If you haven’t been paying attention for the last couple decades, European soccer—the premier stage for the world’s most popular sport, where the clubs keep getting bigger and richer as more and more people around the globe get access to the best leagues and competitions, funneling even more money into the coffers of the big clubs and leagues, in turn making them even bigger and richer and better and more popular—is apparently in crisis.
This isn’t a financial crisis, of course. (Did you see what I said about the money above?) And there’s no problem with public interest, either. (The money is only there in the first place because of the world’s ravenous hunger for all things soccer.) The crisis, according to a sizable set of fans and media members, is an existential one: Can what was once an intensely, intimately local sport maintain its traditional appeal in a globalized environment?
Many of the controversies that pop up from time to time about “the modern game” are but the tips of this larger iceberg that have managed to poke up above the surface. Everything from the laments about how “money in the game” is ruining the sport to the rabble roused by the enormous transfer fees teams can command for players who don’t “deserve” to be valued that highly to the neutered, tourist-friendly, rowdy diehard-hostile stadium experience of many of the world’s biggest clubs can all be seen as specific iterations of this greater dilemma.
In the olden days—when the domestic league was everything; when each fanbase could honestly believe they were just a couple promising homegrown prospects away from the title; when European competition was a tantalizing, exotic tour to far-flung stadiums fans had barely heard of to play teams they had never seen; when being born on your block meant you rooted for Arsenal while the kid across the street’s address consigned him to Tottenham fandom; when provincialism was the game’s sole guiding principle—Soccer was Soccer.
In modern times, there is so much money and interest in the game from all over the world that basically every aspect of the game is managed with an eye to concerns completely foreign to the old ones. Making money, spending money, and maximizing revenue streams are now the big clubs’ foremost priorities, and loom much more prominently in the decision-making process than upholding traditions or currying favor amongst the local fans or sometimes even winning. Manchester United courting the Asian market by signing a Japanese player, or Barcelona eschewing La Masia prospects in favor of established imports, or Arsenal manager and lifelong zipper combatant Arsène Wenger calling a top-four finish a “trophy” often prioritized over even an actual trophy like the F.A. Cup, or the near-linear relationship between money and success and how the haves continue to distance themselves economically from the have-nots are, in this light, Not Soccer, all examples of the whittling away of the sport’s core ideals. (At least as far as this line of thinking goes.)
The latest example of this struggle comes from reports that UEFA plans to give English, Spanish, German, and Italian teams even greater access to the Champions League by automatically entering each of those league’s top-four table leaders into the UCL group stage. Currently, those four countries all get either two or three automatic group stage spots, plus one more entry into the playoff round where a third/fourth can win the right to a group stage place. The other, smaller UEFA member leagues are set to lose even more of their already limited access to the main portions of the Champions League. What were once automatic group-stage qualifiers will be pushed back to the final playoff round, while playoff qualifiers will be pushed back to the even earlier qualifying rounds, and so on.
For some, like the usually brilliant Jonathan Wilson in a piece at SI.com, this is another opportunity to rue how the game has changed. Wilson’s main point is that the hegemony of a select number of super-clubs in Europe’s handful of super-leagues in their domestic competitions and in Champions League has to some extent worn the shine off of what was the club soccer’s most prestigious, exciting, difficult-to-win competition.
It used to be that you could hardly predict who would make it to the final in the current season, and would consider an attempt to divine which teams would be duking it out in the later rounds in five years’ time as blatantly ridiculous. Nowadays the only real upset is if one of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or Barcelona don’t make the semifinal any given year—an insult to the proper way that they would be certain to avenge the next season. “Familiarity,” Wilson says, “has bred contempt.”
Why, Wilson asks, should anyone watch anything before the quarterfinals when you can basically ink in the same five or six teams that make it that far every season before a ball has even been kicked? What intrigue remains when the European Cup just gets passed from the same few teams in the same few leagues year after year after year? And won’t guaranteeing teams from the most powerful leagues an easier path to the lucrative group stages only calcify the status quo even more than it already is?
These are all sensible concerns, as are, to varying degrees, the other controversies that arise because of how the game is different now than it used to be. However, this is also pining for an idealized past that can never be recovered while ignoring ways that the present might be improved so that the future is even better than the past.
The issue comes down to a single question: What’s the best way to improve top-end European soccer? Wilson argues that the Europe-wide parity of the past, as evinced by the much higher number of teams from various countries that could and would make deep runs in the tournament compared to now, is what the sport’s powers should be shooting for but are instead turning away from. In this model, the undeniably superior top-to-bottom competitiveness of the Premier League, and the way that competitiveness inflects the league’s enormous global popularity and profitability, is the model UEFA should emulate in its quest to Make the Champions League Great Again, rather than the Spanish and German strategy of facilitating the continued and increasing dominance of one or two established powers, or in this case the top four leagues.
Wilson and those who share his view that these proposed new Champions League rules are bad for the game are, though, looking at it the wrong way. Who is more likely to upset a big English team in the UCL group stage or make a surprise quarterfinal run: the best team in Belgium or the fourth-best team in Italy? And, more importantly, to whom should the incentives for growth and improvement be tilted: clubs like APOEL, or clubs like Sevilla?
The only way to combat “money in the game” is with more money. Or, to put another way, the best way to cut into the runaway economic advantages of the biggest teams in Europe and the sporting benefits that come with all that money is to economically empower their closest rivals, i.e. the smaller-but-still-big clubs within the top leagues. That is the real lesson of the Premier League’s success: A wide array of tradition-rich, well-monied upper-middle class teams that can afford to pay enough really good players to hold their own with the big boys generates rabid interest and unending reams of money. People don’t love the EPL because a Leicester City can fluke their way into a title; they love it because Tottenham and Liverpool and Everton and West Ham can find, sign, and keep great players that just might—probably won’t, but might—do something special.
Barring something truly crazy, Legia Warsaw—the Polish club that just won a spot in the group stage on Tuesday—will not and realistically could never amass the capital necessary to cobble together a team capable of standing toe-to-toe with even a clown team like Arsenal. All the Champions League group stage entrances and swift exits in the world wouldn’t convince UCL knock out round-quality players to join a relatively anonymous team in Poland.
However, this current edition of Roma—the storied Italian team that was just knocked out of their UCL playoff—and especially a hypothetical future one buoyed by consecutive years of UCL group stage revenues and a well-stocked team of elite players attracted to Rome by the promise of European play—conceivably could scare a rich if clownish team like Arsenal. On top of that, guaranteed group-stage income and the higher caliber of player that money and regular Champions League competition attracts, plus Premier League-style equitable revenue sharing of the kind La Liga is now implementing, actually could very well go a long way towards making Europe’s top leagues better and deeper, which in turn would make international play more competitive and less predictable. The raw material that could be used to create a better Champions League is out there, but it’s not in Cyprus or Switzerland; it’s in Spain and Germany.
The appeal of the days when clubs from Sweden and the Netherlands and Belgium and Romania could fight their way into the European Cup final is obvious. The idea that in any given year, a wide assortment of league champions from across the continent could look at Europe’s premier trophy and justifiably hope to attain it is indeed, to use a word that so often comes up in these kinds of arguments, romantic. But worldwide scouting is too good for Ajax to horde for themselves all of the best Dutch talents without much in the way of real competition for their signatures, and the economic chasm between Manchester United and Steaua Bucharest is much too large for the two clubs to ever be peers again, let alone equals.
Even given the current state of affairs, we’re not consigned to a stagnant next decade of European soccer, where one of four or five teams in Spain and England and Germany take turns cruising through the streets of their home city in an open-top bus, waving the European Cup at their adoring fans in the victory parade year after year. (Not that that would be bad, necessarily: In what era wouldn’t the Real and Barça and Bayern squads of recent vintage—certainly three of the best teams ever assembled—have dominated? And is anyone mad that the greatest player of all time is on the perfect team to allow him the full expression of his greatness in all its facets?) Trying to strengthen Villarreal and Napoli and Schalke and the like seems like a smart and attainable way to bring about the competitiveness everyone says they want without killing the super-teams everyone demonstrably does. It’s at least a much more plausible strategy than merely wishing for the future to be more like the past.