Saturday, January 24, 2009

We have the so-called ‘G-14’ at the present – the group of big European clubs, which formally and informally pressure UEFA about their various needs and interests. One of their desires is the setting of their own international league. The big clubs get more than press attention – the former European club tournaments were reorganized at least in part because of G-14 threats. The Champions League is something like a compromise: the big clubs have their places in it guaranteed and not at all in the shady preliminary stages. They play on that level where big money appear, and the whole tournament comes dangerously close to the idea of separate league of the rich and mighty. All this came out in the 1990s, right? And no matter how much UEFA accommodate G-14, they are still unhappy and threat to run away. Money is the bottom line and it is quiet simple – a match between Real Madrid and BATE Borisov (Belarus) does not bring revenue neither from gates, nor TV, nor sponsors. Real Madrid – Juventus does. Naturally, to the general public the story is presented differently – profits are secondary to the real issue: the quality of the game. And it is true that playing small clubs at shabby stadiums in obscure countries spells low quality and no fun. And both club officials and fans fret that a superstar costing millions may injure himself in Belarus just before the important match in Turin. Well, it is old story.
Which I think I heard of in 1971 for the first time. Back then it was even attractive idea – at least for a kid, who dreams to see big games opposing big clubs. In 1971 it sounded new, just like in the 1990s it sounded new to many fans. Yet, it was old idea in 1971 – recently I was leafing old magazines and there it was:
An article from 1959 criticizes the idea of establishing European Super-league discussed by the owners of big professional clubs and on a meeting of representatives of the British, French, and Italian professional leagues. Santiago Bernabeu, the famous president of Real Madrid voiced the opinion for ‘rebirth’ of the football game, or rather the transformation of it from mere sport into a spectacle. The article was published in short lived Bulgarian magazine -‘Football’ - but it is a reprint from ‘Sovetsky Sport’ (Soviet sport), a Moscow daily, which still exists unlike the political system which christened it. The text is the usual Communist vitriol, unmasking yet another Capitalist plot, and is not worthy translating it even for fun. One thing, however, rings true – it was all about money. Big clubs were not happy playing small ones. It was different reality in the late 1950s, but the fight for independent big-club league remains with same arguments for almost 50 years. And I think – sadly – that the big clubs will get eventually what they want. It is not an attractive idea to me – it will convert European football into variety of US sporting format: same clubs play between themselves endless and largely meaningless games. Actually, the Champions League is already similar to that. Small clubs and very likely many national championships will simply disappear. This is hardly the real question, though – this seems certain and only a matter of time.
The real question is who are the big clubs. What is the criteria for ‘a big club’? Revenue? Success on the pitch? The number of fans? Combination of the three? Or the reputation of a country in football terms? Some culprits are obvious: Real Madrid, Juventus Turin, Milan and Inter from Milan, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid – they have been active promoters of the idea since the 1950s. Successful, rich, popular. Italy, France, and England negotiated in 1959, but the basis here was and is shaky: well established professional championships, but no French club was really rich, popular, or successful. And today is the same. In the same time successful Italian and English clubs from the 1950s went down later and were replaced by others moving up. Germans would have been included certainly, but which German clubs exactly? Bayern were obscure club back then. There was no really strong German club. Benfica Lisbon certainly would have been invited in the 1960s, but they are hardly among the big guys today. Well, who else? Such a league has to be somewhat vaster, not only combining clubs of three or four countries.

Today the mystery is the same: take the G-14. Manchester United and Liverpool (England), Juventus, Milan, and Inter (Italy), Olympique Marseille and Paris Saint Germain (France), Bayern and Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Ajax and PSV Eindhoven (Holland), FC Porto (Portugal), Barcelona and Real Madrid (Spain) are the original 14 from 2000. In 2002 4 more clubs were added: Arsenal (England), Olympique Lyon (France), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), and Valencia (Spain). In terms of tradition, support, success, and even budgets the selection is weird. What exactly ever won the French clubs? Or Bayer Leverkusen? The Dutch traditionally run tight budgets, no matter what – are they richer clubs than, say, Galatasaray Istanbul or Panathinaikos Athens? Is it possible to think Borussia Dortmund ‘big’ club today? Why not Schalke-04? Is PSV Eindhoven more popular than the absent here Feyenoord? Is it enough to have clubs from only seven countries if the continent has now well over 50 states, and in football terms – even more, for Israel and Kazakhstan are part of the European football map. What about Russian clubs? They have increasingly growing budgets in the last years and the tendency is to get even more money. But if you get the Russians, what about clubs with traditions and passionate support? Like Crvena zvezda (Red Star) Belgrade or Steaua Bucharest? Are Chelsea and Liverpool in the same financial league today? Some giants of the past may be fading, like Benfica, Anderlecht, St. Etienne, but are Lazio and Roma to be ignored? Then again, what exactly Lazio and Roma ever won? The questions run into complete circle, a dead end. No matter what, football fans are conservative bunch – it would not do to create new clubs and spread them evenly around Europe.
On the other hand, 18 clubs is classic football league format. Get those 18 of 2002 and it will be more than decent championship. May be.
In 1971 it looked more interesting than it is today – the revenue was still primarily from the gates. At least for the kid I was then, such a league was attractive. Imagine the thrill of Manchester United playing Real Madrid. Then! The thought of watching game after game between ManUnited and Real horrifies me in 2008. When this happens, don’t count on me paying any attention. Actually, I feel fans have been robbed after 1990 – and I am not alone in that: tournaments became boring business instead of fun and passion. The old news I recall as important moment of 1971 is tremendously sad news. Futile too.