Existing structure of European club football already an anti-competitive racket

Clubs in large European cities outside five biggest countries confined to non-viable leagues

Unlike  countries like Spain and England which include big clubs like Real Madrid  and Liverpool, most European countries are too small to sustain exclusively national professional football leagues. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

Unlike countries like Spain and England which include big clubs like Real Madrid and Liverpool, most European countries are too small to sustain exclusively national professional football leagues. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

 

UK prime minister Boris Johnson dismissed the breakaway European Super League with a pledge: “I will not stand by while a small handful of owners create a closed shop”.

The small handful consisted of six clubs from England with three each from Italy and Spain. Clubs from France and Germany were invited to join but declined, and the project collapsed in a chorus of boos.

If Johnson objects to closed shops in football, he has missed the boat. There is already a closed shop, and it is not an accident that the candidates for this new league came from just five countries, the five largest in Europe.

At the 1998 world congress of Fifa in Paris, the fragmentation of club competition into national leagues was formalised through the adoption of the following: ‘Associations, leagues or clubs that are affiliated to a member association may only join another member association or take part in competitions on that member association’s territory under exceptional circumstances. In each case, authorisation must be given by both member associations, the respective confederation(s) and by Fifa.’

Statute 73 was inserted at the initiative, believe it or not, of the Football Association of Ireland, led in those pre-Delaney days by Bernard O’Byrne. It survives unaltered to this day. The motivation was to prevent a club playing in the Scottish League from re-basing to Dublin, a project supported by the present writer at the time.

Most European countries are too small to sustain exclusively national professional football leagues. The European Union plus the UK has a combined population of over 500 million. The five biggest of these 28 countries average 60 million, the remaining 23 average under 10 million. It is no coincidence that the Super League candidates came from the five biggest countries.

The typical small European country consists of one large city and a handful of smaller urban centres. A league consisting of six or eight big-city clubs plus 10 or 12 from smaller provincial cities and towns delivers, by design, the current closed-shop pattern which Uefa, Fifa, Johnson, and other grandstanding politicians have successfully defended. It is remarkable that they have enjoyed the support of the European Commission, custodians of freedom of establishment and the single market.

Large European cities outside the five biggest countries are unable to build successful clubs, since they are confined to operate in non-viable small leagues.

In rugby union, when the game went professional in the 1990s, the Irish clubs initially attempted to run a professional league confined to the island. Only England and France had the scale to make a national league work, and the rugby authorities in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Italy got together to form a viable third league between them.

Had they not done so, the Dublin-based Leinster team would not be contesting another European semi-final next weekend. If national leagues were the rule in rugby union, the best players, the sponsorship money, the TV revenue, and the fans would gravitate to the two big leagues in England and France.

Irish club rugby would be operating at the level of the League of Ireland. The crowds who gathered (pre-pandemic) in Dublin airport each Saturday morning to attend matches would have been swelled by the alickadoo community.

Governance structures

The Dublin scenes were repeated in the airports of cities like Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Vienna. These cities and many more could easily support top-tier professional football teams but are prevented from doing so because of the Fifa-imposed national structure, blessed by the European Commission.

The corruption of European and world football has its origins in the governance structures of Fifa and its constituent confederations, of which the most significant is Uefa. It would be fun to check how many attendees at the 1998 Paris congress have subsequently had to explain themselves to investigating magistrates and police in jurisdictions around the world.

International football is hugely profitable – the players are paid by the clubs, hired by the national associations for buttons, and the enormous TV and sponsorship revenues accrue to Uefa, Fifa and these national bodies which belong to nobody. This has created in recent decades an enormous float of ownerless money which has attracted attention from volunteers willing to furnish the missing ownership.

Professional clubs, even in the favoured larger countries, do not typically make money, it has been bargained away by the players and their agents. Most of the wannabe Super League clubs had been registering losses before Covid came along and operating deficits have escalated since. The avoidance of further losses, rather than a profit-grab, was their principal motivation.

No European Super League consisting of just 15 or 20 clubs would be dynamically stable, in the language of cartel economics. There would be too many excluded clubs of adequate scale and they would form credible competitor leagues. If three leagues in Europe is right for rugby, seven or eight might be viable for football given the far broader geographical spread of the game.

A proposal to form a transnational league amongst the excluded smaller countries, called the Atlantic League and with Irish involvement, has not got off the ground having surprisingly failed to attract the support of leading clubs in Ireland and Scotland. 

The collapse of the Super League is not an example of raw capitalism thwarted. The existing structure of European club football is an anti-competitive racket, and not in the sporting or economic interests of this country.

Colm McCarthy is an economist

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