those left behind. But would that be such a bad thing? If assorted super-agents, corporate backers and “new” fans jumped ship for a new extravaganza, the business of domestic football might suffer, but what about the sport?

The traditionalists among football’s support may well hanker for a return to a game closer to its pre-plc roots, but dangers loom. A super league concentrates wealth, talent and support in the hands of a few clubs, exacerbating the existing conditions, and may even increase the commercialisation of the game as those on the outside desperately try to break into the elite. The threat to the governing bodies should also not be ignored. Imperfect, weak and suspect they may be, but a super league would further damage their ability to check the power of the big clubs.

Meanwhile, on the field, a return to a more balanced league may also mean the bad old days of dull, route one football. For all its faults the Premier League has generally raised standards. Teams packed with talented foreign stars are a far more appetising sight than the home-produced slog of the 1980s. The greatest concern, however, is that the super league becomes, by its very nature, a completely closed shop. Relegation does not fit the strategy of American investors, used to the protectionist franchises of US sport. Having manoeuvred to get a new league up and running, they surely wouldn’t countenance demotion. The vast majority of clubs would then be cut adrift, removing any possibility that the lowliest could again compete with the mightiest. And that really would be a hellish prospect.

From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month