Albert Mathieu-Favier was a man with a dream; to tunnel under the channel and in the process of joining two nations unite a whole continent. Almost two centuries would follow with numerous plans, set-backs and revisions, including an abortive attempt to begin work in 1880, yet from the moment Albert began to dream, until the channel tunnels opening in 1994, there seemed an irresistible inevitability to the plan – a logic that a continent bound together would somehow be greater than the sum of its parts.
In football there is a similar dream; a dream of football without borders in the shape of a supra-national European football league. Like the channel-tunnel this also has has a long history with many proposals being drawn up and duly rejected, but the dream steadfastly refuses to die periodically resurfacing, most recently with a group of top-clubs threatening to go it alone with a break-away league in 2011. Is such a European Super League and inevitability, and if so when can we expect the dreams and plans on the backs of envelopes to become a reality?
Arsene Wenger suggested at the beginning of the 2009/10 season that we would be likely to see a European super league within 10 years. The driving-forces that Wenger attributed to this will be familiar to most observers of the modern game; namely that clubs want more money.
Commenting in his April 2010 column in the Daily Mirror Columnist Michael Calvin concurred with Wenger suggesting a fully-integrated super-league featuring the continents top sides is next logical step from the Champions League which since its expansion and change from a purely knock-out competition in to a league-type format in 1992 has been acting as a sort of half-way house for a fully-integrated European super-league. The more recent transformation of the UEFA cup into the Europa League is also suggestive of what a second tier may resemble.Calvin also shared Wenger’s viewpoint about the driving-forces behing the creation of the league
“The Euromillions League will emerge from a perfect storm of greed, globalisation and opportunism.”
But, he also points to the artistic merits of a super-league. Reflecting on a Champions league match between Arsenal and Barcelona Calvin points to the artistic merits of the scheme
“The Premier League and La Liga has never produced such a combination of human drama, athletic and artistic expression as that mesmerising match between Arsenal and Barcelona.”
If we look back there is also something of a historical precedent to the idea of a super-league. Football’s success has been intimately bound up with the forces of globlisation as Jonathan Wilson in his exquisite book Inverting The Pyramid puts it
“Almost everywhere the British went in search of trade and commerce
they left the game.”
Football’s success lay in its ability to transcend borders yet since the formation of the first football league in 1888 the game continues to be organised in national leagues based, with the exception of the occasional anomaly, upon the rigid boundaries of the nation state.
Such arrangements seem increasingly at odds with the most recent age of globalisation where products, services, workers and capital move more freely than ever before. The effects on football are already visible, whether its the influx of foreign capital helping to decide titles, or the cream of the worlds best players that such finance attracts. Satellite technology already allows live premier league matches to be consumed in bars and homes from Teeside to Tokyo and combined with improvements in transport links, such as the channel, tunnel a super league is logistically more straightforward than ever.
For clubs trancending national borders provides access to new markets. For some time now many have sought to grow their fanbase in emerging markets using pre-season tours as a way of pushing their brand into new arenas. The logical next step is to extend this to competitive matches. The mooted idea of a 39th game; a concept strikingly similar to American Football’s NFL ‘international series’ where a ‘regular season’ game is played outside of the United States, undoubtedly aims to boost the reach of the whole league beyond its borders. The NFL is in many ways ahead of the curve in embracing globalisation exploring the possiblilty of a London ‘franchise’ though this appears to be cautious – perhaps the idea is more palatable not just due to a more commercial outlook, but also to the fact that in ice hockey, basketball and football Canadian teams have long competed across the border in the US leagues.
Supra-national leagues are however, not necessarily just about the biggest clubs reaching new heights. For clubs outside the global power-nodes of footballs biggest leagues such as the Premier league, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga crossing borders is a necessary step to attempt to level what has become a very uneven playing surface. Rangers and Celtic (prior to Rangers financial demise) had long been cited as two clubs whose potential has been hampered by the comparative weakness of their domestic league. Unsurprisingly a move to the neighbouring English premier league long been talked about, but the door to that exclusive club has remained shut.
The only alternative for such clubs shut-out from the lucrative leagues therefore is to start their own party. For Celtic and Rangers this has been in the form of a long standing plan for a so called North-Atlantic league, a plan which originated in Holland and has been knocking around since the late 1990s. In its latest incarnation it would encompass clubs from Scotland, Holland, Scandinavia and Portugal. Hopes were most recently raised in 2009 when the plans received the patronage of the president of the Dutch F.A and UEFA executive committee member Michael Van Praag however, for the time being the plan seems to have found itself once again on the back burner amidst a great many questions about just how it would all work in practice.
One big question is just what happens to domestic leagues left behind? In the mid 1990s when Wimbledon owner Sam Hammam attempted to move the club lock-stock and barrel to Dublin, arguments were made that moving across the border, but continuing to play in the English premier league would enable the club to grow in a way that remaining in a city boasting a wealth of clubs would not. The move was eventually halted by the FAI, a key argument against the move coming from those who felt the presence of an English premier league would have an adverse effect on the Irish league
Notwithstanding the anger of the supporters who suddenly found themselves dispossessed of years of history and their own personal emotional investments .
The 39th game proposal has also faced opposition over fears of the impact on the local game according to Guy Oliver who in July 2011’s When Saturday Comes who explains just why the 39th game plan was less than palatable for the rest of the world.
“The best way to describe the negative impact of the proposal is to imagine that you are Julio Grondona, president of the Argentine FA, a FIFA vice-president and owner of one of the clubs in Argentina’s top division. Is he honestly going to welcome a game between, say, Aston Villa and Manchester City being played in Buenos Aries? How can he regard it as anything other than poaching by greedy English clubs out to undermine local teams?”
Whether it is a case of legitimately seeking new markets, a form of football colonialism seeking to make a quick buck through dumping our products on unsuspecting local markets, or more a case of a desperate attempt to delay the superseding of the Premier league by a European Super League is something for debate, but it is clear that by opening borders some national leagues and clubs will be overwhelmed and clubs with long local traditions may well be lost.
Wenger himself is clear about the need to retain national leagues even under a super-league system. Clubs , Wenger suggests, would compete in their respective national leagues and in the European league, there would also be a system of promotion and relegation which would prevent the
remaining leagues and clubs becoming marginalized. However, he also points out that this raises practical challenges. The practical challenges are indeed many. Firstly what should be the criteria for entry to any super league? Wenger says it should be a meritocracy Michael Calvin calls for a combination of Income, influence and investment. Such issues are likely to be a major flash point for the sport as Just who gets in is of vital importance as Calvin illustrates by pointing to one possible scenario where Liverpool are left out, whilst Celtic get the nod ahead of Rangers. Such decisions would have the same long lasting ramifications much like a line drawn on a map by an 18th century colonial official.
Even with Wenger’s two-team solution the additional revenue and market power of super-league clubs would wildly distort national leagues and how would relegated clubs cope with the financial catastrophe of dropping out of such a lucrative set up? would there also not be an insurmountable precipice between the resources required to compete in domestic leagues, particularly the weaker domestic leagues and the super-league, even a second tier of the super league?
From fans perspectives the increased cost of travel, unless subsidised by clubs, is likely to prove a considerable barrier to supporting teams away. Only the wealthiest will be able to support teams both home and away and what then will then happen to the atmosphere in stadiums? Even the
cost of home games, some suggest, will increase continuing a trend in the elite leagues which has priced many fans out already. Most important of all though is what happens to the spectacle of the local derby? The most eagerly anticipated games in football are the ones against local opposition; Arsenal-Spurs, Celtic-Rangers, Barcelona-Madrid. Detractors of the super league format quite rightly point out that fixtures between distant clubs will lack the intensity of a derby making for a more flaccid atmosphere.
A glimpse of some of the issues can also be gleaned from the Southern Hemisphere where since 1996 Rugby teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have competed in a supra-national super league. Over 15 years it has expanded from 10 teams to 12 then 15, five from each nation, and a TV deal covering 2011-2015 is valued at US $437million, an increase from the previous 5-year deal valued at US $323 million. The presence of a super-league franchise, the Highlanders, has even been credited in a University of Otago paper for increasing tourism in the region however, there are still many issues surrounding the league.
Declining attendances, particularly in New Zealand, have also been a problem with one recent game there drawing only 16 000 to a 50 000 capacity stadium. Fans it seems would rather watch on TV than pay high ticket prices however, the full impact of a re-organisation aimed at increasing local-derbies which fans have been calling for remains to be seen.
In a masters thesis exploring the wider impact of super 12 on the game within New Zealand Gerard Martin raises issues that will surely ring alarm bells among Europe’s footballing fraternity;
“The five super 12 host unions (Wellington, Canterbury, Otago, Waikato and Auckland) now dominate each year’s NPC and can afford to stockpile players and lend them out to weaker teams. As a consequence, NPC matches are no longer an accurate representation of a province’s true
rugby ability and club rugby in particular has deteriorated as a consequence.”
The authors of the university of Otago tourism paper, James Higham and Tom Hinch also highlight their concern over another trend pointing out that clubs including Auckland Blues and Waikato Chiefs have dropped their geographic associations, becoming known as the Blues and Chiefs
respectively. Could this be a symptom of the sports attempt to reach a wider audience by severing its geographic ties and becoming a free floating entity? Could it be conceivable that Manchester United become simply United? Free to pursue opportunity wherever it may arise? If so where does this leave the fan as we know them today? We may well soon begin to find out.