The game is going through an unprecedented period of financial and competitive imbalance. Miguel Delaney investigates how we got here and – crucially – whether the dominance of the mega-rich is here to stay
“We don’t want too many Leicester Citys.”
These were the words spoken by a senior figure from the Premier League’s ‘big six’ clubs, in the kind of high-end London hotel you can easily imagine.
“Football history suggests fans like big teams winning,” the official continued, to the group of business people and media figures present. “A certain amount of unpredictability is good, but a more democratic league would be bad for business.”
Exactly whose business would it be bad for? And why is football even viewed that way? The answers are among the biggest problems for the game right now.
That big-six representative need not have worried. The entire sport has been increasingly conditioned so that Leicester City situations – where a club from outside the financial super elite actually wins a major title – are close to impossible. This is why the odds in 2015-16 were so long and that story was so exceptional. Let no one tell you, as former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon insisted to The Independent, that “football has always been like this”.
He’s wrong. It hasn’t.
Every metric indicates that it is at a far worse level than ever before. It is getting worse and threatening to become irretrievable.
As this investigation will reveal, football’s embrace of unregulated hyper-capitalism has created a growing financial disparity that is now destroying the inherent unpredictability of the sport. This is not just the big clubs often winning, as has been the case since time immemorial. It is that a small group of super-wealthy clubs are now so financially insulated that they are winning more games than ever before, by more goals than ever before, to break more records than ever before. They are stretching the game in a way that has caused the entire sport to transform and shift.
That is a consequence of the explosion of money in the game, which means you need a minimum amount of annual revenue (€400m in 2020, going by Deloitte’s figures) to even begin competing. On the other side, when clubs like Liverpool or Manchester City maximise that revenue through admirable intelligence, the disparity then has an amplifying effect. The gap gets even greater on the pitch. This is why we are seeing so many historic records now being broken season after season.
The last decade alone, which represents the true rise of the super-clubs alongside the huge rise in money, has seen:
- a second Spanish treble
- a first German treble
- a first Italian treble
- a first English domestic treble
- three French domestic trebles in four years
- a first Champions League three-in-a-row in 42 years
- the first ever 100-point season in Spain, Italy and England
- ‘Invincible’ seasons in Italy, Portugal, Scotland and seven other European leagues
- 13 of Europe’s 54 leagues currently seeing their longest run of titles by a single club or longest period of domination.
Many of these feats appeared to be impossible for decades. They have now all taken place around the same time in the last decade, with the prospect of more to come. Needless to say, they have all been achieved by the wealthiest clubs in those competitions.
The concentration of money has brought a concentration of quality and thereby success.
This is not to say there won’t be outliers, like the underwhelming seasons recently suffered by Manchester United or Arsenal, or the unexpected triumphs of clubs like Leicester City.
Humans are involved, so there will be fluctuations and rises and dips.
Long-term trends don’t bring total uniformity. That’s not how they work.
To point to such exceptions as counter-arguments is the football equivalent of using a few cold days to dismiss global warming.
The wider trends are beyond debate.
They are also causing huge debate at the very top of the game.
Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin made the issue front and centre of his introduction to the body’s 2020 annual benchmarking report, citing the “threats” and “risks” of “globalisation-fuelled revenue polarisation”.
And it really comes to something when Deloitte’s Football Money League – as bombastic a celebration of wealth in the game as you could have – warns of “a situation where on-pitch results are too heavily influenced by the financial resources available” as well as the danger to “the integrity” and “unpredictability” crucial to the long-term value of the sport.
Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, speaks in even graver terms. “If we don’t fix that problem, in a few years our industry will collapse.”
It is teetering on the brink because this core problem loads up so many other ongoing issues: the precarious financial health of clubs outside the elite; the tension between the super-clubs and the rest; the tension between leagues; the tension between Uefa and Fifa; the tension between self-interest and the collective that represents the inherent contradiction of professional sport.
The important issue has been this problem of financial disparity is at the core of ongoing debates about the structure of the football calendar, an issue that has exploded in the last month, with one high-level source speaking even more starkly.
“We have to stop the trend now. The gap is growing exponentially every season. It’s now or never. We can potentially destroy the world ecosystem of football.”
That “ecosystem” is right now very finely balanced, but nowhere near as finely balanced as the very nature of football itself and how the game is actually played.
This is what must be understood in regard to the core unpredictability of the sport being eroded by money.
Football has famously always been the game that anybody can play, with matches anyone can win. The preciousness of a goal has ensured it is just low-scoring enough to strike the perfect balance between satisfying reward for performance and the right amount of surprises. The fortuitous positioning of the penalty spot perfectly reflected this. Its distance gives a 70% chance of scoring, exactly the right ratio between punishment and possibility of missing.
That has generally been translated into wider results for the majority of the game’s history, so there have been spells where Bayern Munich’s league titles have been punctuated by victories for clubs like Kaiserslautern, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg.
Football, as Johan Cruyff once said, is “a game of mistakes”. That is where its unpredictability lies. That is what the embrace of hyper-capitalism is eroding.
An 11-strong group of what Uefa describe as the “most global” clubs have reached a size where mistakes are less and less likely.
It makes a Dejan Lovren error against Shrewsbury Town stand out all the more, and any upsets stand out all the more, because they are so rare.
“There will maybe be the odd surprise, but this is how it’s developing,” former Southampton executive chairman Nicola Cortese says. “These bigger clubs are now massive money monsters.”
Due to the sport’s very structure, its immense global popularity has actually funnelled more and more resources to an extremely narrow band of clubs, because they are the only ones with the reach to maximise this.
It is not so much the 1%, as the 0.01%.
And it is not that money guarantees success. It is that an awful lot of it – in 2020, around €400m – is the single most important requisite to even compete.
The economics and the effect
In order to grasp just how great the shift in the game has been, it’s worth going back to quainter times. That is as recently in history as the 1980s, when the processes that led to all of this properly began.
This was a period when, as many attest, football was “barely running as a for-profit business at all”.
An all-conquering Liverpool were running the game, but this was domination of a more organic nature to now. There just wasn’t enough money in the game for it to be such a factor. The 1982 English First Division TV deal was just £5.2m and the total international rights were a mere £50,000 from Scandinavia. The wage bill of the wealthiest top-division club was less than three times the bottom club, which meant there was a period when two of the best paid players in England – Michael Robinson and Steve Foster – both played for Brighton and Hove Albion.
It also meant that as many as 13 clubs could finish in the top four in England, as many as 12 in Spain, and that teams including Aston Villa, Steaua Bucharest, PSV Eindhoven and Red Star Belgrade could win the European Cup.
Football, in effect, was too small an industry to feature anything like the current inequalities. There was far more mobility within the sport.
That was to dramatically change.
The bare figures are enough to explain why.
The total Premier League TV rights for the current 2019-22 cycle are now worth £8.4bn. The total Champions League prize money is now worth €2.04bn, having grown from €583m just 10 years ago. Such forces have seen Manchester United go from a turnover of £117m at the start of the millennium to £627.1m in 2018-19, the most recent figures available.
The biggest clubs are no longer the financial size of local supermarkets, as was the case just two decades ago.
The size of the game has totally transformed. As David Goldblatt relays in his superb book, The Age of Football, the sport in Europe now turns over more revenue than the continent’s publishing or cinema industries.
Money has been the great differential.
More money, however, has simply led to more disparity.
Returning to wages, the ‘stretch’ from the bottom to the top in the Premier League has gone from 2.85x in that breakaway season of 1992-93 to 4.7x last year. In Spain, it has been as high as 17.2x, and in some mid-size leagues like Switzerland over 20x.
This is relevant because of how crucial wages are to the working of the sport. Repeated studies – most notably by Stefan Szymanski and Tim Kuypers – have highlighted that they condition results to a greater degree than anything else. Arguments about net transfer spend are close to irrelevant.
“Buying the most expensive players doesn’t automatically generate good sporting results,” Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano wrote in his book The Ball Doesn’t Go In By Chance. “What does generate those good results is having the best players in your team and paying them the salary they deserve.”
This is what really creates the stretch.
“I had the money to buy players,” Cortese says. “But not the money to keep players.”
This has been the primary issue for most Premier League clubs seeking to grow, despite the influx of TV money that has allowed high transfer fees.
By the competition’s latest figures, the big six paid 51.3% of the total wages.
This disparity has led to a corresponding disparity in results. And thus the unpredictability of football – the lifeblood of the sport – begins to dissolve.
Put together here for the first time, these figures say even more, and paint quite a staggering picture.
Absolutely every metric shows the sport across Europe is more predictable than 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
You can start at the very top.
The average points won by champions in the five major leagues has shot up.
England might only show a marginal change from the 2000s to the 2010s, but the change becomes much more pronounced if you focus on the last three seasons. It then extends to 96.7 points – and that’s before you even bring in Liverpool’s current season.
Many might fairly put that down to the standard raised by managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp. But they are paid handsomely too. They are part of the same force. What these rises in top points tallies really represent, going by the correlation between wage and league finishes, is that the wealthiest clubs are simply winning more games.
Greater disparity has pushed up the requirements to win the league. That can be seen in the most ominous figures of all: the title-winning streaks. In some leagues, it is getting impossible for almost anyone else to win.
Prior to this run, Bayern Munich had never won more than three Bundesliga titles in a row. They have now won seven in a row, which is by far the longest streak of league victories in Germany’s history. It is also one of eight such situations across Europe.
There are then situations like in Croatia, where Dinamo Zagreb have won 13 of the last 14 titles, or Dundalk, who have won five of the last six Irish titles. There has never been a situation where so many of Europe’s leagues – 13 of 54 – are suffering such domination at the same time.
That it extends from the very top, to mid-sized leagues like the Austrian Football Bundesliga, to the bottom and the Andorran Primera Divisió, shows the depth of the problem.
It also shows the effect of Champions League prize money, which has become one of the most profound problems in the game, as influential as anything else in creating this disparity.
The difficulty in qualifying for the competition, of course, is just another representation of that disparity.
That is emphasised by the fact more clubs finished in England’s top four in the first five years of the 1990s than in the 20 years so far of the new millennium: 11 to 10. The number for 2010 to 2019 as a whole is seven, down from 13 in the 1990s and 1980s, and 15 in the 1970s and 1960s.
The other major leagues tell a similar story, and that without a defined big six.
Just as with the title race, meanwhile, increased wealth has also increased the points threshold for qualification to the Champions League.
It is not just that the wealthiest clubs are winning much more, however. It is that they are winning by much more.
So many clear victories are perhaps the clearest indication of the ‘Overton window’ effect of this: where gradual shifts over time make abnormal situations feel normal to anyone watching on. Thrashings of the scale the wealthiest clubs now dole out – Manchester City beating Watford 8-0 or Bayern Munich beating both Mainz and Werder Bremen 6-1 this season – used to be so much rarer. Even 5-0 thrashings were comparatively uncommon.
Looking at England’s wealthiest four clubs – which has varied since the start of the Premier League – over a fifth of their games are now won by three goals or more. For the 90s, that was just over a tenth, at 12.6%.
This is most pronounced with Spain’s big two, who are always cited as the eternal victors. “Así gana el Madrid” is the chant, meaning “That’s how Madrid win”. It refers to how, no matter what happens in a game, they always find their way.
But even the mighty Real Madrid did not used to win like this. Together with Barcelona, their percentage of wins by three goals or more has jumped from 20.5% in the 90s, to a staggering 37.8% now.
The shift in football as a whole is now undeniable.
It is simply blinkered to say that it has ‘always been like this’.
Even Soriano argues in this book that “the classic ‘that’s football!’ argument” defies both logic and evidence”.
It has never been this bad. And it might yet get even worse. The forces that led us to this are as important as the effects.
How it got here, and where it’s going
The 14 other Premier League clubs were at first taken aback. Then the feeling that they were being taken for a ride began to grow.
Their representatives were at a meeting to discuss the competition’s international TV rights distribution and, in putting forward the position of the big six, Daniel Levy just kept using the same five words: “We only want what’s fair.” As Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s book The Club details, the Tottenham Hotspur chairman repeated it to every single objection.
The argument was that the ‘big six’ are the clubs who bring all the international attention – and so they therefore deserve more of the money. The counter-argument is obviously that they need teams to play against, and that the attractive founding principle of the Premier League is equality.
The great complication is that the following cycle: the more money the ‘Big Six’ receive, the better they become. The more attractive they are to audiences. The better commercial deals they can strike. The better they become. And the more attractive they are. Thus strengthening a self-perpetuating cycle that just keeps on increasing the gap.
The leverage – of course – is another break-away.
“They’ve been using the threat of the super league for 20 years now,” one high-level source says. “Every time there is a discussion about revenue distribution, they put it on the table.”
This dilemma – still live and present in the game and growing – is a microcosm of the wider situation that has led football to the brink.
The game has been engulfed by capitalism, yes, but the compounding issue is that the most influential stake-holders have so fully embraced this.
There has been almost no resistance or regulation, which in itself has added multiple layers of self-perpetuation. The belligerence of the big clubs has been a huge part of it. This is why the problem is threatening to get worse.
A massive issue, as Goldblatt argues to The Independent, is that inequalities were already “hard-wired into the global football infrastructure” before the game’s authorities even realised the need to do something about it.
The initial re-wirings were, of course, nakedly capitalist.
The first in England was almost symbolic, as it came at the very height of Thatcherism in 1983. The FA at that time had in place a 19th-century regulation called Rule 34, which at least acknowledged clubs were a social institution. Rule 34 prohibited directors from being paid and restricted dividends to shareholders.
Seeking to become the first club to float on the stock market, Tottenham Hotspur and their advisors asked if they could form a holding company to evade the restrictions of Rule 34. The FA did not object. Instead they waved it through. This was accompanied by the mid-80s change to gate-money distribution, which saw home teams receive bigger proportions, inherently loading more towards the biggest clubs.
“The fact football associations – with pretty much the exception of the Germans – have waved all of this through has been a huge factor,” Goldblatt says.
By then, though, financial influence was moving from the stands to somewhere without fences or potentially any limits at all. Broadcasting.
Silvio Berlusconi’s takeover of AC Milan in 1986 gave him the entry-point to bring his private broadcasting ideas to football, which revolutionised the way TV was thought about in the sport. The Italian mogul saw the game as a potential “world-wide television spectacular”, with that potential wasted on parochial ideas. He felt it absurd that the biggest clubs were not regularly meeting in glamorously lucrative matches.
Berlusconi sought to force the issue through a commission for the first European super league.
Uefa rejected the idea, but the die had been cast. The first Champions League, in 1992-93, incorporated many of the same ideas, right down to branding and an anthem.
It is no coincidence the Premier League was launched at the same time, influenced by the same ideas and driven by the same motivation: money.
“People think there must be a lot of thinking in this Premier League,” the late Graham Taylor said at the time. “There is none … I think a lot of this is based on greed.”
It should not be overlooked that the decrepit nature of football in the 1980s – which ultimately descending into real-life tragedies such as Heysel and Hillsborough – made so much of this necessary. The game badly needed updating and badly needed the funding to do so, as well as ways to raise that funding.
Better broadcasting deals through glossy competitions therefore never had a more persuasive argument. The problem is how far it went the other way. The ruinously decrepit gave way to the gleamingly decadent.
“Once the Premier League and Champions League set their model, everybody else is following one way,” Goldblatt says. “These competitions began life when nearly all the economic safeguards and regulations have been dismantled.”
Just as internal protections were stripped away, meanwhile, the game was further opened up by external forces.
Among the greatest was the fall of Communism, which meant Eastern Bloc nations such as Poland and Ukraine were unable to keep star players within their borders. There was then the influence of the European Court of Justice, and the 1995 Bosman ruling. This immediately made players free agents once their contract ended and also prohibited EU member states and Uefa from imposing quotas on foreign players. Soriano said it “shook the market”. In reality it created a new one: a massive labour market that – according to Goldblatt – is more “global than banking”.
“Even Serie A still only allowed three foreigners per squad. Three Dutchmen at Milan was considered unbelievably cosmopolitan. Now, that’s nowhere near as cosmopolitan as Bournemouth.
“Bosman and the creation of a global labour market has been incredibly important. It also generated the creation of a global network and system of agents and scouts.”
One key factor was that its very globality made it impossible to regulate.
“Look at agent regulation,” football finance expert Kieran Maguire explains “Fifa said in 2016 we can’t monitor what’s happening in 200 countries so we’re just going to abandon the whole project. They’ve effectively done that in terms of the democratisation of the game.”
It created yet another mechanism of self-perpetuation. One that was to eventually be driven by the biggest mechanism of all: the Champions League.