Football’s Changing Climate
There was once a time when football provided escapism from the stresses of daily life: the sport was important to us, but with ultimately little consequence. It may still be the case, and the revelations published in the recent Football Leaks material will not come as a surprise to many. However, the behaviour and language revealed would have been brutal to read for even the greatest football optimist. This is conduct befitting governments and big corporations, not the football clubs we cherish. It confirmed that football’s climate is changing rapidly, and those who have polluted the game will be the last to suffer.
Many warning signs have long been ignored. When UEFA rebranded the European Cup to the Champions League, despite expanding the competition to allow multiple entrants from certain countries, this set in motion the separation of Europe’s ‘top five leagues’ from the rest of the continent. When this devalued the Cup Winners’ Cup, instead of questioning why, UEFA scrapped the tournament entirely in 1999; absorbing it into the UEFA Cup, which was later expanded and rebranded as the Europa League.
In time, these changes allowed a group of clubs to pull away and thus created less competition. The last ten years have seen only five different Champions League winners, with just two winning the last five. Meanwhile, the Europa League has had just six different winners in the last ten years and only one final that did not involve a side that started the season in the Champions League. In the last decade of the Cup Winners’ Cup, there were also six UEFA Cup winners, but in the same period nine clubs won the Champions League or European Cup. In those last ten years, there were ten different Cup Winners’ Cup winners, and 18 in the last 20.
Three streamlined competitions had been replaced with two bloated ones which were, for many clubs, impenetrable. This season, including qualifying rounds, a total of 79 teams have already competed in the Champions League. In the Europa League, 213 teams will have competed in this year’s competition by the time the champions are crowned in Baku. In comparison, the Cup Winners’ Cup featured just 32 teams every year and, in its final year, 56 entered the Champions League and 72 in the UEFA Cup. Clubs below the top tier making it into Europe now often have to enter via early qualifying rounds. Starting a season so early has put immense strain on clubs already struggling to compete, thus negatively impacting their domestic campaigns (for a vivid example, see Burnley this season).
An equal game it has long not been, but even though the path to correction was easier and shorter, it was once again ignored. Clubs now had seats at Europe’s top table without even needing to win a trophy. Repeated Champions League participation can come without a domestic title challenge, let alone success in Europe, but it can come at the expense of pursuing a domestic trophy. There are notable exceptions, but when they do come, why do they carry odds of 5000–1?
Europe’s top clubs have become bored both of what they take for granted and the money that brings. But instead of collaborating with their associations and other clubs in order to make the sport healthier, they’ve doubled down on their own greed. Now they convene secret meetings about a lucrative Super League with founding members who can’t be relegated, with an invitation so graciously extended to a select few others. Whether a Super League happens or not, the fact that this is a future which those clubs envisage should concern us all.
UEFA’s recent announcement of a third European competition is an interesting development and one which seems to have been made after these plans took place. Will streamlining the two current competitions and adding a third breed better competition and a more even distribution of wealth? If so, it’s hard to imagine that going go too down well with the clubs exploring options to break away. UEFA have created an environment which has allowed the biggest clubs to exploit it. And whilst they may be wealthier, more popular or more successful, they are no more important than the thousands of clubs they seek to exclude yet further.
It’s hard to think how we, as fans, can do much to change the future. What once was escapism can often now require the moral gymnastics many of us must perform outside of football. Can we locally source our sporting loyalties as easily as we can our produce? Even if we can, why are we being pushed to a point where this might even being considered? With the third competition UEFA have a real chance to undo much of they damage they have helped to create. However, with their track record, it’s hard to feel confident that they will.