Insights

Why addressing football’s uncomfortable relationships are key to securing a bright future for European football

By Jason Traub May 2021

As we head towards only the third all-English Final in Champions League history, the fallout from the failed European Super League proposals will be front of mind for clubs, players and fans alike. With so much emotion running high across various football stakeholders, it is at times easy to get lost in the noise, or at least to be easily distracted by those who shout loudest or have the biggest presence across the media.

With proposed regulatory and structural developments gaining traction at considerable speed, the priority of all stakeholders must be to shine a spotlight on the need for a balanced, coordinated, and transparent process of review. But where does football turn to first? Is it by addressing the severe financial challenges faced across the football eco-system as a result of Covid-19, the European Super League, which itself introduces the potential of varying agenda’s amongst the ESL clubs, or untangle the Financial Fair Play regime protecting the strongest clubs, to the detriment of those less fortunate, the introduction of politicians as potential saviours, or the pace in recent decades of clubs alienating themselves from the traditional supporter base. The list goes on.

And yet the above are all simply symptoms of the same root cause, that being the often uncomfortable relationships between the key strategic drivers of the game; business success (club owners) , sporting endeavour (governing bodies) and the social fabric of football (fans).

The solution however is simple, at least in concept and could be said to be hiding in plain sight. Strong governance leading to honest and transparent process and dialogue to ensure balance is maintained for all stakeholders.

UEFA has promised the new Champions League format, kicking off for the 2024/25 season, will deliver the best for all its stakeholders, following extensive consultations across the European football community. The resulting format provides the opportunity for four more sides to compete against Europe’s top clubs which according to UEFA, ensures there is more to play for with the prospect of the top teams competing against each other earlier in the competition. UEFA promises these changes are backed by the common purpose to sustain domestic leagues, whilst reaffirming its commitment to ensuring greater financial solidarity to a wider spectrum of clubs who are not competing in UEFA club competitions. 

And yet by unveiling the European Super League hours before the new Champions League format was released, the very integrity of these extensive negotiations and consultations were dismissed with contempt by the very individuals, the leading Club principals, who were instrumental to the very process.

The European Super League is another stark illustration of the uncomfortable relationships. What process did the ESL clubs even undertake? What consultations with fans and governing bodies were performed? How did the clubs address the balance between business, sport and society? Ultimately judgement was swift as the sheer magnitude of shock and disbelief from all corners of the football ecosystem laid bare where the fault lay.

The mismanaged launch of the European Super League has echoes of Christmas past, namely a lack of transparency and governance that has blighted football previously including the FIFA Corruption scandal in 2015, the continued demands for scrutiny around agent’s fees, even today around opaque club ownership. The fans’ sentiment understandably appears to have arrived at a watershed ‘enough is enough’ moment. In the same breath however, there has also been significant progress and development of the game over past decades which owe a lot to due and fair process, whether we look to the formation of the EPL and Champions League in the 90’s and the introduction of licensing systems to name a few. No outcome is perfect and necessary compromises can only be reached for the betterment of the game through transparent process.

A fan led government review of English football governance, will consider along with other issues, which ownership model is best suited to maximise the benefits of foreign ownership whilst still retaining the games ‘integrity, competitiveness and the bond that clubs have with its supporters and local community.’ One such approach to be placed under the microscope is the 50+1 ownership model currently in play in Germany. This limits commercial investors owning more that 49% and has been cited as a key reason as to why no Bundesliga teams signed up to the European Super League. Numerous exceptions to the 50+1 rule do exist within the Bundesliga, further fuelling the debate as to how the model can be successfully and faithfully implemented. 

The 50+1 model facilitates greater accountability of club owners by fans, and it also allows fans to have a significant input into how their clubs are run. However, the UK Government are well-aware of the disadvantages of this approach. It can deter new domestic and foreign investors at a time when private equity investment in football is on the rise, resulting in a potentially less competitive league and it can also restrict an owner’s ability to raise and/or provide funding and liquidity at a time when its needed most, as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, I do not believe this exact model provides sufficient alignment for club owners and fails to provide that healthy balance that is much needed, however we will in time be able to judge whether this review truly allowed for all stakeholders to contribute, inform and ultimately therefore buy-into appropriate compromises that will sit central to any recommendations.

A zero-tolerance approach to transparency and good governance across all future developments is essential, the basics that seem to be lacking across too much of every-day life in recent years.  Only then can the respective issues at hand be laid bare and challenged by all sides, to inform change. Whilst not perfect, it goes a long way to meeting the competing demands of club owners, the respective governing bodies, leagues and fans alike.

This article first appeared on Offthepitch.com

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