You don’t own football
In 2002 I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see Real Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final at Hampden Park. It struck me as I watched Real, a team with a fine European pedigree, beat the Germans that Leverkusen were appearing in the ‘Champions’ League Final despite the fact that not once in their long history had they been Champions of Germany. It was a demonstration of how the rich and powerful in European football are increasingly calling the shots. Fourteen years later their grip on UEFA seems unbreakable but some of the supporters in smaller leagues are making their voices heard. A brilliant banner was unveiled by supporters of FC Copenhagen who, like Celtic will find their club’s future chances of qualifying for the Champions League diminished by UEFA’s upcoming changes to the qualification format.
UEFA has changed the format for qualification into the Champions league by allowing the top four clubs from the four countries with the highest co-efficient direct entry. That is to say in 2018-19 season 16 of the 32 clubs in the group stages will come from the four big leagues. (Spain, Germany, England & Italy) and the other 50 countries will scrap it out for the remaining 16 places. It would be foolish to argue for a return to the old knockout competition of the past when only the champions of each country were allowed to compete in the European Cup. However it does seem grossly unfair for the big four leagues, already gorged with money to be guaranteed even more. It will be used to suck in mercenaries from all over the world playing for hugely inflated salaries. The gap between the rich and the rest will widen and this will lead to bloated wealthy clubs becoming dismissive and condescending towards the teams from smaller leagues who find it difficult to compete. The system of capitalism we see in the world where vast wealth is increasingly in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people is being replicated in football and it is not conducive to helping the sport develop.
In similar vein, Germany’s classy striker Thomas Muller didn’t seem too impressed when a World Cup qualification tie brought the world champions to San Marino. As expected the minnows were crushed 8-0 but Muller annoyed a few locals by stating…
‘I don’t understand the point of such uneven games like these, even more so because of the crowded fixture list. I understand that for them it is special to play against the world champions, I understand also that they can only defend with tough tackling.’
San Marino’s Press Officer, Alan Gasperoni took to social media to castigate Muller and laid out in ten points why Muller is wrong…
"Dearest Thomas Muller,
You're right. The games like that on a Friday night, they're nothing. To you. On the other hand, dear Thomas, you do not need to come to San Marino for almost nothing in a weekend in which, without the Bundesliga, you could have spent with your wife on the sofa of you luxury villa or, who knows, you could have taken part in some events organised by your sponsors to bank several thousand euros. I believe you, but allow me to give 10 good reasons for which I think the San Marino-Germany match was very useful and if only you could think about it and let me know what you think:
1. It served to show you that not even against the teams as poor as ours you can't score a goal - and don't say you weren't pissed when Simoncini stopped you scoring...
2. It served to make it clear to your managers (even Beckenbauer and Rummenigge) that football is not owned by them but by of all those who love it, among which, like it or not, WE are included.
3. It served to remind hundreds of journalists from all over Europe that there are still guys who follow their dreams and not your rules.
4. It served to confirm that you Germans you will never change and that history has taught you that "bullying" is not always guarantee of victory.
5. It served to show the 200 guys in San Marino who play the game for whatever reason why their coaches ask them to always work their hardest. Who knows - maybe one day all their sacrifice will not be repaid with a game against the champions of the world.
6. It served to your Federation (and also to ours) to collect the money of image rights with which, in addition to paying you for your trouble, they can build pitches for the kids of your own country, schools, and make football stadiums safer... Our Federation, I'll let you in on a secret, is building a new football pitch in a remote village called Acquaviva. You could build it with six months of your salary, we'll do it with the rights of 90 minutes of game. Not bad right?
7. It served to a country as big as your pitch in Munich to go in the paper for a good reason, because a football match is always a good reason.
8. It served to your friend Gnabry to begin with, in the national team and scoring three goals.
9. It made some San Marinese people a little happy to remember that we have a real national team.
10. It's served to make me realise that even if you wear the most beautiful adidas kits, underneath you're always the ones that put white socks under their sandals.
Gasperoni’s rant contains a grain of truth about the increasing arrogance of those at the top of the game who have lost sight of the fact that football belongs to all and that UEFA should be promoting the game all over Europe and not just fawning to the big teams from the big leagues.
Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has warned that changes are necessary to avoid a breakaway from UEFA by elite clubs. That at the end of the day is the real driving force behind UEFA's changes to the qualifying format of the Champions League. The most successful club competition in world football and brings in huge amounts of money for UEFA and the so called elite clubs and they don't want to see that end.
For clubs like Celtic, Copenhagen and even four times European Champions Ajax, it will be tougher to qualify for the Champions League in the future. The ‘Champions route’ Celtic successfully negotiated this year will have the number of places in the Group Stages cut from 5 to 4. Celtic’s success in reaching the group stage was tempered by realism of what the club was likely to achieve once it got their given the huge disparity in resources. Few expected Celtic to make much of an impression in such a tough group but they did reasonably well given that they are under new management and developing as a team. The crucial games were always those with Borussia Monchengladbach and the team did well in Germany after a disappointing home display. There are grounds for optimism though as Brendan Rodgers will undoubtedly continue to build the side up.
For Clubs like Celtic, the money they accrue from playing in the Champions League is vital to improving the side and making it competitive in Europe. The low income environment of the SPFL hampers Celtic in Europe and that is unlikely to change and UEFA needs to remember its duty to all 54 member countries and ensure that the medium and smaller leagues are encouraged to grow and not just live off the crumbs falling from the table of the rich.
If one cameo exemplified the arrogance of some in European football this week it was surely the antics of Neymar at Celtic Park. He strutted about like a petulant child, squabbling and whingeing his way through a game in which the Referee showed remarkable restraint towards him. As he trudged off at a snail’s pace the whistles and jeers of thousands echoing around the stadium I was reminded of the exit Andreas Iniesta made at the same stadium a couple of years earlier. They are both great footballers but only one exhibits the class to match their ability and that is why Iniesta was applauded off the field and Neymar jeered.
My message to players like Neymar would perhaps paraphrase the man from San Marino, ‘You don’t own football, it is owned by all of us who love it.’ UEFA would do well to remember that too.