Saturday, March 18, 2006

I haven’t had time to post here for a few weeks, and in fact I don’t really have time now, but I couldn’t let today’s news about the G14’s plans pass without comment.

The G14 – a cabal of 18 of Europe’s top clubs – are drafting plans to take over the running of the Champions League, in a grab which bears resemblance to the formation of the Premiership. The result of that was that the top clubs in English football were able to grab more money for themselves, resulting in financial crises at numerous lower-division clubs. The G14’s plans speak of ‘maximising revenue’ and it’s clear to see that the big clubs believe that they deserve to get the cash generated by the tournament.

From their point of view, I’m sure this seems reasonable. But one only has to look at how their previous efforts as a pressure group have affected football to conclude that their hands should be kept away from the governance of the game at all costs. It was the G14 which prompted the formation of the Champions League – so called because it’s not a league and clubs other than the champions play in it – in the early 1990s. Whilst a good tournament in itself, its status as a cash cow – and a set-up which virtually guarantees that certain top clubs will be involved each and every season – has had a detrimental effect on domestic football. By making the big clubs richer, competition within domestic leagues is milder and the only way to compete is to spend.

Whether the G14’s plans are serious, or just a stepping-up of their pressure tactics, is a moot point. It probably won’t happen, at least not yet. But the fact that UEFA is spelling out its interpretation of the G14’s proposals – no more promotion and relegation, no qualification, but instead an American-style ‘Major League’ where the big clubs are guaranteed participation every year – indicates that UEFA are worried, and unsurprisingly so. They’re aware of the damage that their past concessions to the G14 have caused, and I have to agree that there is the potential for the sport to become a listless spectacle – especially the Champions League, which often has the air of an exhibition tournament about it (admittedly the last couple of years have produced some pleasing surprises). Unpredictability is central to the appeal of all sport, which is why the business side cannot be allowed to have too much of an influence – business doesn’t like unpredictability. They’ll edge towards making it safe, and when that happens, the continued interest of the fans cannot be taken for granted.

Perhaps the aspect of the G14’s paper which causes the most irritation is the assertion that the primary loyalty of fans is to their clubs, not the national side. Whether this is true or not – I know fans who care about one more than the other, and vice versa – it misses the point that only a minority of football fans have anything invested in the Champions League, given that only four clubs are going to be involved at any given time. I watch the Champions League, I even enjoy seeing the British clubs win, but I don’t get a tenth as involved as I do when watching England matches. And the point of national tournaments is that everybody can get involved.

The clubs’ growing resentment of international football, and their desire for the Champions League to replace the World Cup as football’s biggest stage, is a slap in the face to everybody who doesn’t support one of the big clubs. Moreover, their belief that it’s unfair that their employees can be requisitioned to play for somebody else is a pathetic whinge. The fact that such players are called upon to represent their countries brings prestige to the club and is a source of great pride to the fans. It’s been reported that the Premier League club chairmen have threatened to withdraw their players from playing for England, and to that I would say: Just try it. See what reaction you get at the next home game when that’s been announced. Personally, the World Cup is my favourite thing about football and I can honestly say that my interest in the sport would be diminished if it no longer existed.

Bear in mind, of course, that I’m a supporter of a once-great and probably-never-will-be-great-again mid-table Premiership side, and therefore quite bitter. But I think many of my points still stand.

No comments: