BY JIM KEOGHAN
In the wake of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur reaching the Champions League Final, the thoughts of their fans inevitably turned to tickets. For the tens of thousands who have followed their clubs home and away through the competition, the desire to be in Madrid is palpable. But most won’t make it.
In part this is down to availability. Each club has been allowed just 16,000 tickets, an amount that ultimately makes up less than half of the stadium’s capacity. The lion’s share of the remaining tickets will, according to UEFA, be allocated to ‘the local organising committee, UEFA and national associations, commercial partners and broadcasters’. In this, you can probably underline ‘commercial partners and broadcasters’
But even if you’re eligible for one of those 16,000 tickets, they won’t come cheap. Although some come in at £60, this only accounts for 20% of the allocation. For the remainder, it works out at 54% of tickets priced at £154, 21% at £385 and 5% at £513. And that’s before you get into the black market, where tickets can sell for many times their face value.
In response, fans were understandably outraged. Joe Blott, chair of Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly supporters group, summed up the feeling perfectly when he said: ‘The absolute joy of getting to the final, particularly the way we did, is tainted because of the astronomical expense of getting to Madrid. UEFA should be putting a price cap on away tickets. There are plenty of corporate sponsors to get money from. Ideally we would be looking at prices of around £30.’
But then what did fans expressing their outrage expect? When was elite football about anything other than the power of money?
The Champions League is the embodiment of this ethos. UEFA has spent the past few decades slowly engineering a competition that cements the dominance of Europe’s most economically powerful clubs. Gone is the element of jeopardy that used to characterise the old knock-out system of the European Cup; gone are the chances of clubs from ‘weaker’ nations making it to the latter stages; long gone is the notion participants in Europe’s premier competition have to necessarily be champions.
It has become a tournament that both celebrates and is geared towards the wealthiest clubs that reside in the key leagues of England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. An economically weaker outsider like Ajax might make it to the latter stages now and then, but to do so takes a herculean effort on their part, and one that is unlikely to be repeated the following season.
And more than just welcoming this elite, the competition also sustains the perpetual oligarchy based on wealth that has emerged in the European game. Although several other factors are attributable to the creation of this moneyed strata, such as commercial growth, TV money and match day revenue, the Champions League has played a pivotal part. Not only has it annually rewarded elite clubs for their participation, it has also raised their profile internationally, enabled them to develop wider commercial partnerships and ensured that they are at the front of the queue when it comes to recruiting players.
For the elite, involvement in the competition has represented something of a virtuous circle, with each year of participation helping cement domestic dominance and bolstering a club’s chances of participating again.
Although the Champions League represents elitism at its worst, it is of course, not the only area within the game where the power of money is evident, as English football illustrates every season. The financial gap between the ‘Big 6’ and the rest of the game stretches further with every campaign, as does the gap that exists between the top-flight and the remainder of the pyramid. Anecdotally, this latter chasm is often best expressed when players are bought and sold, with clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City able to spend as much in one window as many Football League clubs spend on their entire squads.
During the course of an average season, few fans of elite clubs bemoan the endemic inequality that blights the game. It’s rare to find Liverpool supporters, for example, who campaign for European nations such as Holland, Norway or Sweden, being given better representation in the competition, or Manchester City fans who want Premier League TV money distributed more equitably across the entire pyramid to limit the chokehold the ‘Big 6’ have on the European places; or Manchester United supporters who want ideas such as wage, transfer or spending caps introduced into the game.
For these fans, the power of money is something that suits them just fine. Or at least it does, right until it doesn’t. Because that’s what’s happening on June 1. As is the case every year, supporters of clubs that reach the final are simply facing the reality which the majority of football fans face week in week out – that those with the deepest pockets get to enjoy the spoils.
To rail against the unfairness of ticket prices at an event which, more than any other match in the football calendar, revels in elitism seems naive. Of course, ticket prices were going to be expensive, what else were UEFA going to do? And, of course, it’s going to be the better off getting to enjoy the game because that’s exactly what the Champions League is all about.
What is happening on June 1 is a disgrace. But then, what’s been happening all season, both in the Champions League and in leagues across the continent is a disgrace. Inequitable economic power shapes our game day by day, a situation that worsens with every campaign. And that’s what should enrage us. It’s not enough to point to Champions League ticket prices and say it’s unfair. That anger and frustration should go further and embrace other areas of the game where the power of money is spreading its pernicious influence.