For a number of years, the idea of a European Super League has circulated, a league which would take the best clubs from Europe’s elite leagues and creates one Champions League quality – all-league format.
The continent’s elite could in the future opt to redefine the landscape of domestic football as we know it, heading off into the sun to the lucrative competition, whilst leaving the rest to fight over the scraps that remain.
For example in England, it may well be the established top six of yesteryear that gets the nod to make the move. Although given the flexibility of the league standings in recent seasons it would be difficult to firmly say who belongs amongst that ‘big six’. For instance, historically the likes of Leicester wouldn’t be included amongst a European elite league, despite winning the Premier League a few short years ago.
Away from the elite, however, how can European football strengthen itself from the bottom up? The coronavirus pandemic which postponed football worldwide brought the spotlight firmly football’s failing finances, particularly further down the pyramid away from the elite. There certainly seems to be a requirement, perhaps more than ever for leagues and clubs to maximise their earning potential, so driving up the competitive nature of their competitions may just be one way of achieving this.
Too many leagues are of a poor standard and hold little to no-cache with supporters around Europe outside of their direct catchment area, thus denying them of all important outside revenues. Strengthening the lower tiers of football on the continent would surely drive the standard up and therefore increase competition throughout.
Here I’ve taken a look at the prospect of cross border leagues and their pluses, minuses, and otherwise.
Recently it was suggested that officials at UEFA are becoming more open to the idea of leagues from nations deemed ‘smaller’ EU nations in football terms, could in fact merge with neighbours in the future to increase the level of competition. FIFA have also hinted they could drop its long-standing opposition to cross-border leagues as they look to help countries who are struggling to compete with the giants of the game.
Not only would such a move increase the standard, but in turn, it would also increase the financial benefits and possibly lead to more broadcast revenues for the nations and their clubs in question as the standard increases and so generates a higher demand.
The introduction of cross border leagues immediately adds an additional element of rivalry. A natural rivalry between two nations may be pre-existing therefore will stand when two clubs from either country play each other. As will be touched on later, nation to nation rivalry also adds its practicality downsides, however, in the main a healthy rivalry born out of contests down the years, either internationally or in differing sporting areas will heighten the interest in this form of club competition.
As it stands clubs who qualify from the countries in question competing in either the Champions League or the lesser Europa League, struggle to make headway, and often find themselves comfortably out of their depth in the early stages. Cross border competitions could go some way to bridging that gap.
The basis of the European domestic structure has always been national competition, so this new mooted format would go against everything that has gone before and leagues could become multinational. Smaller leagues are currently faced with the commercial power of the big leagues, such as England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga. Superpowers are simply never going to compete with under the current guise.
Having freely moving clubs across what can be some hostile borders is in certain parts of the world is easier said than done. In some European areas, there may be drastic political differences to overcome before clubs can think about regularly visiting their neighbours for an away day. Particularly in Eastern European countries, where there are tensions between Rusia and Ukraine currently, any plans to merge the Ukrainian Premier League with any other nation could be a long way off as things stand.
Removing certain clubs from current domestic structures does remove some historic rivalries, rivalries that stem back decades, and have gone a long way to building the very foundations the beautiful game has been built on. For instance, if a European Super League was formed Liverpool would depart the Premier League and Everton perhaps would remain, instantly taking away the Merseyside derby from league competition at least. Similarly in Belgium, a country which has been widely touted as an advocate of the cross border revamp, Club Brugge would likely go into a mixed nation league, whilst Cercle Brugge would be left behind, removing a derby clash from the league that was first played in 1900.
A league of essentially only the elite removes much of the possibility for a good old fashioned ‘giant-killing’ or an upset in league terms. Although no surprise result from two sides meeting whilst competing at the same league standard can truly be called a major shock, there is still something beautiful in the lesser fancied team nicking a late goal to send the big boys packing. Something that in a league made up of only the bigger clubs will be forgotten.
There is little knowledge about how clubs would or wouldn’t continue to compete in their own nation’s domestic cup competitions should they enter into either a European super league or cross border leagues. There is a possibility some of the rivalries discussed could live on in cup formats.
In the early 2000s, a plan was drawn up for a dubbed ‘Atlantic League.’ The league would feature clubs from the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Scotland, with some Scandinavian countries also involved. But this notion was rejected by UEFA, who at the time weren’t in favour of the restructure.
FIFA has previously allowed an exemption for the USA’s Major League Soccer, which includes clubs from the United States and Canada, it has taken a hard-line stance on all other such attempts around the world.
Currently, clubs in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are in exploratory talks about the possibility of an ‘All-Island League’. The big duo north of the border Rangers and Celtic have often talked in the past about joining the English Premier League.
Plans in progress
The latest cross border plan was announced in 2016 with clubs from Scotland, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland meeting to discuss a proposal from Danish side FC Copenhagen.
However, the coronavirus pandemic, which saw both Belgium and the Netherlands join Scotland in canceling their season prematurely, has led to a new plan to launch an 18-team league in the nations, excluding Scotland however.
Five clubs from Belgium – Gent, Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Genk and Standard Liege and six in from the Netherlands – Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, AZ Alkmaar, Utrecht and Vitesse Arnhem – have recently funded a feasibility study to be carried out by UK research agency Deloitte.
The ‘BeNeLiga’ would feature ten Dutch and eight Belgian clubs and the study shows that it would expect to raise around £300 million in combined TV and sponsorship deals. An income that would instantly put it amongst the big five leagues in Europe and actually overhaul France’s Ligue 1.
How it might work
In essence, this format would see the ‘best’ clubs from a group of nations, usually separate by short distances or perhaps sharing a borer, breakaway from their current domestic competition, and form a league with the others. Essentially removing the best teams from multiple nations and having them compete on a regular basis would enhance competition. The likes of Dutch superpower Ajax facing newly-promoted Dutch minnows is a one-way affair 99 out of 100 times. Removing the so-called ‘easy fixtures’ for a club like Ajax would mean they have to improve in order to stay elite.
The remaining clubs outside of the ‘bigger’ sides that have departed would then face the prospect of restructuring their own domestic pyramid. For instance, the Dutch Eredivisie without the aforementioned big six would leave 12 remaining clubs, meaning six may be automatically promoted from level two Eerste Divisie to make up the numbers once more.
The Belgian and Dutch leagues respectively are relatively highly acclaimed and have seen numerous big players and big clubs come from their shores. This idea was perhaps instead better suited for some of the lower-level European nations. For instance, it would be entirely viable to combine the Scandinavian nations to create one league, also the same could be said for the nations aside from the Adriatic Sea – Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, and Slovenia. Leagues in their own right that are far from elite level, whilst still being professional. One combined league, albeit not without its complications, would create more interest and be of a vastly higher standard in time.
The coronavirus pandemic has perhaps highlighted the need for a restructure in the lower levels of European football. Leagues faced crippling financial losses when football was suspended, meaning many leagues cancelled their seasons altogether, something that may have been avoided were they in a financially stronger position.
For the good of the game
It certainly seems the introduction of at least one cross border league is imminent, something that can only be good for the game on a wider scale. Although it may in the short term affect the teams left behind, given time they would learn to cope without their pre-existing superpowers., They would be able to develop their own successful history and with it a stronger following, perhaps allowing themselves a greater share of the spoils when it comes to broadcasting rights and other commercials.
As for those who do breakaway with newly formed leagues the advancement in standard and the increased audience can only lead to positive outcomes. There is bound to be some initial trepidation, particularly from those traditionalist fans who don’t cope well with change. Put simply football, and especially those clubs who don’t eat from the European top table, need to find a way of moving forwards if it is going to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case – The PSG’s, Real Madrid’s, Juventus’ etc.