By Paul Gardner
It seems to me most likely -- indeed, inevitable -- that a European league will be part of soccer's future. We do already have the UEFA Champions League,
which could be seen as such a league.
But not really. Not when it's run by UEFA. The one I'm thinking of will not be run by UEFA. It will be run by the rich clubs themselves. It will, at
least initially, operate outside the controls of so-called "organized soccer" -- i.e., it will not have to do whatever FIFA tells it to do. And, more significantly, it will not have to share its
profits with FIFA.
It is precisely money that makes the advent of an independently run Euro-league so likely. The smell of money, big money, is in the sir. UEFA has just let it be known
that it expects to make a profit of $1.55 billion from the Champions League. And that's just for the coming season. A season in what is supposed to be world-wide recession.
like that, figures with nine zeroes on the end of them, attract the attention of the big money guys. If there were ever any doubts about that, a look at the ownership picture in the English Premier
League should quickly dispel them.
English clubs are passing rapidly into the hands of enormously rich individuals, most of whom are not English. There appears to be an anomaly here. We
are repeatedly told that pro soccer is not a good investment, that there's no profit to be made out of the sport. Probably the people who are telling us that are the same financial wizards who somehow
failed to see the current crisis coming.
They could even be right. But where they are obviously wrong is in suggesting that rich guys -- the world's super-capitalists -- will not be
interested in soccer. They clearly are. And they are likely to be much more interested if they can be assured that they have the freedom to run their clubs, and their league, the way that they
That is the way they have always operated in big business, the way they expect to operate in pro sports. The idea that they will be forced to obey rules laid down by a group such as
FIFA, over which they have no control, does not sit well with them. To say nothing of the requirement that they hand over large sums of money to FIFA merely for the privilege of doing business.
The Euro-league concept is hardly new. Those who oppose it -- and most of them do so for the high-minded reason that they do not like the idea of the sport being organized and played solely
for the purpose of making money -- can take heart from the fact that, so far, all efforts to launch the league have floundered.
In 1998, MORI Research conducted a poll of leading European
soccer businesses and clubs. Only 14 percent thought a Euro-league would "never happen." Nearly 70 percent thought that it was "certain or likely to happen" by 2002.
By 2000 there was
much talk of the G14 group - 14 of Europe's richest clubs were rumored to be getting together to form a breakaway Euro-league, backed by a marketing group called Media Partners. The aim, it was said,
was to "maximize" television and marketing revenues. The G14 felt that they were the clubs mostly responsible for generating the money flowing into UEFA, and they wanted a bigger cut of it -- all of
it, if possible.
While FIFA president Sepp Blatter issued thunderous warnings threatening to ban any club that helped form a pirate league, the threat of G14's idea was enough to cause
major changes in UEFA's league, which quickly featured more teams and, thus more games. Like it or not, the Champions League was becoming decidedly commercial. It is now probably the most popular pro
sports competition in the world. The G14 group has submerged itself into a much wider agglomeration of clubs -- but it would be a big mistake to imagine that it, and its Euro-league idea, have gone
away. Hints keep surfacing.
"The powers that be, the businessmen coming into football now, will say 'forget FIFA, forget UEFA, we're so powerful we'll have three leagues with the best 60
clubs.' I think that's the way it's got to go." That was Gordon Strachan, then the coach of Glasgow Celtic, in 2007. Probably not many would envision more than one league.
Within the past
few weeks, we have had this from the Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger: "... maybe in 10 years you will have a European league. I feel that there are some voices behind the scenes in our game aiming to do
something about a European league, especially if the rules become too restrictive for the big clubs as things currently stand."
Gary Megson, the Bolton Wanderers coach, joined in: "I am
sure it is here now in everything but name. That's why Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City now are getting these squads together so they compete domestically and do well
in the Champions League where the money is. It is just a matter of when, and not if, it comes in."