League ladders

Celtic and Ajax are making noises again about the possibility of North Atlantic League, but Ken Gall is not to sure about the whole idea

In his unjustly neglected 1911 classic The Devil's Dictionary, the great American satirist Ambrose Bierce accurately defined once as “enough”. Sadly, however, Bierce’s assertion that there can be too much of a good thing seems anathema to the individuals in charge of the big European clubs. 

The latest to demonstrate that un­­deniable truth are the chief executive of Celtic, Allan MacDonald, and his con­tem­­poraries at two of Europe’s other sleeping giants – or fading has-beens, de­pending on one’s point of view – Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.

These men, gazing upon the fixture-congested mass that is the Champions League, have decided that what is need­ed is another, similar competition. How­ever, this pan-European, not-quite­­-Cha­m­­­pions League would come with a twist – namely that Celtic, Ajax, PSV and others so minded would leave their domestic leagues to play in it exclusively.

Other great names of yesteryear – such as Benfica and Anderlecht – as well as aspirational Scandinavians such as Rosenborg would be invited to jettison their domestic rivals in the feverish hunt for the dregs from the seemingly bottomless barrel of Euro TV money.

Ajax chief executive Frank Kales was first out of the traps with his suggestion of a “North Atlantic League” – a vague and somewhat disturbing title which, for some reason, conjures up images of Oswald Mosley. Kales’s “idea”, such as it was, was backed by Harry van Raay, the chairman of PSV, apparently a long-term advocate of just such a competition involving the bigger clubs from the Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia.

However, it was MacDonald’s per­formance at Celtic’s October AGM that brought a hitherto unheard-of project to the front and back pages of the Scottish press. Celtic: We’re Out Of Here was the typically subtle two-inch headline in the Daily Record on the day after the AGM.

Breathlessly, the paper reported Ken­ny Dalglish’s statement: “In five years, I’d like to see the club operating in a different league.” Scottish fans, aghast at the prospect of losing one – or perhaps both – of the much-loved Old Firm were doubtless choking on their cornflakes at the news that Celtic were looking to “escape” the Scottish Premier League to join a “lucrative European super league”. (It can be noted that just as indictments are always “damning” and inc­reases always “dram­atic”, a European super league is always “lucrative”.)

It was taken as a given, naturally, that were Celtic to leave the SPL, Rangers would quickly follow, leaving the Scottish Premier League as a wasteland. All television and sponsorship contracts would be ripped up, and football in Scotland would become as commercially viable as shinty or badger-baiting.

MacDonald – who succeeded Fergus McCann, another man fond of the publicity-grabbing soundbite – gave a performance at the AGM to gladden the hearts of all who cherish romance in football. Shareholders were told that the “economic model” of Scottish foot­ball could not generate su­c­­­cess; that, in their “strategic review”, Celtic were “looking at the market” in which they operate; and, wonderfully, that Celtic were look­ing to “invest in our playing portfolio”. One wonders whether Jock Stein, on seeing a less-than-exemplary performance from the Lisbon Lions, ever turned to the then Celtic chairman to say, “I think we need to in­vest in our playing port­folio.”   

The argument, which does not become less wear­y­ing by repetition, is that poor old Celtic, Ran­gers, Ajax, PSV and so on are being left with only a few bawbees to play with while the millionaire Euro­trash from Bar­celona, Milan and London throw money around like sailors on shore leave. The reason for this, as MacDonald made clear, was simple: “It all comes down to TV audiences.”

Across the North Sea, Ajax spokesman Erik van Lee­wan was singing from the same hymn-sheet, com­paring the Scottish and Dutch situations and high­lighting the fact that, in both countries, a handful of big clubs did not “earn the kind of rewards we are due”. One can imagine him stamping his foot while saying this. Removing his gaze from the crystal ball, Van Leewan speculated airily that while Ajax v Celtic or Rangers would be of immense interest to the Dutch couch potato, Ajax v Hearts would have him reaching for the remote quicker than a guest appearance by Jim Davidson on Noel’s House Party. Clearly, therefore, the Jam Tarts, Twente Enschede, Standard Liège and others similar would not be receiving the em­bossed invitations to this one.

Because of their business backgrounds – MacDonald was previously a senior executive with British Aero­space, while Ajax’s Kales worked for IBM – the men behind this half-cooked plan are credited with seer-like wisdom by the sporting media, which probably would treat with equal seriousness any footballing proposals by John DeLorean.

However, these supposed visionaries of the stock market and the financial pages seemed to lose their touch when faced with demands for more concrete proposals. How would the creation of such a competition leave each national league? What was the view of UEFA or FIFA? Would the winners of the competition go into the Champions League? “Everything is theoretical,” said Van Leewan at Ajax. “Everything is hypothetical,” added a PSV spokesman. MacDonald, however, was categoric: “I don’t know what the outcome will be.”

These men have noted, astutely, the way in which European TV viewers have foamed at the mouth in anticipation of big-time Champions League encounters such as Sparta Prague v Willem II Tilburg. They have concluded, again astutely, that the 75,000 empty seats at the Bernabéu for Real Madrid’s first Champions League encounter provide irrefutable evidence that what the European fan wants is more – much more – of this sort of thing. This is what is known as com­mercial acumen.

Sadly, the joyless administrative face of the SPL’s chief executive Roger Mitchell and others quickly put a dampener on the party, with much talk of rule books, laws and injunctions against any club contemplating participation in any “super league”. Rangers’ chairman David Murray went further, committing his club to Scottish football and stating that all efforts should be focused on getting another place for Scotland in the Champions League.

That might appear to be that. But those clubs which seem to have outgrown their domestic competitions but do not have the means to compete consistently at a higher level may use similar threats to hold domestic football associations to ransom when future television contracts are negotiated. Was this the hidden agenda behind the whole business? Surely not!

Celtic, Ajax and PSV once dominated European foot­ball by the judicious marshalling of their own assets and playing abilities. Now, the only playing field on which they are interested in competing against the giants of Italy, Germany, Spain and England is the financial one. Sporting ambition and achievement – and other such archaic concepts – are simply beyond them. 

From WSC 155 January 2000. What was happening this month