On 16 team leagues and a Super League…
There has seemingly been considerable opposition amongst football fans towards Sandro Rosell’s suggestion that it would be better if top flights across Europe cut the number of teams in each to 16. However, I’ve got a few points here which don’t necessarily agree with that.
The main opposition to this will come from the smaller teams in the top flights or further down the pyramid, particularly in England where the lower leagues are stronger and more popular than abroad. But it’s worth bearing in mind here that they have already invented a narrative of “the big clubs are out to screw the little clubs over”, something that goes back to the formation of the Premier League generally. Yes, this does seem to be an elitist decision designed to favour the big clubs financially, but looking at it rationally, cutting the Premier League and other top flights to 16 teams isn’t necessarily a bad idea. In fact, it could be a good thing:
– While irrational lower league fans may believe otherwise, top players do play too many games. You can see this when it comes to the World Cup, a competition all football fans know and love regardless of what club they support. The last few World Cups have seen a worrying trend of increased numbers of key players missing the tournament due to injury, which does take the shine off it. Cutting the number of league games for the top flights across Europe would help save their bodies for the big tournament, and try and prevent international football continue its slide into irrelevance.
– There is a myth that the Premier League is great because any team can beat any other team on their day. It’s not that it’s not true – it’s just that there are a number of things which are overlooked. Upsets don’t not happen elsewhere – Barcelona and Real Madrid don’t win every game other than the El Clasico. Nor do upsets happen in the Premier League regularly – they are still a very rare occurrence. Otherwise, if they did, the league would be a lot closer than it actually is, and actually it would be quite boring – contrary to popular belief, football needs big clubs and small clubs, and there always will be both.
– Equally, at the moment, the bottom third of the table is clearly in a different metaphorical league to the big clubs in the Premier League. Getting rid of them might not overly impress the romantic but I think you have to be pragmatic to an extent. Cutting off some of the weaker clubs would help strengthen the rest of the league, both in terms of players and financially, with similar amounts of money spread between less teams. Yes, it’s elitist to an extent, but you can’t say that a large gap hasn’t already developed regardless, and that concentrating on a few is likely to make it a more competitive league. Some teams may float between, but who’s to say they wouldn’t anyway?
– …which leads me onto my next point: no one’s saying promotion and relegation between the Premier League and the Championship would stop. In fact, promotion to the Premier League would now be more valuable, and given that the gap between the bottom of the Premier League and the top or even mid-table in the Championship is very small, that’s a good thing. The money would trickle down, as it has done ever since the Premier League was founded. Football League club fans may go on and on about how the Premier League has meant the big teams get bigger and the small teams get smaller, but actually attendances across all the divisions of the Football League went up from 1992-93 on, and considerable money has trickled down and continues to do so. The reason smaller clubs started going financially downhill was more because of the ITV Digital fiasco, which was a Football League decision. But then that doesn’t fit the narrative of the big clubs being evil…
– European matches on a Saturday has been proposed in place of the extra league matches for the top flights. The purists and romantics will again whinge about this, but I really don’t see the problem. This could, in fact, be a fantastic opportunity for many lower league clubs. Saturday European matches probably wouldn’t off at 3 pm – they are more likely to be midday or, more likely, evening games to coincide with the primetime TV slots. Suddenly fans who would otherwise choose top flight football over lower leagues will have the option of going to a lower league match and then watching a European match in the evening at the pub or at home. It could really boost attendances for some clubs, particularly those in the Midlands, London and the North West.
But I think the main reason why lower league club fans are against this is because, combined with the idea of playing European matches on a Saturday, it does look like a step towards a European Super League. Again, this is one of those suggestions that always leads to a default negative reaction from the vast majority of English football fans, many of whom think the Champions League itself was a step too far (mainly based on the premise that not all the teams are champions), but I don’t think anyone has actually rationally considered what a European Super League would mean yet.
For one, I don’t think many people have actually considered how it would work. The European Club Association, the organisation believed to be the one that will launch this European league in 2014 when their deal with UEFA comes to an end, superseded the G-14 in 2008. The G-14 was originally made up of 14 large clubs in Europe, with 4 more joining in 2002 – enough for a league. But the ECA is currently made up of over 200 clubs, including teams from countries such as the Faroe Islands, San Marino, Andorra and, yes, 3 clubs from Wales (TNS, Bangor and Llanelli), as well as a significant number of teams from each of the major countries, including 10 from the Premier League. So how many are going into this European league then?
There are still many questions to be answered. Would it be one league of about 20 teams, one league of many spread over a long period of time, an NBA/NFL-style system with regions, or 2 or 3 divisions (or more) of about 20 teams? Would there be promotion and relegation between the nations and the European league, or would it be more franchise-based? Would it be totally separate to the national leagues or run alongside it like the Champions League? Who would run it? I have not seen any answers to these questions other than just guesses.
In any case, regardless of the format, why does it have to automatically be a bad thing? OK, so it may lead to the isolation and marginalisation of the national game, and away trips would be rather expensive (although clubs like Manchester United would probably still attract large away supports regardless). I don’t think anyone has said it doesn’t have its downsides. But beyond that, it would be great for football as a whole. You would get the majority of the best players in the world playing against each other week in week out, which is ultimately what all bar the most ardent lower league fan wants to see – as a pragmatic, neutral fan of quality football, it’s certainly what I would love to see.
It would probably be a close league as well. Yes, of course, a hierarchy of clubs would emerge, but I fully believe it would not be as significant in the national leagues. It would certainly be a lot closer to the Premier League myth of every team being able to beat any other team on the day than the Premier League is. Add in a play-off at the end and it would be totally open until the end.
Each club would have history as well – one of the great flaws of smaller clubs, as much of a fan of the Football League as I am, is that a significant number of them have very little history that is worthy of note in the grand scheme of things. A league with Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City regularly going head to head with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern, AC Milan, Ajax and co would be the ultimate football battle – and only one can win it.
I don’t think it has ever a case of whether it would work or not, because I believe it would be guaranteed to work. It’s a case of winning the fans over, as I sense a lot of scepticism even from the fans of the respective clubs, particularly in England where of course nearly everyone thinks European integration is a terrible idea (and I think this is more of a factor than people let on, too).
English football fans are forever stuck in the past. Romanticism is the spirit of the terraces. Any change is resisted, because people don’t like change. Some long for the “good old days” and want to turn back the clock. But the past isn’t coming back and they know it. The future is where it’s at, and as Arsene Wenger said two years ago, that future is likely to be in Europe.