European Football in The Iron Grip of Elite Clubs

This article was submitted to the University of Tartu’s popular science contest by Katarina Pijetlovic, a lecturer in EU law at Law School of Tallinn University of Technology and a researcher at the University of Helsinki.

football in flames

Thirteen years ago Silvio Berlusconi almost destroyed the traditional structure of European football when a company under his control, Media Partners International, made the ultimate indecent proposal to G14, the elite group comprised of the 18 richest and most successful football clubs in Europe.

Clubs were offered £1.2 billion per year to transfer all media rights to Berlusconi’s company, leave the traditional European football structure, and create a private Super League, an American type of closed league, where no other club could get in and no club could fall out. This system works well in the US where sport culture is very different. But to force Europeans to watch the same group of 18 clubs in the same private league compete against each other over and over again would be the same as subjecting our entire continent to Chinese water torture. Top-level football would lose its competitive appeal.

After the tempting proposal, UEFA reacted by expanding Champions League with more matches, more money for the teams, and more places for the clubs coming from the ‘big five’ leagues (Spanish, English, Italian, German and French) just to get the elite clubs to stay. So today’s Champions League was actually created out of fear of losing the top clubs. Ever since then, the rich clubs have been threatening to leave the traditional European football structure as a means to blackmail UEFA into making rules which suit their interests rather than the interests of all parties in European football.

The conflict of interests

So now the real game of football is being played between UEFA and the rich clubs in the dark corners of the offices of managers and directors, and out of the reach of the stadium lights. For clubs, players are not much more than a raw material in the final product: the game. And the product is there to be sold to the highest-bidding broadcasting company. Fans are there to buy their tickets and merchandise and clubs do not have warm feelings towards their fans, in fact it is often a case of unrequited love.

Clubs do have a PR office to pretend as if they care and show social responsibility, but the main goal of any football club is to make profit. Contrary to popular belief, social responsibility is a business strategy to make more money. Clubs are responsible only to their shareholders.

Unlike the clubs, UEFA has a mandate to represent the interests of all – the big and powerful as well as small and poor clubs, professionals and amateurs, men, women and youth. To have enough money to fulfil their mandate, the clubs’ participation in the Champions League is conditioned upon the transfer of broadcasting rights to UEFA, who would then sell them to the highest bidder.

One third of these profits is not distributed back to the clubs, but is given to support all in European football. It is called a system of solidarity and it is a feature of traditional European sports structure. G14 clubs were therefore very interested in Berlusconi’s offer because they would get to keep all of the money from the sale of media rights. The rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer.

Another concession in favour of G14

The explosion of conflicting interests came in 2006 when Charleroi club challenged in court the FIFA rule regarding uncompensated compulsory player release for international matches in which players’ home countries competed. G14 joined Charleroi in this lawsuit and threatened to break away. While the case was pending, G14 invited some other wealthier clubs to join their group and so doubled their membership and further increased their influence.

Under the mounting tension, in the beginning of 2008, UEFA/FIFA and G14 entered into a peace agreement. FIFA changed their rules and created a pool compensating for player release for the European Championship and the World Cup. In return, G14 formally disbanded and withdrew the lawsuit, and its executive insisted that the goals of G14 had been met by these financial concessions.

This of course proved to be untrue: The former G14 is now demanding compensation for all international matches for which the clubs release their players. Some might say that this benefits all clubs and not just G14, and they are right. But it is only the rich clubs that have a lot of quality foreign players in their squads that are playing for their national teams. In fact, Arsenal FC was the first club to field an all-international line-up back in 1995.

Dictatorship of the former G14 in the European Club Association

Clubs are represented in the European Club Association (ECA), which was formed by former G14 members, and a European Club Forum, where all other clubs used to be represented. It consists of 193 club representatives that belong to all the European associations and has an executive board consisting of 11 members. And – surprise, surprise – six members of the board are former G14 members. The voice of the ECA that was supposed to represent all football clubs is therefore the voice of the former G14 and other rich clubs who share their commercial interests.

The ECA is chaired by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of FC Bayern München, a former G14 member. Last year, at a conference in The Hague, I talked to the director of legal affairs for FC Bayern München about the undemocratic structure of the ECA executive board and he said: ‘yes, but when we make decisions we try to take into consideration the needs of the small clubs as well’. Well, thank you very much, arrogant sir; the other clubs will now go and wait in the corner hoping that someone from the elite might take their interests into consideration. Jebus! There is a word for this type of regime and it is called a dictatorship.

This illustrates that despite its formal disbandment, the former G14 will continue to present a powerful lobby group that has not ended its role in reality, it has only been re-institutionalised and legitimised in the ECA. So long as there is football and financial interests involved in it, and so long as there are rules that do not suit the rich clubs, the prospect of breakaway groups will be alive and well.

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