How Europe’s top clubs have parked the bus

Manuel Neuer, captain of FC Bayern Munich lifts the UEFA Champions League Trophy following his team'

Manuel Neuer, captain of FC Bayern Munich lifts the UEFA Champions League Trophy following his team's victory in the UEFA Champions League Final match between Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich at Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica on August 23, 2020 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

RICHARD CORBETT on the warped economics of European football which are entrenching its elite sides.

So, Bayern Munich are European football champions for the sixth time, after beating Paris St-Germain in last month's Champions League final.

Their triumph means that every time over the last 15 years (with one exception), the tournament has been won by a team that has previously won it three times or more. And, for the last quarter century, every Champions League winner bar one has come from one of the 'big four' national leagues of England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

European football has become dominated by a small number of clubs from a small number of countries. And that is not good for the game.

A similar concentration has happened at national level. Within each country, any team which does well enough to qualify for the Champions League hits the financial jackpot. Do it two or three times, and they are far richer than most other clubs in their national league.


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The extra revenue means you can afford the best players and win again. As a result, in each country, a handful of clubs – sometimes just one – have been able to reinforce their dominance of their national league.

So, in Germany you have Bayern Munich, who have just won the Bundesliga eight times in a row; in Italy, Juventus have been Serie A champions for the last nine years, the same feat achieved by Celtic in Scotland; Spanish clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid have between them won every La Liga title bar one for the last 15 years; in Portugal, it is Benfica and Porto who have monopolised their top flight for the last 17 years; Paris St-Germain will next season be seeking their eighth French title in nine years. Even in tiny Luxembourg, such league dominance can be found – Dudelange, who have yet to get through the qualifying stages of the Champions League but have had creditable Europa League campaigns, have won 15 of the last 20 domestic titles.

In England, there is a little bit more variety: five different clubs have won the Premier League over the last decade. Perhaps an alternative source of money for some clubs – hyper-wealthy owners from around the world – has created a slightly wider pool of top clubs than can be found in other leagues.

Of course, the playing field can never be completely level. Countries with bigger populations have always had an edge when it comes to international club football. But that dominance has increased.

No longer do the likes of PSV Eindhoven, Steaua Bucharest, Porto, or Celtic have much chance of winning the Champions League (or, before that, the European Cup), as they all did in the past.

The growth of TV revenue is one factor. It helps especially the leagues from larger countries with bigger domestic TV markets. Some have built on that to market their domestic games across the world.

The Premier League has the most TV revenue (and distributes it to all the clubs – unlike in Spain, where for a long time, the individual clubs sold TV rights, meaning that Real and Barcelona got most of the money). Smaller countries cannot match that.

Another factor is the trend for the best players from smaller countries to move to clubs in larger countries. This accelerated after the 1995 Bosman judgment of the ECJ, which banned restrictions on the number of foreign EU players within national leagues. Great news for the big clubs from big countries, but bad news for leagues in smaller countries who now invariably see their greatest talents go abroad.

A few seasons ago, almost every Premier League club had a Belgian player, at a time when the Belgium national team topped the world rankings, but their clubs no longer reach European finals as Anderlecht, Bruges, Mechelen, Standard Liege and Antwerp had done in previous decades.

This concentration of money in fewer countries and, within countries, fewer clubs has dire long term consequences for other clubs, especially from smaller leagues.

Many of them try, of course, to catch up. Clubs and managers are tempted to buy that one extra expensive star player who could make the difference: it will be well worth it if you succeed and hit the jackpot – but if you don't quite make it, your club may incur debts that set it on a downward spiral.

The same jackpot effect applies at other levels of modern football, in promotion and relegation battles. The single match at which the most money is at stake is the Championship play-off for promotion from the second tier of English football to the top one (the Premier League). Winning – perhaps as narrowly as through a missed penalty or the width of a post – gains access to an extra £150 million of extra revenue the following season compared to what you would have had.

So at all levels of the game, the vast disparities in revenue trigger unsustainable jackpot economics.

Hence the paradox that in a sport that has seen its revenues quadruple over the last couple of decades, there are regularly clubs facing administration. Or, at least, have to cut their cloth for several years.

But these disparities are not natural or inevitable, they arise from the way football is organised and how TV revenues from given tournaments are distributed to clubs.

There are things that UEFA could do to attenuate these trends. For instance, it could: re-distribute Champions League TV revenue much more widely so that smaller leagues and clubs, not just the elite, benefit; strengthen the 'home grown player' rule, so that all clubs must have a minimum of, say, a quarter of their squad coming from their own region or own youth academies; apply a stricter limit on squad sizes, to stop the trend of big clubs hoarding good players that they only rarely use; and charge a 'tax' on transfers, with the revenue going to help lower leagues and smaller clubs.

Bayern may be worthy champions of Europe, as Liverpool were last season, but they would be even more so, if the odds were no longer already so stacked in their favour, both domestically, and internationally.

Richard Corbett is a former Labour MEP. He served on the Independent Review of European Football in 2006.

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