A recent UEFA ruling on cross-border leagues might have opened up the possibility for an Atlantic League to form. But is it a good idea, and what does it represent?
We Brits spend a lot of time moaning about European law – its foreign design, its unwanted encroachment, and its general impeding on our ability to get on with things and be bloody great. Such a tendency means that we fail to notice the bits that come out of Brussels that might just enable us to get what we’ve been waiting for all along. Fortunately for Rangers chief executive Charles Green he is not one of these people, for he appears to comb through the UEFA website and check ECJ rulings on a daily basis. His persistence, he thinks, may just have paid off, upon the discovery of the UEFA-sanctioned professional women’s league in Belgium and Holland. Citing it as a precedent for cross-border leagues, Green said, “if there was an opportunity to join a cross-border league and that was challenged by UEFA, I would go to Strasbourg and challenge the sexual equality.”
That statement presents two logical deductions. One is that Green supports gender equality (although funnily enough there don’t appear to be any females on Rangers’ Board of Directors). The second is that Rangers are desperate to get out of the Scottish League and want to compete weekly on a transnational basis. The examples of Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham have often formed the basis of the justification for entry into the English leagues, a notion that has been met with frequent resistance south of the border. Too cool for their own party, not welcome at their neighbours, both Rangers and Celtic have rung around their fellow inbetweeners across Western Europe to see if they are up for a shindig of their own: the awfully-named ‘Atlantic League’. Well, if they’re letting the women hop across borders to play league football, then why not men too?
Money, of course, is what drives the notion of a club leaving its domestic league. Nothing else. Money, or revenue, or more precisely, a return on investment. Charles Green will not be the Chief Executive of Rangers in 20 years time. He wants to make the most money for his consortium. By leaving the Scottish leagues he hopes to cash in on the TV money, increased sponsorship, and potential for larger gate receipts that would be available as a result of playing against larger rivals on a more frequent basis. This increase in revenue would not just benefit shareholders, but also bring the opportunity to compete with larger European rivals and attract a higher level of talent than currently possible. So the theory goes.
But there is nothing to actually suggest that the creation of new supranational leagues would lead to the cash bonanza that owners like Green believe they would. The Premier League and the Champions League, the two successful league ‘rebrands’ of recent times, were precisely that – tweaks on competitions that have existed for decades and which have been able to tack onto football history. The joke goes that ‘Sky invented football in 1992’, but this is normally used as a sarcastic ‘cough-cough’ reminder in response to that company’s fondness for hyperbole. In reality, it has been a fairly smooth transition in terms on continuing the competition’s place in football; we still refer to Manchester United as having won 19 titles. Likewise, the Champions League, despite expanding to a stage where even its name is a misnomer, has enough semblance to its initial format (that of being the elite continental competition) to be considered the same competition. Clearly, an attempt to create a league to trump long-standing domestic leagues, featuring teams without a tradition of rivalry, runs contrary to these successes. The BeNe league, an untelevised competition which solely aims to increase the standard of women’s football in the two countries, is not a model that can or should be copied by their male counterparts. Here’s why.
Ignoring the fact that the league was sanctioned on a trial basis for review after three years, the idea that a club could no longer be part of its traditional domestic league is one that tampers with one of the most sacrosanct aspects of Association Football. A club’s identity is formed not just by who it is and where it is from, but by who it plays against. Think about Inter Milan, for example, borne out of a split from AC Milan following disagreements over contracting foreign players. Almost 300 times they have met since in all competitions, and each encounter has added new chapters to a story that does not just remain in the San Siro, but forms part of a narrative that is followed and devoured by millions. Who are Inter Milan if they no longer play against AC Milan? Fans love their teams and hate their rivals, sometimes in equal measure. There is something Orwellian about the prospect of owners (who it must be remembered may not have any connection to the club at all nor any long-term interest) being able to move a club into another league and expect fans to acquiesce to the new terms of competition. That derby match? Nope. Your favourite away ground? Not next year. That league title record you’ve been chasing for 50 years. Doesn’t matter now.
Is to oppose cross-border leagues the refuge of the little Englander, or to be a slave to nation-states and their eternal ability to frame our daily lives? I would argue no. Football is acclaimed to be the global game, and it is true that spectacle of transnational matches and competitions have enthralled audiences and continue to do so. Upon the discovery of life on Mars, once the energy resources have been carved up you can be assured that item two on the intergalactic agenda will be when the first football match will take place. However, to continue with any path that takes football away from its domestic programme would be to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. At the elite of the game football may no longer be the true community experience of its origins, but its continued status as the world’s most popular sport lies surely in whatever community attachment still remains. For while the notion of being the best on the widest possible scale appeals, being the best in your own backyard matters too, and the two are not incompatible. There already exists a transnational competitive framework that gives clubs like Rangers a chance to jump on a jet and shoot for continental glory. The desire to do so on a more regular basis merely serves to ignore the real nubs of the issue, that of making the Scottish league more competitive, and the European competitions more meaningful.
Rangers did not want to leave the Scottish league in the 90s when they were winning titles, having players like Gazza and Brian Laudrup turning out for them, and competing in the Champions League. The fact is that all leagues go through periods where they are more in vogue, or where they carve out an identity that makes them interesting and, hopefully, sustainable. A World Cup win in 1982 followed by hosting the tournament in 1990 meant that Seria A was seen as the world’s elite league. English football went through its own reformation following Hillsborough, spending millions on improving the stadia, while reaping the benefits of satellite television and its ability to spread the message. The Bundesliga has established itself as the fans’ choice, with shared ownership models for clubs and low ticket prices making it the highest attended league in Europe. La Liga is the competition that most resembles the Scottish Premier League (prior to Rangers’ demotion), characterised by the hoarding of talent at the two top teams, who provide the sales-pitch to international audiences. The difference is that it’s obviously more attractive to watch Barcelona batter Sporting Gijon than it is Celtic annihilate Kilmarnock, and the presence of global giants in Spain keeps the league afloat, despite the gross inequality that exists.
There is hope for Scottish football. Despite the popular conception of a league on its knees, the Scottish Premier is the second-best attended per percentage of the population in Europe. Tapping into that loyalty and passion for football, rather than gutting it, can ensure that the league remains interesting and relevant for the people who matter most – those who go and watch it every week.
What it lacks is an international audience. How to get one? The answer surely lies in innovation, whatever that might involve. Unlike in bigger leagues where there are entrenched vested interests in maintaining the status quo, Scottish football has more space to be creative and think about how it could make the league more interesting for global audiences. And wiith a vote in 2014 on Scottish independence, what better time to think along such lines?