On the subject of “polarisation” in football, fans and observers of the game are typically divided into three broad camps: Those who are simply uninterested; those who don’t mind it; and those who mind it very much.
Of the three groups, it’s the first that can claim the largest membership. Indeed, financial inequality is now so much a part of the fabric of football that its ubiquity has become unremarkable, and, for many, a frankly tedious subject of conversation. Moreover, resisting the almost cartoonish disparities that exist between the game’s “elites” and the “rest” can feel futile — or, worse still, an alien notion better suited to the corporatism of the American sporting landscape.
UEFA under attack
But while the apathetic and indifferent might be large in number, it’s a group that has recently lost its most influential member: European football’s governing body, UEFA. The custodian of the European game — which, incidentally, dishes out billions in prize money each year to a handful of the continent’s top teams — has this week cautioned against the creation of a new global club tournament which promises astronomical riches for a select few teams.
For the money-men in Nyon, the creation of such a competition is close to unthinkable. The proposal for a revamped FIFA Club World Cup, played every four years by the bluest of “Blue Bloods”, is nothing other than a prelude a full breakaway for Europe’s sporting aristocracy. Sure, the chosen clubs will continue to ply their trade in the same-old leagues back home (as well as in the Champions League annually), but financially, they might as well be ascending to another planet entirely — a planet that that sits beyond the reach of UEFA’s gravitational pull.
More prosocially, UEFA’s scepticism is motivated by a nagging fear that it is beginning to lose control over its cash-cow members. The new FIFA tournament represents a gateway drug into a world wherein the biggest clubs will begin to view themselves as independent commercial entities, capable of forming third-party deals and partnerships with or without the blessing of UEFA and the domestic leagues. It’s worth noting that FIFA’s experimental competition will be funded by nation-states and big institutional money. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are expected to be leading backers, along with Japan’s Softbank. The fear in the halls of Nyon is that club football might be about to enter into a new financial ecosystem; one from which UEFA will be excluded on practical grounds.
None of this, however, is to say that UEFA doesn’t have levers to pull — it does. But it must ask itself whether it can afford to punish Europe’s top clubs all at once. It must also carefully consider whether financial sanctions would even be effective at this point.
A damaging trend that began in Nyon
For now, at least, UEFA will mount a concerted public relations effort to undermine the integrity of FIFA’s new competition. Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA’s president, has already branded the tournament “elitist” and decried FIFA’s failure to “respect every single club”. To his detriment, however, Ceferin seems to have short, or rather selective, memory. The UEFA supremo told Kicker that he could not “imagine that UEFA invites only seven associations or clubs to discuss things that affect the future of all of European football. We conduct our consultations with everyone”. Sadly, Ceferin’s statement was nothing short of dishonest.
Back in the real world, UEFA has spent the last two decades effectively abrogating its responsibility to the continent’s “other” clubs. The destruction of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, and the attendant expansion of the Champions League in the same year, was the first step down this path. In recent years, UEFA has doubled down on its strategy by narrowing the route to the inordinately lucrative Champions League group stages. As of next year, the top four teams from the top four leagues will gain entry to the money league, increasing the number of automatic participants to 26 – leaving just six qualifying spots available.
To put this into some perspective, the winners of the Eredivisie will no longer automatically qualify for the Champions League, and the runners-up in the Primeira Liga will be forced to endure two qualifying rounds just to make it to the big show. These are two proud and storied leagues — responsible for 10 European Cup triumphs between them — now reduced to a second-rate status. UEFA should be forced to explain why.
To add insult to injury, the creation of the new, and hyper-exclusive, format coincides with a considerable increase in the prize money available. Clubs that reach the group stages will now receive €15m up-front, with group-stage wins worth €2.7m and draws worth €900,000. Add to this UEFA’s introduction of a “four pillar” financial system, which will take into account each team’s domestic market and historical success in European competition, and the continent’s top outfits could be netting €100m annually from the tournament. The idea that UEFA is “operat[ing] in consensus with all of football’s stakeholders”, as per its own charter, stretches credulity to the point of absurdity.
The collapse of an empire
That the changes to UEFA’s marquee competition have gone largely unnoticed is a testament to the fact that most observers now meekly accept the reality that polarisation in the game will only worsen. UEFA has done its bit to make this a fait accompli, and now FIFA is finishing the job. In short, UEFA has lost control of the situation. In Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich (among others), Europe’s governing body has created a set of monsters that know their value only too well. UEFA, it’s clear, needs them far more than they need UEFA. Enter FIFA, and the whole drama quickly begins to resemble two estranged parents fighting for the attention of their spoiled children.
Witnessing the collapse of an empire is scarcely a pretty sight. Most fall as a consequence of hubris, and UEFA will be no different. It could have addressed the factors that will now eventually transform it into a much-diminished commercial organisation — but that ship sailed long ago. Europe’s top clubs are, with the help of FIFA, being shown the way forward. Eventually, they will exist as a sporting “1%”, detached from the structures of formal domestic and European competition. All the while, UEFA will bemoan this development and offer a full-throated resistance. When it does so, it will claim that it has the interest of “all the clubs” in mind, but history tells this is simply false.
UEFA now finds itself presented with an existential threat — too bad it’s a threat of its own making.