Commentary

Urgent reforms for European soccer in a post-viral world

The wholesale suspension of soccer activity across Europe has opened us up to the truth that life can, and indeed must, continue without the game. For now, at least. The next question is how that game will look when it returns -- be that in April (forget it), June (possibly) or even next year (not unthinkable). If any good is to come of the break enforced by the pandemic coronavirus, then it must lead to a wholesale reform of the game's timetable and its financial structure.

Soccer's attempt to continue as normal, except without any fans, proved to be a predictably short-sighted decision, especially for teams like Valencia of Spain and Atalanta of Italy. They were compelled to meet in the Champions League in Milan last month (at that time part of Italy's infected 'red zone') and again in Valencia behind closed doors three weeks later, and now both teams are among several being quarantined after numerous players tested positive for the virus. The issue of whether or not to play 'ghost games' became moot once the health risks of traveling and competing against each other became a reality for players and staff.

It's a rarity when sheltered, well-paid sportsmen are touched by the events of the real world, but most have been quick to react in a sane and humane fashion. Toni Kroos of Real Madrid, another team in quarantine, told German TV channel Pro7 that, despite self-isolation, he's in a privileged position compared to others, and that he and his family are fine. Bayern Munich's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has admitted that he and his fellow professionals are giving serious thought to the suggestion made by Bavaria's state president Markus Söder that they should give up part or all of their salaries to help others.

About those salaries. They are part of the reason that so many clubs are suddenly petrified that they will soon go out of existence without the income from sponsorship, merchandise, gate receipts and -- most lucrative of all -- TV contracts. That is not to blame the players for taking what they've signed up for. It's to blame the clubs as a whole for a risky, short-term business mentality that has placed the rush for success over the need for stability. Lost among the self-generating hype about being the biggest and best competitions in the world (particular offenders: the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League) has been all sense of perspective about what soccer clubs mean to their communities, and the importance of the game beyond profit and silverware.

Even before the pandemic, bankruptcies this season alone included storied clubs such as Bury FC (English third tier, twice FA Cup winners), while in the German fourth tier SG Wattenscheid and Rot-Weiss Erfurt have both gone under. In the same country's third division, former Bundesliga champion Kaiserslautern have been hanging by a thread for years. The same applies to four-time FA Cup winners and ex-Premier League regulars Bolton Wanderers, now at the foot of England's third tier following a 12-point deduction for financial chicanery.

There are many reasons a club can go under, and many of the teams cited above have been managed with gross negligence. Yet their struggles also exemplify the lack of solidarity in the European game, where cash has become the primary method to beat down the competition. Impulse purchasing as a swift path to success has also been to the detriment of many clubs' youth development programs, while the large amounts of money that have flooded in to the game have been concentrated toward the elite through top-heavy TV deals. So, when European soccer returns, I suggest the following:

The 2019-20 domestic and European season is given time to play out until the end of the calendar year. Uefa, the bigger clubs, and their well-paid players set up a solidarity fund for the teams facing bankruptcy or severe financial difficulties. Fans are offered the chance to invest in the fund.

World soccer then moves to a unified calendar year, starting with 2021, as practiced in the northern European leagues and Major League Soccer. There will be a six-week break for major tournaments, either in summer or in winter.

To allow for those breaks, and some breaks from the game in general, club soccer must cut back its schedule. There are too many games already, too many drawn-out competitions. Forget FIFA President Gianni Infantino's impractical, cash-grasping Club World Cup idea, abolish League Cups (only England and Scotland still have these, France is planning to finish its League Cup after this season), abolish FA Cup replays and always give home advantage to the team from the lower division, restrict all top flights to 18 teams. Eliminate the laborious league phases of the Champions League and the Europa League and make them straight knockout competitions again. Less income, but less predictability and more excitement.

UEFA introduces a Europe-wide salary cap, or a draconian tax on the game's top earners that is diverted to the solidarity fund (see above). Agents must be trained, licensed, ethically assessed, and restricted to taking no more than 5% of any deal they are involved in. Place a ceiling on transfer fees, with an independent arbitrator resolving disputes about a given player's value.

Finally stop the commercially driven hyperbole and the exploitation of supporter 'passion' that makes top-flight soccer obsessed with business, sponsorship and profit. Turn it instead into a conversation about soccer's social and cultural value, and what it means to the vast majority of fans and participants. From the top down, administrations must implement rules and offer training and guidance on long-term, sustainable management of a club's finances.

Re-distribute TV income equally from the biggest leagues and European competitions among all professional clubs, with that money invested solely in youth development.

There may be flaws and omissions in these suggestions, but we've a few weeks to think about them. If an amateur coach and referee can come up with half a dozen talking points over breakfast, then the game's finest minds should be able to propose something much more workable and comprehensive. The game can not just take up again where it left off. Only a radical, far-reaching, egalitarian-motivated re-think can help soccer's long term survival and measured prosperity in a healthy, post-viral world.

(Ian Plenderleith's last book, The Quiet Fan (Unbound, 2018), attempted to use comedy, anecdote and self-reflection to explore the role that soccer plays in most people's lives, and the way that we watch and relate to the game. You can buy it HERE.)

14 comments about "Urgent reforms for European soccer in a post-viral world".
  1. R2 Dad, March 18, 2020 at 7:12 p.m.

    Good stuff. Fon't forget limiting overall squad size to reduce the ability of clubs to hoard top players. Chelsea has 27 players out on loan. 27!

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 19, 2020 at 2 a.m.

    Very good point. Tag it on to the list.

  3. frank schoon, March 19, 2020 at 10:15 a.m.

    How 'bout an instant referee reforms. This would break would be an excellent time, hiatus, for us to decide to totally get rid of the VAR, like it never happened. And start up soccer again without the VAR present in any games. Lets go back to when soccer was fun with its warts and all.....

  4. Wooden Ships replied, March 21, 2020 at 8:14 p.m.

    I second that motion. 

  5. Peter Kurilecz replied, March 22, 2020 at 1:56 p.m.

    couldnt agree more, but do keep the goal line technology

  6. Albert Harris, March 19, 2020 at 10:57 a.m.

    All excellent ideas, Ian. I leave it to the statictics folks to figure out the probabilities of any of them to be adopted...which I'm guessing will be so small as to be microscopic.

  7. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 20, 2020 at 10:49 a.m.

    It'll be like that episode of Family Guy when Peter, lying in a hospital bed after 25 minutes of the usual idiocy, is told by Lois, "Well, Peter, I hope that at least you've learnt something from all this." To which he succinctly responds, "Nope", and then the credits roll.

  8. beautiful game, March 19, 2020 at 12:09 p.m.

    Any such expectations by Don Infantino may come into fruition when he's fired. FIFA still remains infected with Blatter's corrupt dna with its cash hoarding policies cemented in stone.  

  9. John Polis, March 20, 2020 at 4:09 p.m.

    Thanks for this thoughtful report, especially paragraph 11 that in one paragraph explains the problems with the women's demands of multi-millions in back pay and gives a balanced view of the entire situation. That paragraph should be shared with every journalist (including the many hacks) who try to write about this topic. The lure of writing a women vs. men athletics story as a feature is too enticing, so many writers who don't normally touch sports (and certainly don't understand or care about soccer) exploit the article for their own purposes as solely a story about gender. Sadly, many of the players interviewed (along with their counsel) are happy to play along because the things are coming out works in their favor. Too many journalists leave all these vital facts out. Paragraph 11 of this story would set them all straight.

  10. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 22, 2020 at 2:43 a.m.

    Hi John, I think you meant to leave this comment under Beau's column?

  11. Sean Guillory, March 21, 2020 at 3:30 p.m.

    Yep, lets socialize everything.  Im sorry but a salary cap is silly.  Let the market dictate.

  12. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 22, 2020 at 2:46 a.m.

    Yes, that 'invisible hand' that magically solves all of our socio-economic problems. Yet arch-right ideologues Trump (US) and Johnson (UK) are meeting the pandemic with massive, unheard-of levels of state financial interventon that dwarf even the bank bailout of 2008. Who would have guessed that underneath they're really socialists?

  13. R2 Dad replied, March 22, 2020 at 4:12 p.m.

    Wait, MLS has a salary cap though it's structured in such a way as to avoid that tag. FFP is a salary cap for professional teams without creative accountants. I propose a sliding scale agent commission and tax rate where agents get a smaller and smaller percentage of the transaction over $20M, with higher 'tax rates' going to the FAs that developed the player. In this way transfer values get capped, agent commisssions are reduced/limited, and FAs developing top players are compensated and can more uniformly disburse funds to smaller clubs/organizations. Also, agents/agencies can only represent X players. Maybe you would consider that socialism, but you can't have healthy leagues without healthy smaller clubs. Not every league gets the kind of TV deals the EPL has. Mitigating the concentration of wealth/power at the top benefts more people--the USA seems to have forgotten this over the past 30 years.

  14. Paul Berry, March 22, 2020 at 2:09 p.m.

    "World soccer then moves to a unified calendar year".

    MLS would need a 3 - 3.5 month winter break. You can't have players traveling 3,000 miles only for a game to be postponed.

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