European Football Is Conforming To The Needs Of Its Super Clubs

After the UEFA Champions League draw took place on Monday at midday in Nyon, Switzerland, there was a feeling of familiarity about the results of it. With group-winners Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea being drawn with Man City, Schalke 04 and PSG respectively, there are set to be three ties which were all played out in last season’s competition as well – the former two in the round of sixteen like it will be this year again, whilst Chelsea vs. PSG happened in the quarter-finals.

It’s not a surprise to see any of those teams in the knockout stages; in fact those six are part of the 11 who qualified for and then successfully negotiated the group stages in both 2013/14 and 2014/15. Of the final 16 teams, 69% of them are the same this season as they were last season. That percentage, funnily enough, is completely identical when you compare the figures for clubs who made the group stages in the two seasons as well. 22 of the 32 in this edition of the tournament were exactly the same as last season. So what?

Well, that seems like a lot – and it is. As all sports do, football prides itself on unpredictability, the possibility that anything can happen at any given moment when you least expect it. Anyone can beat anyone and that’s why we all love it. But what if that ceased to be true, and there was instead a growing danger that our beautiful game is undergoing an irreversible movement towards a new era of repetition and hierarchical structures which cannot be broken? Perhaps that’s what’s happening in Europe right now.

Having subsequently expanded upon this data to cover the same thing but over the last five seasons in total, there is evidence of a pretty clear trend which has been established. Bar one anomalous result in 2012/13, the number of teams who qualify for the last 16 in successive years is very similar each season, somewhere around 50-70%. That is hardly surprising, and it’s representative of the fact that the majority of the big teams (the likes of, say, Barcelona and Real Madrid) make it through again and again.

A demonstration of the repetitiveness which seems to be gradually encompassing the Champions League.

A demonstration of the repetitiveness which seems to be gradually encompassing the Champions League.

What is worth taking a bit more note of though, or at least in comparison to that anyway, is the number of teams who have reappeared in the group stages one season after another. Over the last five seasons it has increased every year without fail, going from 12 (38%) out of 32 in 2010/11 (which is a bit of an anomaly again, but does fit the basic correlation) to an extremely high 22 (69%) for this season.

Now, qualification for European competition is of course dependent on a club’s performances in their own domestic league. Combining that knowledge with this data, it can be not only inferred but proved that it is the same teams who are experiencing success in their own countries – these clubs are continuing to improve and outperform their counterparts over a longer period of time. The gap between bigger clubs and the smaller clubs is increasing all around the continent.

In some ways, on the face of it, European football seems more competitive than ever – no team has won the Champions League in successive seasons since its inauguration in 1992. A period of, not including the one we are in the middle of right now, 22 seasons. That contrasts massively to the 22 season period before the competition was reinvented, when it was known as the European Cup, where it was retained on an enormous 7 occasions (albeit it should be noted that just one of those occurred after Nottingham Forest won it twice in a row in 1978/79 and 1979/80).

There is, however, a significant difference in how power is spread throughout the continent now compared to the first period, with the top teams currently being much more concentrated in an elite few leagues. Although the different associations of the winners since 1992/93 (7) is just one lower than in the first time period measured (8), the number of finalists and semi-finalists from different associations is considerably inferior – a gap of 5 and 10 respectively.

A table showcasing European performance across different nations in two time periods (for seasons where there was no semi-final stage, the teams who finished second in the group stages were counted as the semi-finalists so as to represent the ‘best four performers’ in the competition).

A table showcasing European performance across different nations in two time periods (for seasons where there was no semi-final stage, the teams who finished second in the group stages were counted as the semi-finalists so as to represent the ‘best four performers’ in the competition).

Looking at the nationalities of the winners specifically, the constants (or ones which appear in both time periods) are pretty much as you’d expect; England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. The countries which dropped out from the first 22 years are Romania and Yugoslavia (for political reasons at the time, though Red Star Belgrade are now recognised as Serbian), whilst France are the only nation outside of those six to have won a European Cup since its rebranding as the Champions League – and that came in the first season of it, in 1992/93.

Of the seven who have won it since that change, France included, only four of the countries have won it on more than one occasion. In fact since Marseille in 1992/93 and Ajax in 1994/95, FC Porto (2003/04) are the only ones from outside England, Germany, Italy and Spain to have won the Champions League: and that was an achievement of José Mourinho’s which is considered as one of the biggest surprises in European football history. That’s one in 19 years which hasn’t gone to the ‘elite powers’.

The dominance of these four countries can be even further recognised by looking at the individual finalists as opposed to just the winners. Out of the 44 possible final spots in the 22 years, just five have gone to teams who are not from there – Ajax (2), AS Monaco (1), FC Porto (1) and Marseille (1). In other words, 89% of the finalists belong to just four different associations. That compares to 15 teams from other countries who reached the final between 1970/71 and 1991/92, a much lower percentage of 66% for England, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Spin that round the other way, and that means that 34% of the finalists in European Cups would be ‘against the norm’ as such. So, in practicality, there would need to be three seasons of the competition on average for two of those six finalists to be from elsewhere. Since it became officially recognised as the Champions League that percentage has decreased to just 11% – there now needs to be on average 18 finalists (or nine seasons) for there to be two finalists from outside of the four main countries. Yet there hasn’t even been one out of the last possible 20.

José Mourinho’s Porto side were the last team from outside the ‘big four’ nations to win the Champions League.

José Mourinho’s Porto side were the last team from outside the ‘big four’ nations to win the Champions League.

Have a think about the situations at various clubs around the continent and answer this question: are they any teams who could realistically end that run anytime in the near future? Beyond PSG, it’s hard to imagine anyone even getting close. And frankly, the only reason they might is because of the unfathomable sums of money that have been plundered into the club at will by their Qatari investors.

Combined with the initial data talked about at the start of the article, the set which looked at the reappearances of club teams in successive campaigns, this information helps to pull together a more conclusive picture of what has been gradually happening in European football over the last two or three decades. It is the same clubs and the same nations who are experiencing consistent success, whilst others are being left behind and are finding it impossible to keep up.

When looking at statistics it’s important to consider outside factors which can influence them and not just the raw figures on their own. In this instance, the changes in the format of Europe’s premier continental competition over the years must be thought of – and they have certainly had an impact which cannot be denied. However rather than being something to potentially disprove the theories which have been drawn up from the data as some factors do, this one actually provides further evidence for the representation of an environment which is increasingly favouring elite clubs; and furthermore it can help to explain the trend which we are seeing now.

Perhaps the biggest rule change affecting this came after the 1996/97 season, which was the last edition of the tournament that involved only clubs which were champions of their domestic leagues to enter. That meant that the countries with stronger leagues would now have multiple representatives as opposed to just one like everyone else; so there was an even higher chance that the winners would come from England, Germany, Italy and Spain in particular. Where before there were only four teams from these countries, there can (as current rules dictate) be as many as 15 from the top four associations in total now. UEFA want the strongest clubs who bring the most money with them in the competition to make the best spectacle and these rules allow that.

On top of that, the improvement of technology and the globalisation of football has led to dramatic upturns in investments into the game – epitomised predominantly by the formation of the English Premier League in 1992 and the so-called ‘Sky Sports era’. As people will pay to watch the best standard of the game wherever they are in the world, more money than ever has been poured into these already elite countries; leading to an even bigger gap forming between them and those looking to challenge. As mentioned before both Romania and Serbia (or former Yugoslavia, again for political reasons) can boast of having a European Cup winner in the past, but how could they possibly keep up now?

The answer is that they can’t. With the lure of the highest reputation clubs and leagues being reinforced yet further by the gravitation of immense financial power towards them, the best players, managers and coaches are all bound to follow. They’re barely able to hold onto promising young talent from their academies, let alone sign someone of a good enough pedigree to challenge for the biggest club honour available. Even the likes of Ajax and FC Porto, the two most recent winners of the Champions League from outside of the main four countries, are little more than glorified selling clubs in this environment.

So that helps to explain the dominance of a few countries over European football, but what about the hegemony of individual clubs which has been established even within those countries – and why are 22 of the 32 teams in this season Champions League the same as they were last season?

The most prestigious club trophy in European football, pictured in the Estádio da Luz before last season’s final between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid.

The most prestigious club trophy in European football, pictured in the Estádio da Luz before last season’s final between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid.

A large part of this, simply, is that success breeds success. Qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League, let alone doing well in it, is a massive financial bonus and a lucrative tool for attracting new signings. Each of the 32 teams involved this season will get at least €8.6 million for simply being there, and then other revenues dependent upon things like performance bonuses and the distribution of television money on top of that. For the clubs of those big four leagues, who this season made up 14 of the 32 sides, that’s very useful indeed.

As for the countries outside the main four nations, well that money is even more important to them. It’s of greater value to the teams from smaller leagues which get less revenue as proportionately it’s much higher than the other clubs in their league can get, and so it enables them to create a form of authority in their own domestic competition. That supremacy (assuming it is established) translates into league titles and thus more European football, which turns into yet more money, and the cycle continues. Success breeds success.

All in all, it’s becoming more and more difficult to break into the ranks of the elite – let alone stay there for anything other than a brief period of time. A hierarchy has formed and, bankrolled by the cash cows which are the Champions League and certain domestic television right packages, it’s being reinforced more every season. This structure isn’t completely new to football, as certain clubs have always experienced more success than others in history and have rightly built upon that, but it’s the manner of it which has been developing since the early 1990s which is different.

Even back in the early 2000s, when this gap was smaller than it is now, there needed to be something significant to burst into the elite. Perhaps the most notable and earliest example of this is Chelsea and, although the extent to which Roman Abramovich pushed them on is not quite as extreme as is often put across, his huge financial investments into the London club have taken them from being nothing more than a good Premier League club into a worldwide name – and without that boost it’s highly unlikely they would have ever made that jump.

Bar very well managed long-term projects, something which the majority of football club owners seem to be allergic to, these kinds of financial investments were the only real way for the likes of Chelsea to transform themselves into global powers. Man City and PSG in particular are two others who have experienced similar changes of ownership and followed suit successfully, whilst AS Monaco and Málaga also attempted to do that too (albeit the outcomes have been somewhat different).

The introduction of Financial Fair Play, however, has put an end to that possibility. Huge investments out of nowhere are now against the regulations. Though apparently imposed to secure a long-term future for clubs and ensure that they don’t spend beyond their means and then plummet, the reality of FFP is that it may well kill off competitiveness entirely. Smaller teams can no longer take the risks they need to in order to catch up to the elite without being penalised, and the people at the top of football’s major organisations don’t want big clubs suffering: otherwise less money comes in for them from sponsors, marketing and so on. These are no longer just clubs, but global brands worth monstrous sums – and rivalry puts risk to them prospering. They don’t need competition to thrive.

The Champions League and Domestic League television revenues for the eight quarter-finalists of Europe’s elite competition last season.

The Champions League and Domestic League television revenues for the eight quarter-finalists of Europe’s elite competition last season.

Maybe that isn’t strictly true; rather they don’t need the competition from smaller teams. PSG’s revenue from UEFA for reaching the Champions League quarter-finals last season was €54.4 million, which equates to €5.4 million per game of their 10 in the competition. Their television revenue in Ligue 1, on the other hand, totalled €44.7 million over their 38 games: a measly €1.2 million per game in comparison.

Real Madrid’s figures were more balanced, with €4.4 million per game (€57.4 million in total) in the Champions League and €3.7 million per game (€140 million in total) from television rights in La Liga. The reason for that is simply because they sell their league rights individually and can negotiate separate deals, but the LFP want to change that and make it a collective process to encourage greater competition throughout Spanish football. It seems like that could happen for the 2016/17 season, and then these figures could be much lower for domestic games for them. Would they settle for that and accept it because it would mean the league is more exciting for other clubs?

Of course not, because they stand to lose more than they would gain if the league became fairer. These global brands don’t need competition and they don’t want it either. They are the ones who bring in the most money, and if their league associations can’t give them what they want then they will undoubtedly find another party who will be more than willing to offer them that.

These elite teams don’t need the rest: they only need themselves. And that is why the idea of a European Super League, an ongoing competition consisting of the continent’s best teams playing each other even more regularly, is not just a concept anymore. It’s an inevitability. Because football is conforming to the needs of its super clubs and it will continue to.