Take a moment and imagine this picture: Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord battling Club Brugge, Anderlecht and Gent for supremacy in north-western Europe. The stakes would be new, the financial benefit should be extortionate, and the media coverage could be global. PR campaigns would flock across the world to get the word out: ‘there is a fresh innovative football spectacle for you to enjoy. Come and see this grand experiment.’
The first-ever major regional football league kicks off and it is living up to its dignified expectations. The top teams struggle to pull away from each other. The title race turns into the Netherlands vs Belgium dogfight. Rivalries are building. Teams are scrambling to reach the Champions League. The domestic clubs’ pride are at stake. The league is getting global evening views. Fans want a change from the boring predictable winners in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Before we even realise it, the regional division has moved up in the football league food chain. Meanwhile, the fans have unconsciously welcomed the competitive life of a pristine regional league.
The portrait is interesting to visualise. You might be intrigued by it. Or the thought of a regional league might go against every traditionalist bone in your body, so you’re now building with tension with every passing thought about it. Or maybe you just do not care about what happens in Dutch and Belgian football.
Each feeling is understandable and maybe the image depicted is too radical. But the essence of it is not. A north-western regional league is officially on the table and it is looking more likely than ever before to be formed.
The Dutch and Belgian authorities, as well as some clubs from Eredivise and the Belgian Pro League, reportedly authorised Deloitte, the accountancy giant, to produce a financial report if a merger occurred. Deloitte estimated the so-called ‘BeNeliga’ television revenue would increase from €80 million – the current joint-annual figure for both leagues – to €400m per year. BeNeLiga would become the sixth-largest revenue stream in Europe.
Club Brugge’s president, Bart Verhaeghe, spoke to French newspaper Le Monde in October last year and mentioned there are plans for a regional league too. “We are setting up a competition together with the Netherlands to reduce the gap to the five top European countries,” he said. “Belgian football is waking up and has entered modernity. We could tap into a market of 28 million people.
“The championship would consist of 18 clubs, eight of which come from Belgium. It could all go very quickly. If it is not for next season, then without a doubt in the next two seasons.”
Despite what Verhaeghe said, it is unlikely for this to happen soon as the Belgian Pro League have committed themselves to a TV deal that finishes in 2024/25. But, if it were to be formed, the two-lowest ranked teams from each country would be relegated for the national winners of Netherlands and Belgium.
It isn’t the first time a regional league has been proposed. Former UEFA president Michel Platini talked of a Netherlands-Belgium league and even a united Balkan top division in 2009. However, football wasn’t ready. Then Dutch Football Association director Henk Kesler was not a fan of the idea. “We looked into this years ago. Clubs weren’t interested. Personally, I don’t believe in it.”
At the time it made sense. Eredivisie had talent coming through with Luiz Suarez, Moussa Dembélé and Marko Arnautovic. Other players like Andreas Granqvist were being eyed by the likes of Bayern Munich. This contradicted Belgium’s quality as it was thought they could not compete against the Dutch teams.
The situation has now fundamentally changed. UEFA’s association club coefficient ranking has placed Belgium in eighth and the Netherlands in ninth, while the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue One have solidified themselves as the elite divisions. The commercialisation model has replaced the previous debt-ridden method of winning over the past decade. It is extremely difficult for the Netherlands, and especially Belgium, to keep or attract top-level talent. Even if they could, they could not compete against the financial juggernauts elsewhere in Europe.
Ajax’s class of 19’ were the latest flourishing crop to be cherry-picked by elite teams. Matthijs De Light departed to Juventus, Frenkie De Jong to Barcelona, Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea and rumours swell around André Onana’s and Nicolás Tagliafico’s futures. When Ajax managed to create a young excitable team, they did not have the financial muscle to compete against the elite.
It is why momentum is growing. It is why these plans are radical. And it is why football is heading for a new precedent. A successful formation will be the key to unlocking the gate to football developing towards its next phase: extreme globalisation.
Globalisation focuses on multinational companies dominating the world market. Football has successfully globalised itself on a seismic scale. The European leagues and the continental competitions are the major globalisation success stories. Various players from every part of the world have switched their native country for a more luxurious opportunity. The World Cup and other continental competitions have gifted players the platform to showcase themselves. Limitless worldwide broadcasting has made this even easier.
Nevertheless, extreme globalisation cannot be achieved in the current system. FIFA president Gianni Infantino would relish being the man to achieve it for FIFA, but a four-year cycle for the World Cup and the revamped Club World Cup makes it a difficult task. What it needs is a constant power to maintain its monopoly over the global market. A European regional league would do exactly that.
It is extremely unlikely, probably even impossible, for the BeNeliga to accomplish this. It would not have the star power and stature to pull off such a feat. The elite clubs, meanwhile, have all the traits to do so. BeNeliga’s approval from UEFA would open the door to the loathed and anticipated European Super League.
It is no secret Real Madrid’s president Florentino Perez, and Juventus’ and the European Club Association’s chairman Andrea Agnelli are tired of the traditionalist format. They have attempted to remodel the Champions League in their image or even break away from their divisions completely. Perez proposed the latter in discussions with FIFA president Gianni Infantino last year. On the other hand, if you simply type ‘Agnelli dangerous to football’ into Google, you’ll see a host of media outlets brandishing the Italian businessman as football’s satanic figure.
In Verhaeghe’s view, the BeNeliga is progressive rather than reactionary. He wants to get ahead of the curve because he predicted a European Super League is happening. It is only a matter of when not if to him. “We cannot ignore the new reality,” he told Kicker. “Sooner or later, there will be a European Super League with games between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on Sundays.”
On a milder scale, the futures of Celtic and Rangers would also be a major talking point. Celtic’s chief executive Peter Lawwell disclosed “nothing stays the same” while speaking about UEFA granting the formation of a regional league in 2012. BeNeliga formation will reawaken that talk from Glasgow.
Though it is difficult to judge when the BeNeliga would be inaugurated. The original plan Verhaeghe’s spoke of would have been drastically affected by the coronavirus. Football clubs have been put in peril and will need financial relief from the authorities and investors. The amount will vary from division to division and club to club. Everyone has a different financial level and model.
Whether the financial fallout could fast-forward the league’s creation is also another possibility. The vast increase in television revenue is one significant source of covering the loses piled on during the pandemic. It can also be suggested larger sponsorship deals, due to a bigger domestic audience, will be agreed in this period. Football financial expert Kieran Maguire even said on his podcast The Price of Football that he believes “it [BeNeliga] has been accelerated as a result of COVID.”
Beyond the pandemic’s impact, questions are surrounding how clubs and fans view its creation. Twente Enschede, the one-time Eredivisie champions and fourth most popular team in the Netherlands, were reportedly upset at not being a part of the talks. A similar feeling was held at Heerenveen and Sparta Rotterdam.
Where a poll by Statista showed a polarising split of 47% of fans being in favour, 46% against and 7% neutral, members of Dutch and Belgian supporters’ groups have voiced their concerns. “We are not enthusiastic about it,” said Matthijs Keuning, the president of Supporterscollectief Nederland.
“Our unique football culture would go out the window with this kind of merger. The Eredivisie is a championship considered to have attractive football and good players. A league in which the NAC could win against PSV and Emmen FC could win against Ajax.
“We don’t really understand how they could scrap that image by joining up with Belgium, where the competition has a different image because of corruption and other crazy things. On top of that, a merger like this involving less popular sports has already failed. It is difficult to get all the clubs to agree in the Netherlands and it will be even more so if two countries have to agree.”
He added: “The joint conclusion was we don’t want it. If the aim is to improve the quality of football, there are many other ways to do that. You have to ensure there is an existing open football pyramid and that the clubs can’t mutually empty the youth training centres. We really don’t need Belgian clubs to increase our resistance. Dutch football as a brand is stronger than Belgian football.”
Eddy Janssis, Belgian supporter’s president, meanwhile questioned Deloitte’s accountancy. “Plans are being developed but we don’t know exactly what Deloitte’s studies contain. Have they taken into account the huge consequences in terms of security? How will the fan’s experience change? What criteria will be used to determine who will take part? How do you manage European tickets? Lots of questions, very few answers.”
Likewise, UEFA should be opponents of the merger. Other than protecting national identity and readjusting European qualifications slots, it is a step towards a European Super League. Even a Super League with promotion and relegation, like the BeNeliga proposes, will mean the end of the Champions League. It is a doomsday scenario for UEFA.
Yet they must cater to the pandemic’s aftermath. Nobody knows what the football landscape will be birthed after Covid-19. Every action is rightly about securing the sport’s short-term survival when the future is so uncertain. The conditions in Europe will need to be assessed as of when the pandemic has surpassed.
In any scenario, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin maintains there will be no serious shakeup. “It’s important to say that there were only two clubs seriously discussing creating a closed super league,” the UEFA president told ESPN in July. “They even deny now that they discussed it, but we know they did. But it was two clubs, not a big movement. The vast majority of clubs know that football can develop only if everyone has access. Trust me, 99 percent of clubs — even some very big clubs at the top — believe in this.”
No matter how small the support was for, most likely, Perez’s and Angelli’s resolution, it will be revealing to know how much support grows if they saw a successful regional league with promotion and relegation in practice. This would build upon what The Athletic reported in February. The media group said Barcelona and other elite clubs were included in Madrid’s and Juventus’ exclusive group of financial entitlement. They believe they were the reason for UEFA making €2.75 billion before the pandemic and deserve more of the money pie. Whether the pandemic has weakened or strengthened this view is yet to be seen.
The repercussions of the BeNeliga plan has created a crossroads moment for football. Belgian and Dutch football face sacrificing traditional fan culture and experience for either, an extra slice of the ever-growing football economy, or to secure their survival during and after a pandemic. UEFA also face their dilemma of juggling the pandemic’s impact and the potential affects the BeNeliga could have on their raging economic Cold War with football’s elite.
History has shown radicalism is fuelled by a disaster. Football’s future walks along the same tightrope.