The disconnect between European soccer’s financial dreams and corporeal realities have been on full display in recent days, with the manager of megamillions-spending Manchester City serving as the unlikely voice of pragmatism — one that needs to be heeded all the way from London to Los Angeles.
Once again, the prospect of a European Super League has raised its head, this time with a more “open” system to make the concept more palatable to those who cling to the notion that a tiny club can make its way from the bumpy pitches of lower-division soccer to European glory through sheer coaching acumen, developing U-9 players to fill the first team or sell to Chelsea.
But a couple of days prior, Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola unintentionally demonstrated why the people who actually play and manage the games that provide such entertainment on TV might not be so excited about such an idea.
“Coming to London is like going to, I don’t know, northern Europe,” Guardiola said after a loss to Tottenham that might crush City’s title hopes. “It is 4 hours 20 minutes, 4 hours and a half to get to a hotel. It’s so exhausting to come to London, I’m sorry.”
A trip from Manchester to London is “exhausting”? In the United States, that’s considered a “derby.”
Imagine what Guardiola must think of the ever-increasing European travel demands. In order to appease the superclubs (moreso their accountants than their players and on-field staff), UEFA keeps expanding the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League. A simulation by ESPN FC’s Dale Johnson gave Man City a daunting group-stage gauntlet: Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica, FC Salzburg, Young Boys, Sheriff Tiraspol.
Guardiola is lucky that Manchester’s airport has a lot of direct flights, covering Madrid, Munich, Turin, Paris, Lisbon and Salzburg. Guardiola and Co., might need to fly to Zurich and get ground transportation to Bern to face Young Boys, but it’s still a short flight. If deferential airport employees whisk the team between ground transportation and the gates, there’s a chance that some of these trips may only take four hours — Paris is the shortest flight at 90 minutes, but good luck getting through Charles de Gaulle Airport and through traffic without delay. Tiraspol, on the other hand, will require a trip of well over eight hours.
So if they’re lucky, the shortest trip in European play will take a little less time than the daunting trip to London. But that includes the hassle of getting through airports, and even if the superstars of Manchester City have higher priority getting ground transportation than those of us who wonder when our bleeping shuttle is arriving, these are inconveniences.
And that’s a fortunate draw for Man City in terms of travel, with no trips to Turkey or war-torn countries (which will presumably take place in safer locales). And while Man City benefits from a somewhat convenient airport (22 minutes from the Ettihad, says Google Maps), London teams might have to get out to Heathrow, a fate worse than relegation.
A Euro league also means almost every trip requires a flight if an English team wants to get there in less than four hours. Even a train trip from rail-happy London to Paris will take three hours.
Meanwhile, in England, for every trip to London or the southern coast, which is experiencing a golden year with three Premier League sides, there’s a trip to Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham, Wolverhampton or even across town.
A truly “Super” European league might include several teams per country and divide the bulk of the games regionally. A voyage from Manchester to Glasgow is a little bit shorter than Guardiola’s dreaded trip to London. Just saying.
So if the European powers want more Man City-PSG games instead of Man City-Bournemouth games while keeping down the carbon footprint of excessive air travel, perhaps it’s time for a truly radical idea.
Rather than playing 38 Premier League games, up to 17 European games and however many domestic cup games clutter the schedule, let the Man Citys, Arsenals and Liverpools of the world play in one league — a pan-European league split into regions, with the regional winners and runners-up advancing to an NCAA-style knockout tournament. Playing fewer games will give players more rest, making the occasional trip from Glasgow to Monaco less of a burden.
Too radical? Don’t want to see Scottish and Irish clubs in the Premier League? Not a fan of a combined Spain-Portugal Iberian league? Fine.
Then leave well enough alone. Let Guardiola complain about the occasional 4½ hours in a handsomely appointed bus rather than spend three hours crammed into a plane several times a year.
So what does all of this mean for MLS, Liga MX and the Leagues Cup?
The “regions” for the Leagues Cup aren’t exactly geographic clusters. The East 2 group stretches from Montreal to Mexico City, with D.C. United in between.
MLS already has a brutal travel schedule. Other U.S. pro sports may be worse, but they’re ameliorated a bit by taking trips in which teams hit several cities in one swing rather than zig-zagging across the country.
We can laugh a bit at Guardiola’s comment bemoaning the commute from Manchester to London. But it shows how seriously players and managers think about the toll their travel takes. Whether we’re talking about a pan-European league or a competition over the larger land mass of North America, the financial and organizational powers that be should pay attention to the time players spend in planes, trains, buses and automobiles.
Beau, you make excellent points, as usual. Being in the US thought, I can't help but think about the comparison of the size of Europe to the US. Ignoring Alaska and Hawaii, our professional sports teams have dealt with intra-continental travel for many decades.
What amazes me is the concentration of 7 EPL clubs in London. 17 professional London clubs altogether. Except for Newcastle, all of the EPL clubs are located relatively closely together. That seems weird to me.
Proximity makes the heart grow angrier. Brawling every Saturday and Sunday afternoon on the walk from the rail station is the national pastime.
They only have so many clubs close together because it's an "open" system that is dominated by big clubs. If the NFL was an "open" system, I have no doubt there would be 4 teams in NYC. It's why I don't think an "open" system is always the best.
Chris, I'd love to see an alternate reality where we test this. London is 16 percent of England's population, while New York City is only 2 percent of the USA's. But New York is the center of our economy and media, so it exerts a greater pull than just its people.
Cute. The NYC metro area population is about 19 million, which is over 5.5% of the country's population.
The idea of a pan-European league with regional divisions is brilliant. It can be challenging to limit travel while still playing a broad variety of teams.
One thing they could do to lessen the burden on players play slightly fewer games, and allow breaks when teams have to travel longer distances (a bye week). So not every team would play every competitive date, but there would still be most teams playing (so no loss of entertainment value).
How is that any different than they have now? The big 5 leagues and the Champions League?
He's so exhausted, he just created a whole new game play without fullbacks. Got Arsenal good. Legend.