The Arsenal blogger Andrew Mangan (better known as Arseblog) made an excellent point recently – upon Arsenal’s inevitable elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Monaco – about the way wealth is distributed (and redistributed) between the haves and the have-nots of the European footballing landscape. As some were clamouring for measures to be brought in to help ease the (apparently) onerous burden on Premier League clubs – seemingly exhausted and down to the bare bones, having to compete in more than one competition at once – Arseblog pointed out that the Champions League misfortunes of the Premier League’s so-called “elite” – Chelsea being knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal by Monaco, Manchester City by Barcelona and Liverpool failing to escape their group – had little to do with structural inequalities or systemic differences between different European leagues.
Premier League clubs just did not perform: Chelsea’s talismanic captain fantastic John Terry running into his fellow defender Gary Cahill led to a PSG goal that saw Chelsea eventually leave the competition; Manchester City were outclassed over two legs by a far superior Barcelona side, with a renascent Lionel Messi pulling the strings; Liverpool have suffered this season fighting on more than one major front, and losing Luis Suárez to Barcelona has obviously not helped; and Arsenal were, well, just Arsenal, for which there never seems to be any coherent explanation.
Money no object
It could be argued that, taking even the case of Suárez, Liverpool losing a player of that level and City being undone by a player of that level is no coincidence: financial behemoth Barcelona made full use of their stature and muscle to pry Suárez from Liverpool, and this was possible because of the way in which television rights are distributed in La Liga in comparison to how this works in the Premier League. But the fact remains that in the case of Manchester City and Chelsea in particular, finances are no object and should provide no excuse; the same could be said, albeit to a lesser degree, of Arsenal and Liverpool.
However, the point which Arseblog was making is that there is no real basis for using the poor Champions League performances of these four clubs (and, if you like, add Manchester United to that group if we are going to look at the situation over the last few years) to tip the balance even further in the favour of the Premier League’s elite clubs. There are several arguments trundled out: Could the League Cup’s format be altered to better accommodate the “bigger” (ie. richer) clubs? Could a winter break be introduced so as to ease the burden on the fragile Mesut Özils of this world, unaccustomed to playing through the harsh winters without any respite whatsoever?
The problem in La Liga is that this precise model – serving solely the interests of the top clubs and piling all of Spanish football’s eggs into the twin baskets of Real Madrid and Barcelona – has resulted in a league that is so stultifying in its almost complete lack of real competition that it is beginning to strain the credibility of the competition.
While this might help the top clubs, it does little to nothing for the smaller clubs. In fact, all it arguably does it give the top clubs a better chance of putting seven or eight past relegation fodder on a Saturday, despite being thoroughly beaten when they face a Bayern Munich or a Barcelona in the Champions League. The odds are already heavily stacked against any club not in the aforementioned “elite” group: even Tottenham, who – bless their cotton socks – have been trying so hard to break into the Champions League for a considerable period of time, have spent hundreds of millions of pounds and not managed to find a place at Europe’s top table, let alone have any slight chance of winning the Premier League or achieving real success in the Champions League. Bending the structure to suit those at the very top risks breaking the competition altogether, warping it beyond all recognition. That is what happens when you bend things too far: they snap.
Lack of real competition
The problem in La Liga is that this precise model – serving solely the interests of the top clubs and piling all of Spanish football’s eggs into the twin baskets of Real Madrid and Barcelona – has resulted in a league that is so stultifying in its almost complete lack of real competition that it is beginning to strain the credibility of the competition. Atlético Madrid’s La Liga title last year was nothing more than an anomaly, an upset, and now normal service has been resumed. In France, Lyon and, to lesser extent, Marseille, are providing real competition to PSG, but again this is something of a surprise occurrence, brought about by a particularly strong generation graduating at just the right time in Lyon’s case. Liverpool’s title tilt last year in the Premier League has by this stage been revealed as nothing more than a less-than-monotonous (I hesitate to use the term “exciting” here – after all, Liverpool are not exactly the poor relations of European football) blip which has come and gone, replaced now by a Chelsea-Manchester City axis of evil league domination. And this brings us to the kakapo.
A bird’s predicament
The kakapo is a small, flightless bird native to New Zealand, and very close to extinction. (Bear with me here.) The reason that it is very close to extinction is that, in order to attract a mate, the male kakapo digs a shallow, bowl-like hole on a remote hillside and begins to emit a low, thumping, bass beat. The problem with low frequencies, though, is that they may carry far across the neighbouring valleys, but for that same reason they make it incredibly difficult for the female to locate the male at close range. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and later a passionate conservationist, who travelled the world seeking out rare animals on the verge of extinction, identified the kakapo’s predicament: the kakapo, finding itself struggling to attract a mate, resorts to its most basic natural instinct – the thing it is really good at – and goes at it more than ever before, as this is all it knows. But it is this very behaviour which proved to be the source of its struggles in the first place, and so it ensnares itself in a vicious circle, edging ever close to extinction.
The danger, for Premier League clubs, is that both the elite clubs and the league itself might become caught in a similar vicious circle: finding its top clubs struggling in European competition, the Premier League might react by easing the strain for them on the domestic front, thus reducing their competitive edge. Seeing their competitive edge diminishing, Premier League clubs will ease the pressure on the elite even further, until, eventually, they find themselves stranded, alone atop a hillside in New Zealand, desperately doing the same thing over and over again, without success.