Will UEFA’s new ruling force Premier League big boys into the inevitable?

As UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules continue to hit home, there has been increasing speculation on how it will affect club football. Having myself argued in the past that the need for increased revenue to break even will inevitably end up costing the fans, Martin Samuel this week predicted bad news for the lower league clubs, speculating that Premier League clubs may reduce the money they allow to trickle down the football ladder, looking instead to retain as much of their own revenue as possible.

But is another fall-out from the new restrictions the possibility of a European Super League?

Thoughts (or you could argue “threats”) of European Super Leagues are nothing new. The established “Big Four” and other giants of European football used the threat of one to get more financial rewards via the Champions League many years ago. In 1998, Italian company Media Partners seriously investigated the idea. The plan died after UEFA moved to expand the Champions League competition and do away with the Cup Winners’ Cup in order to better accommodate these clubs. In August 2009, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger predicted a super league would become reality within 10 years time due to revenue pressure on the continent’s elite teams. And revenue pressure is precisely what Financial Fair Play brings to the table.

In July, 2009, Real Madrid’s president Florentino Pérez criticized the current Champions League, saying “we have to agree a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always play the best – something that does not happen in the Champions League.” Perez stated that he would push for a break-away competition featuring Europe’s traditional powerhouses if UEFA didn’t do more to ensure these teams played each other annually.

Under Perez’s plan, the continent’s best teams would remain part of their respective national systems, but would be guaranteed the opportunity to play each other at the conclusion of the regular league season.

The European Club Association (ECA), which represents 137 leading teams has broached the subject at meetings in recent years, according to newspaper reports.

Matt Scott of the Guardian wrote in April 2007 of secret talks between Europe’s leading football clubs and Brussels politicians that could lead to a breakaway super league. Sources involved in the discussions, held at the PSV Eindhoven-Arsenal Champions League match in February, state that a breakaway is the “ultimate threat” that could be exercised if Uefa and Fifa “run wild” in their governance of the game.

But still, the realisation of such plans seems far, far away. But a number of factors could at any time help reignite the push for a separate league. For example, clubs have fallen out with UEFA and FIFA due to the issue of compensation for players injured on international duty.

And then there is the issue of TV deals. Although in England the Premiership rights are sold collectively already, in many countries where clubs sell TV rights individually there is strong opposition to the deals, but moves to collectivise earnings could have serious consequences. Milan earn more than £85m a year from their television deal while Real Madrid’s seven-year deal with Mediapro, is worth about £110m each year. Moves to force them to share that cash could precipitate the exercise of their “ultimate threat” of a breakaway. The clubs in Spain have just finished thrashing out a new deal, after Seville started a revolt at the injustice of how TV money is earnt in La Liga, with Madrid and Barcelona not surprisingly hoovering up most of the money. They argue rightly so, as they are the reason for most of the interest in the league.

Last week, the “revolting” clubs led by Seville suddenly stepped back, and the Big Two got what they wanted as usual for the new deal that will come into place for 2015. But as the journalist Sid Lowe asked last week, why did they relent? What was the worst that could happen by upsetting Real Madrid and Barcleona?

That Madrid and Barcelona threaten to leave? Where to? The time is not yet right for a European Super League and when it is Madrid and Barcelona will go anyway. Besides the “go and find another league then, I dare you” argument was exactly the one used by the other clubs. Madrid and Barcelona’s bluff could have been called. It wasn’t.

The opposite may be the case in England. A collective deal is agreed because the big clubs, who could make so much more, believe it fairer to allow some form of competition and parity, though the riches of the Champions League make this competition pretty irrelevant. Manchester United made £60m from television last year, but could make so much more with an individual deal. It’s just as well Alex Ferguson thinks TV companies are the spawn of Satan (I’ve paraphrased a bit).

But will the Financial Fair Play rules change the clubs’ viewpoint? As mentioned previously, clubs will look to increase revenue wherever possible, and a European Super League would certainly do that. If a team such as Manchester United were only playing the likes of Juventus, the Milan teams, Real Madrid etc, then the revenue would be much higher considering some of the rather moribund league matches that spring up on a weekly basis. It would maintain the status quo, keeping the success and power with the giants of European football.

And yet – the current system has pretty much maintained the status quo anyway. The Financial Fair Play rules will stop the likes of a newly-owned Manchester City being allowed to spend as much as Real Madrid or Barcelona in the future. Leaving a domestic league is a big step, a step away from tradition and over 100 years of history. And would it popular with fans? As a Manchester City fan, I’ve no desire whatsoever to see a European Super League – the Champions League is good enough to test the team against the best, imperfect as it is. Games depend on atmosphere from away fans for part of the experience of attending matches, and how many fans are going to trek across Europe every 2 weeks? It will no longer be the working man’s game.

Talk of a European Super League has been around for well over a decade now. I have read repeatedly down the years that it is bound to happen, that it is imminent even. To this day, respected people in the game are still making these claims. But it is a huge step to take to leave behind domestic leagues, and perhaps the more likely outcome would be a league as suggested by Perez, that runs in conjunction with the domestic leagues. More likely is that talks of breakaway leagues will be used just as they alaways have done – a bargaining tool for the big clubs, to be used as a threat if they don’t get their own way. But just maybe the Financial Fair Play rules will cause the idea to twinkle once more in the minds of the odd club President and CEO.
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