European football now belongs to the highest bidder

Saturday’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid is the fourth in five years with at least one English participant. Two of those were all-English affairs and if it weren’t for Madrid’s uncompromising comebacks, this could easily have been the third.

For a nation’s football clubs to dominate the continent’s blue ribbon event is hardly anything unusual – Spanish teams lifted the trophy five years in a row before Liverpool won in 2019. But there is something ominous about this era compared to other national hegemons of the recent past.

A decade ago, Real Madrid and Barcelona regularly topped Deloitte’s annual Football Money League, but today Barcelona’s finances are in tatters. The place is now held by Manchester City, the flagship of the Premier League’s nouveau riche.

The chart shows that rising transfer revenues have seen Premier League clubs' revenues rise well ahead of their overseas rivals, leading to an increase in spending on players

When England’s top teams last played on the continent in 2007/08, Premier League clubs’ combined revenues were £1bn more than Spain’s La Liga, according to the Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance. Today the gap is £2.4 billion and growing. This season the league booked £3.1bn in television rights, compared to £1.8bn in La Liga. According to Football Benchmark analysis, next season’s La Liga package will shrink to £1.6bn while that of the Premier League will rise to £3.4bn.

Add to that the sale of Chelsea to US investors and the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund’s takeover of Newcastle United in October means almost every club in England’s top flight will be owned by a multi-billionaire by next season some of whom have shown little interest making a profit and happily burning tens of millions on talent.

English clubs aren’t the only ones turning to the ‘sports underwear’ industry – Paris Saint-Germain’s commercial revenues have soared by a staggering 750 per cent in the three years since their sale to the state of Qatar. The concentration of money and talent in a shrinking pool of clubs stretches beyond those boundaries.

Chart showing that the Champions League is no longer a truly continental tournament.  Its final stages are now dominated by a handful of cities, let alone countries

In the early 1990s, European competition was far more cosmopolitan, with clubs from 13 countries reaching the semi-finals. In the past five years, three-quarters of the semi-finalists have come from just five urban western European regions: Paris, Madrid, Munich, London and the North West of England.

The dynamic game between countries has led to unequal playing fields within countries. Adjusted for changes in ranking methodology, 30 points separated first from last in the English top flight in 1975 and the difference between best and worst goal difference was 52. This season the former is 72 and goal difference is 134.

The risk is that not only will England’s elite dominate domestically, but that the Champions League will become the nation’s fourth major title after the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup. The European Super League may have been a bad idea, but the problem of English financial dominance it sought to address is very real.

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