the great schism

There is a war going on, and it’s battlefield is professional football.

michel platini
if i were uefa's michel platini, i'd be very worried about the complaints from my biggest clubs.

Now, before you get all worked up about me calling a soccer problem a “war,” I know that any issue occurring in the game isn’t exactly comparable to any of the “real wars” that are currently plaguing the planet — Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan or even Mexico’s drug war, for example. It’s completely fair to say that any conflict brewing within a sport is effectively a first world problem. I don’t mean any disrespect, so why don’t you go ahead and put down that pitchfork.

But for all intensive purposes, I’m calling it a “war” because there is an enormous battle getting ready to take place over the future of the professional sport we all love and obsess over. Just like the Great Schism of 1054 that broke apart the Catholic Church, this impending war will shake the very foundations of professional soccer if not resolved.

I wrote a month ago about class warfare in the game, and the damage that financial inequality has done to it. The cascading pyramid system of European football has created a system where the powerful become more powerfulon the backs of the little guys (shades of real life, perhaps?). That’s why it takes a club like Manchester City to spend it’s way into powerful elite.

This system has also given increasing amounts of power to the clubs with respect to the international game, and rightfully so. After all, the national teams only pay a fraction of the costs in developing international caliber players, the majority of which is paid by the many clubs across the globe. But in the end, the national teams reap rewards from all of that investment by the clubs without as much at risk if a player get’s injured. At the very least, this is why I think it’s fair that clubs should be compensated by FIFA in those situations.

But as the club game has grown in popularity, the race to capitalize and profit on the club game has caused the clubs to continuously push for more and more concessions from the international game and the governing bodies.

And frankly, their demands are ever increasing and completely troubling.

jorge valdano
when a former major executive at a major club makes major accusations, i have major concerns.

Former Manchester City CEO Garry Cook was one of the first to publicly claim that the idea of a breakaway European Super League was being discussed back in 2008. But he wasn’t the last either. As recently as last month, former Real Madrid Sporting Director Jorge Valdano claimed that Real and Barça will eventually have to move on from La Liga because the competition isn’t strong enough for them.

Let’s focus less on the fact that both Cook and Valdano are publicly-shamed, formerly high ranking members of their clubs’ hierarchies, and focus more on the fact that they were both very high ranking officials at their former clubs.  These guys were the ones sitting in on and directing the shady backroom deals that everyone knows suspects happen at the world’s biggest clubs.

The fact that both of these departed executives, coming from two vastly different countries with very different sporting cultures, have declared that their clubs were at least kicking around the idea of breaking away from their existing domestic leagues… isn’t that extremely worrying to anyone else?!?!

Throwing fuel on the fire is the speculated work of former Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon. Unlike Cook and Valdano, Kenyon is very well respected within the game’s management circles, and apparently he is already working on a plan to help clubs break away when they want to do it. Though he has yet to publicly back up said claims, I can’t imagine Peter working on a project that was merely a pipe dream.

The idea of a break away “European Super League”, akin to the major sports leagues on this side of the pond, has long been a dream of the major clubs. The best playing the best, week in and week out, is — no matter how you put it — a mouthwatering idea.

But with clubs once again apparently threatening their imminent withdrawal, would a EuroLeague really be the right move for professional football?

The positives, at first at least, seem to heavily tilt the scales in favor of this breakaway league.

  • For the fans, it would easily be a mouthwatering opportunity to truly see a European champion crowned in the same way a normal national league system would crown a champion: through a weekly league table. The current Champions League format almost promotes conservative/boring tactics as clubs look to minimize the risk of conceding away goals while waiting for the other teams to make a mistake. Replacing the knockout rounds with a league table would allow teams to focus on putting in solid performances across an entire season instead of just trying to go on a good run towards the end of the competition.
  • The clubs would surely rake in a mountain of cash through a revised competition. By breaking away and drawing up their own rules, they would suddenly have the ability to take a significantly larger chunk of the profits than the current set-ups allow.
  • Playing off the potential increase in revenues is that money’s ability to possibly save some “super” clubs that are currently on shaky financial ground. Proud, illustrious clubs hampered by leagues they’ve outgrown (The Old Firm, Ajax, FC Copenhagen, etc.) could potentially return to their former glory by using the higher revenue provided by a Euro League to strengthen and balance their books. Some of these clubs, notably Rangers in Scotland, are already looking to break away from their existing leagues just to survive, and would surely jump if a bigger opportunity showed itself.
  • Players the world over, just as they do today with the Champions League, would undoubtedly strive to compete in this one competition to rule them all. Just like with James Milner, guys would leave behind starting spots at slightly less prestigious clubs just to ride the pine at clubs competing in the world’s penultimate league. The wages are sure to be higher for those that are able to make the jump, thus increasing the desire of players to make it to that level. And just like their employers, some are even calling for the league themselves.

But to be honest, all of those seem like such short term improvements. A look at the other side of the coin reveals some startling issues that would arrise from a breakaway European super league:

  • The little clubs that aren’t lucky enough to make the cut for the new league would eventually become second-rate, feeder squads to the EuroLeague clubs. The amount of financial discrepancies between the leagues would no-doubt cause the best players from the rest be cherry-picked by the elite sides. Not that this doesn’t already happen to an extent, but with no chance of ever being promoted to the big time, what other purpose could a small club serve? Welcome to the minor leagues of Europe!
  • How would the fans of the small clubs feel about supporting a club that could never possibly reach the big time? The appeal of the super league and it’s clubs would surely dilute the interest in smaller clubs and their competitions.
  • While the creation of a breakaway league would probably save some clubs on poor financial footing, the power vacuum left by their departure from smaller leagues will likely lead to the quick demise of many clubs and competitions. Think of leagues like the Scottish Premier League: without Rangers and/or Celtic to draw in TV viewers, would the SPL and all of its clubs actually be able to survive?

The potential ripple effect from a mass withdrawal of major clubs from European competitions could be devastating and far reaching. Stress on could.

The European Cup has long stood as UEFA’s answer to the clubs’ calls for a super league, though it’s never quite been the competition the clubs have desired. In fact, the threat of clubs breaking away from the traditional structure has essentially mandated UEFA to revamp the competition numerous times just to keep them appeased.The original rebranding of the tournament to the Champions League — a change that drastically increased the revenues generated for participating clubs — is one such example of this. And it’s good thing that they did, as the exit of the old continent’s major clubs from the domestic and international leagues which UEFA sanctions would have surely been a fatal blow to the organization.

liverpool's john henry
if you think that JWH wouldn't breakaway from the premier league to maximize his investment return, you're only kidding yourself.

Unfortunately for UEFA, the reorganized Champions League is already growing stale. The group stage is generally considered a bore, with the top teams even fielding weakened sides because the competition is often poor. There are already calls to revamp the competition to keep fans and clubs interested, once again creating leverage for the clubs to break away.

Of course, this all hinges on whether or not the owners of said clubs have the stones to make this kind of move. Considering the fallout and subsequent backing away from the purported desire of some Premier League foreign owners wanting to end the relegation/promotion system, as well as having clubs sell their own international television rights, I’m guessing that their stones aren’t quite as big as some fear.

But the failure of those initiatives doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about this one.

Look, I’m not sitting here saying I have a solution to this threat, and I’m not sure of anyone that does yet. Without a doubt, tackling the issue of financial inequality between the clubs is a good first step. Though as intimately tied to the solution as that financial inequality is, fixing that problem is another completely different mountain to scale itself.

I am, however, saying that I’m really worried about the prospect of a breakaway league. And if it happens, I can’t help but worry more whether Tottenham will actually be included in it.

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