At times football is a simple game, at times it is a global spectacle punctuated by spangled players and idiosyncratic coaches offering operatic narrations of the beautiful game. In Europe a creeping tendency, putting at risk all that once was, has upended all those wondrous footballing tales: inequality chokes the competitiveness of the game.
In 2013, courageous French economist Thomas Picketty masterly exposed social inequality in his book ‘Capital In The Twenty-First Century’ and warned of the distorting consequences of economic injustice. In society at large, his message went not entirely unheard. In football’s impregnable parallel, self-sustaining universe of ‘stake holders’ and gob-smacking mega investments it went unheeded.
Football’s lamentable financial undercurrent is just a reflection of society: the global game has become a capitalist paradise where inequality is rampant. “Football’s capacity to represent and dramatise a whole range of different social formations and structures, cultures, visions, ideas and dreams, and above all, identity is incredibly polymorphous,” counters David Goldblatt, acclaimed football historian and author of the book ‘The Ball is Round.’ “There is an element of football, certainly in its contemporary commercial European spectacular, that is a pretty odious representation of globalised capitalism at work. On the other hand, at the root, when we say football — we are talking about something much bigger, much more complicated — the hinterland, the amateur game, the engagement and the game itself, without which the pinnacle has no sense and no future. That speaks to a universalism. In contemporary capitalism that is not an easy call to make, but there it is and football continues insistently to dramatise.”
Inequality, entrenched or modern, has metastasised in the European game. A current anthology of the Champions League is simple: in the first round Paris Saint-Germain annihilated Celtic Glasgow 7-1 and 5-0 , Anderlecht 5-0 and 4-0. Liverpool scored seven goals against both Maribor and Spartak Moscow. Goodbye then to the Glasgows of this world, who cannot possibly match the quality, tactical ingenuity and sheer firepower of the super clubs.
The usual suspects
The anthology tells us that the Champions League — a misnomer after the competition’s 1995 expansion to 32 clubs — is often pedestrian in the group stages and, increasingly, in the knock-out phase. There is a predictability about the last eight, argue some. Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus have all progressed to the quarterfinals. Still, that leaves AS Roma, Sevilla, Liverpool and Manchester City, who were knocked out in the last sixteen last season, as interlopers.
In its modern reincarnation, the Champions League has been the playground of elite clubs, mapping the iconography of Europe’s domestic leagues. The captivating drama in the latter stage is the competition’s strength, not the depth of its base.
The group-stage scorelines highlight an ever-widening schism between the European elite and the proletariat. Celtic and Anderlecht were never part of the great unwashed of football, but in distant times they were competitive: Celtic won the European Cup in 1967 and Anderlecht the UEFA Cup in 1983. Today, the machinations of global capital have simply turned them into figurants, almost outcasts, in Europe’s prime club competition, at best puppets in the great narrative arcs mega-sized clubs try to design.
Those arcs have different histories and outlays, but similar aims: domestic and continental domination. In France, Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain, experts of failure in the Champions League, dominate Ligue 1. Bayern Munich will win a sixth Bundesliga title in a row. In Italy, Juventus have long established a dynasty.
In the European substructure even the smaller clubs drive inequality when playing in the Champions League. Mere participation is rewarded with €12.7 million, pocket change for big clubs, but essential riches to Basel, who have won eight league titles in Switzerland, Ludogorets from Bulgaria, who triumphed six times in a row, and Dinamo Zagreb, who topped the Croatian league 11 times before Rijeka won last year. In Scotland, Celtic have also established a domestic hegemony with six titles. In Greece, Olympiakos have prevailed in nineteen of the last 21 seasons.
These smaller clubs supply the feeder industry that the periphery of European football has become. Dominant clubs size up the domestic market, develop and hone talent, and sell with a lucrative profit. Luka Modric, and Mario Mandzukic were products of Zagreb. Ajax, 1995 European Cup finalists, have also been sucked into the feeder business.
“The Netherlands has become a development country,” says Ajax director Marc Overmars. “The financial world has passed us by and overtaken us. That influences our approach completely. We can’t compete, so, occasionally we can aim higher, but, structurally, no. In 1995 and 1996 Ajax played the final of the Champions League, in 1997 the semifinals, but that is not going to happen again.”
The evil starts from England
The Champions League is a transcontinental distorter, but there is another ‘engine of inequality’ Goldblatt points out. “The Premier League showed the way,” explains Goldblatt. “It broke away from the FA, it broke away from the rest of the league pyramid and constituted itself as a separate legal and economic entity. It showed the way if you want to stop having any obligations to your grassroots or your FA, or anyone.
“In terms of inequality, beyond that, the Premier League has shown what generates the wider inequality in this gigantic global market, where in the end there is actually this huge amount of money to be made, but there is just a narrow number of slots in the way football is currently consumed, marketed and produced — where all the big money will be made, they have occupied that spot in branding and marketing. And frankly, the product on offer, they have just blown everyone out of the water. We can go on about why that is, but the contract money doesn’t lie. They have got all of that right and everyone is scrambling to catch up.”
The Top Six
Even so, historically the Premier League has not been very competitive. Outside the top six, only Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City have won the league. This season Manchester City’s guile, sophistication and pedigree outclassed the rest of the top six, backed by Abu Dhabi ownership and a summer outlay of £221.5 million.
“The bigger issue is about who owns football clubs,” emphasises Goldblatt. “If we want to tackle inequality and finical abuses of all kinds, then it matters who owns football clubs, and in particular in the Premier League. It doesn't require any injection of capital from outside forces. The idea of benevolent owners? They are generating a couple of billion dollars just from the TV rights. So what is with benevolent outside owners, who feed the stock market effect or end up like Sir John Hall at Newcastle, lending the club money at extortionate rates. We need to think the big question: who owns football clubs? Should they be private institutions of any kind?”
Foreign investors have flooded European football. Qatar and UAE de facto own PSG and City, and thus reshape the landscape. The rampant inflation as a consequence of the Premier League’s extraordinary broadcast deals and PSG’s shadowy spending have the old continent drifting further apart. In the near future, a European super league is no longer implausible. UEFA has assuaged the lingering threat by offering Europe’s top four leagues four guaranteed spots in the group stages of the Champions League, only to further the David-versus-Goliath storyline.
Financial FairPlay, introduced by UEFA in 2011, was partially to curb the proliferation of elite clubs by seeking healthy balance sheets: clubs were not to spend more than their income. The European governing body has a number of tools at its disposal to enforce the mechanism, including banning clubs from European competitions. Still, as the machinations behind Neymar’s transfer demonstrated, FFP is currently toothless.
“I wonder how we can stop such developments,” says Lennart Johansson, the former UEFA president and one of the masterminds behind the creation of the Champions League. “If people like [Roman] Abramovich [referring to Chelsea] and many, many others want to spend their money on football, there is nothing we can do about it.”
Although inequality is rising and the idea of a European super league seems inevitable, Goldblatt still sees hope for a more level playing field. “Clubs are selective social institutions that are not orientated towards profit,” says Goldblatt. “That is not the purpose of the exercise. They, particularly in the commercial world or the organised spectacular world of football, are a form of accumulated collective socially produced cultural capital about meaning, identities and memory. Football can be mobilised, emotionally, intellectually and practically in a service of those things as much as it can be of consumer capitalism. We have a choice, as we do in all things.”
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