Between them, Liverpool and Manchester United have won 38 league titles since the formation of the old First Division in 1892 (with neighbours Everton and Man City accounting for another 14). To put that into context, London clubs have only 21, and the rest of England just 39. In one form or another, United and Liverpool, and to a lesser extent Arsenal, have always led the way. Only the wealth of foreign investors has allowed Chelsea and City to alter the landscape.
On the Continent, things are even more extreme. Real Madrid and Barcelona have 58 titles between them. Bayern Munich, on 28, are a full 19 ahead of Nurnberg and Dortmund, and in Italy the Milan clubs, though sitting pretty on 18 apiece, can only look with envy at Juventus on 34.
The success of these clubs is reflected in their value. The likes of Burnley, Huddersfield, Leeds and the two Sheffield clubs are worth fractions of neighbours United and Liverpool. Yet but for quirks of history, and legendary managers like Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley or Sir Alex Ferguson, things could have turned out very differently. Once upon a time, when resources were more equally distributed by gate attendance, all these clubs won league titles.
Of course, European football is hardly in crisis; balance sheets suggest the sport has never been healthier. But as the likes of Bayern and Juventus ease ahead, often wrapping up their domestic leagues months early, it’s clear that uncompetitive sport is also un-lucrative. One solution to this impasse could be the creation of a European Super League (ESL) – something officials have been discussing for some time.
Its appeal is obvious; TV audiences would relish the chance to see Messi and Ronaldo pitted against Salah and Neymar more frequently. Yet the idea has attracted huge criticism. Fans and journalists alike romanticise football, viewing United and Liverpool less as businesses and more as institutions with long-standing ties to working class communities. An ESL, many argue, would rip apart age-old traditions. How could they endure without, say, United’s grudge matches when Leeds and West Ham are in town?
From following their team around the country to expensive international trips, the relationship between clubs and supporters would undoubtedly be affected. An ESL would be ‘fan friendly’, but for TV audiences. The departures might also financially damage smaller clubs, since TV companies would certainly not pay as much for the rights to a league shorn of its biggest assets. City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs would likely leave the Premier League. Combined, their turnover last season came in at a little under £2.5bn. That’s no minor dent.
But the formation of a new league could bring many benefits, and, perversely, resuscitate competition and entertainment in both domestic and European football.
De facto monopolies, predictably, detract from what makes football popular; namely, competition. Even a lower quality game can be immensely entertaining, provided it remains competitive. Yet Real Madrid have now won four of the last five Champions League titles while United, City or Chelsea have won 13 of the last 14 Premier League seasons. Granted, Leicester City won the 2015-16 title, despite middling wages, but they are the only such case in the League’s otherwise money-dominated recent history. Following the upset, Leicester’s top player, N’Golo Kante, was immediately bought by Chelsea, and the club slipped back to mid-table.
Bayern and Juventus have racked up six and seven consecutive titles respectively, while PSG won six of the last seven in France. All too often, tuning in to watch a star team becomes less a question of ‘will they win?’, than ‘by how many?’ This undesirable situation can hardly be described as ‘entertainment’ in the truest sense.
Removing these giants would increase league competitiveness overnight. The quality and money might dip initially, but that would be overcome by the ferocity increased competition would bring. Quality would improve, increasing its popularity again. One need only look at the money in the Championship, England’s second tier, to see rewards for lower quality but equally intense football can be lucrative.
Alienating fans could, paradoxically, have a positive impact on smaller clubs. When United were bought by the Glazer family, fans broke away to form FC United of Manchester. They haven’t exactly set the world alight, but they have achieved relative success, which in turn has had a positive impact on the lower leagues around them. Fan alienation has boosted other smaller clubs, like Salford City and City of Liverpool. More would follow suit should an ESL be established.
In Europe, the absence of the giants may initially diminish the UEFA Champions League. But once again, it would create opportunities, not just for the mid-table clubs of the biggest leagues, but leading clubs of smaller ones. There is no questioning the pedigree of clubs like Celtic, Rangers, Ajax, Benfica, Besiktas, Sporting Lisbon and Red Star Belgrade. They command huge fanbases and have won major European cups in the past – yet are hamstrung by the relative poverty of their leagues.
This year, Red Star beat Liverpool 2-0 in Belgrade. But a sign of the difference between the two is that a few years ago, Liverpool were able to raid Red Star for their best player, Marko Grujic for just £5m (a fortune for even Serbia’s biggest club), to play for their reserves. Sadly spirited performances rarely compensate for the numbers game; Red Star are unlikely to do so permanently while such monetary gaps exist. Without the competition of the super clubs, other sides, who have faced insurmountable financial disparity would suddenly find the path to victory open once again. This would again reignite competition.
Granted, many fans would be hugely disappointed by the arrival of an ESL. None more so than myself. Nobody wants to acknowledge that the icons of this joyful sport are anything but the community-based clubs they purport to be. Football is escapism, and that is part of the magic. But the sport has become a racket, the preserve of the same winners year in, year out. Perhaps letting the superclubs leave is the only way to change this.