League 'is killing football'

The Champions League has created, in almost every country in Europe, an elite of rich clubs whose increasing dominance is turning their domestic title races into predictable turn-offs for fans, European football’s governing body (Uefa) is warning.

England’s Premiership is one of the least open because the ‘competitive imbalance” between the richest three — Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United — and their 17 rivals has become so acute on and off the pitch, says Uefa.

Its views are backed up by research from a sporting think-tank, The Sports Nexus, published this week.
The report warns that Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle are becoming a perpetual elite whose financial firepower increasingly sets them apart from rivals because between them they always win the league and claim lucrative Champions League places.

Urgent measures are needed to bridge the widening financial gap or clubs such as former European trophy-winners Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest could disappear within 20 years, said William Gaillard, communications chief at Uefa.

Uefa is worried that the contest to become champions — be it in England, Scotland, Italy, Portugal, Norway or Latvia — is increasingly restricted to a few clubs who have used Champions League revenue to outstrip the rest.

‘It’s a concern for us that in many European countries only a small number of teams can win the domestic league title,” said Gaillard. ‘This competitive imbalance is not unique in England, but it is quite pronounced there.”

Uefa president Lennart Johansson privately blames the Champions League’s financial rewards for ruining domestic football.

‘He feels that Uefa created this fantastic competition in 1992, but that it has now become a monster that has produced this unequal struggle between haves and have-nots,” said a source who had discussed it with Johansson.

Gaillard added: ‘Previously, you could play for or support Ipswich Town, Nottingham Forest or Derby County and have a chance that in your lifetime they would win the league or FA Cup. But today that chance is becoming more remote. These mid-size teams have made the history of European football.

“There are a lot of glorious names today that, if nothing is done, in 20 years’ time will be threatened with extinction. They have no possibility of getting to the top eight or 10 of the top division in their countries.”

Uefa’s only proposed solution is a plan to force clubs to include up to eight ‘home-grown” players in their squads from 2006. But Johansson concedes that Uefa is all but powerless to reverse the damaging trends.

The Sports Nexus report shows that the share of overall Premiership revenue earned by the big five has grown from 26,8% in 1993 to more than 47%. Premiership clubs in the Champions League last year got 50 times more money than the £250 000 in ‘solidarity payments” that Uefa gave to those who missed Europe’s top competition.

The authors warn that this ‘virtuous circle of success” for the big five clubs makes for a bleak future for the Premiership as a whole, as more clubs have less chance of finishing above elite teams.

Concern about English football’s increasing lack of competition is growing. ‘The Premiership is predictable, and increasingly so, because the top clubs have more money and a monopoly over the top players,” Mark Lawrenson, the Liverpool defender turned BBC pundit, told Observer Sport. ‘A more equal distribution of wealth or a draft system would help tackle that, but the big clubs would never vote for that.”

Graham Taylor, the former Watford, Aston Villa and England manager, wrote in his Daily Telegraph column on Saturday: ‘The Premiership is in grave danger of losing its competitive balance, if it has not already done so.

‘We now have a top league in which 75% of the teams have little or no chance of winning the title, and the competitive balance between the haves and the have-nots has declined to such an extent that [finishing] 17th is regarded as an achievement.”

Falling crowds should worry the Premier League, he added. ‘It is extremely expensive supporting a Premiership club, and if a fan experiences a feeling that his team have next to no chance of success, enthusiasm for putting his hand in the pocket is liable to wane.” — 

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