Football – even more than wine, cheese or trashy Eurovision songs – is Europe's strongest cultural export. Around 400 million people worldwide watch the Champions League final every year, four times as many as at the Super Bowl. Yet despite the global success of the sport, it faces similar problems as the rest of the European economy: a calcifying regulatory burden, with bureaucratic politics trumping the interests of companies and consumers – in this case football clubs and their fans.
Earlier this month, a Spanish judge ruled for the second time against the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) – the pan-European body that sets rules and controls competitions – and their attempts to discipline the 12 clubs that tried to split off and form in April its own European Super League. The plan quickly failed after angry backlash from fans and politicians across Europe, particularly against the suggestion that the 12 founding members would automatically qualify for the league forever. In the 48 hours between the announcement of the Super League and the departure of the first clubs, UEFA was able to position itself as the defender of European football. Yes, the Super League was a deeply flawed and poorly implemented idea. But its almost universal rejection should not rule out a serious discussion about the future of football in Europe and, above all, the need for a comprehensive reform of UEFA.
UEFA is too rich for its own good. The company's turnover has grown steadily over the past ten years. This season – including the Euro 2021 tournament that just ended with Italy beating England for the title – is likely to raise nearly $ 5.9 billion. But by any other metric, UEFA does a poor job of overseeing European football. The reason for this failure lies in its dual incentives: it is nominally a managing body charged with the good of the game, but it is also one of the most successful event organizers in the world, receiving advertising and television revenue from some of the world's most popular sporting events, to distribute it at your own discretion. Football fans and clubs are left with the worst of both worlds: They have no say in the election of a body supposedly in their interests, but they cannot do their business elsewhere if UEFA doesn't look after them – as was most clearly shown in 2015 when A massive corruption scandal involving football administrators resulted in protracted bans on the then presidents of UEFA and its global cousin, the infamous FIFA.
Fans protest outside Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England, ahead of the English Premier League game against Liverpool on May 2nd against the owners of Manchester United who signed up for the breakaway European Super League tournament. OLI SCHAL / AFP via Getty Images
A man walks past graffiti entitled “The Failed Coup” by Italian artist Laika, showing Juventus President Andrea Agnelli piercing a football near the Italian Football Association's headquarters in Rome on April 21. Juventus was one of the driving forces behind the new European super league. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP via Getty Images
In the meantime, the competitive balance in the national soccer leagues in Europe has been declining for many years. A small handful of top teams – invariably the richest clubs with the most money to buy the best players – are winning an increasing share of games in their domestic leagues, resulting in less interesting competitions and fewer opportunities for exciting surprises like Dark. leading horse Leicester City won the 2016 English Premier League. For the past ten years, the top leagues in France, Italy and Germany have each been dominated by a single team: Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich. Spanish football is a duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid despite Atlético Madrid's recent successes. The same applies to European club competitions in which no team outside of the Big Five national leagues in Europe has made it to the finals since 2004.
This predictability has resulted in a deluge of meaningless games. Players, fans and managers all agree that UEFA hosts too many matches, especially at national level, with their predictable results. But it is worthwhile for UEFA to take advantage of every income opportunity. The over-planning problem was exacerbated by the COVID-19 interruption which postponed the games and messed up the schedule. Too many games can have serious consequences for players: Last month the football world was shocked when Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch from a cardiac arrest during the European Championship group stage. In a normal season Eriksen would play around 50 games; Denmark versus Finland was the 66th competitive game he had played in the last 12 months. Manchester City coach Josep “Pep” Guardiola had complained in the run-up to the tournament that “UEFA and FIFA are killing the players” due to over-planning. Luckily Eriksen is recovering well, but it shouldn't take near tragedy experience to pay more attention to the health of the players.
UEFA's much-promoted flagship reform was the Financial Fair Play program, which prohibits clubs from paying more on players' salaries and transfer fees than they earn in operating income. Financial Fair Play has a laudable goal: to prevent clubs from going into debt and failing financially in the pursuit of fame – as was best known in the early 2000s when Leeds United, one of England's most famous clubs, had to seek protection from its creditors after putting together an expensive, briefly successful team. In practice, the new rule is anti-competitive: Manchester United's revenue is more than three times that of the average Premier League club. In other European leagues, the financial differences are even greater – and so the new UEFA rule only reinforces the hierarchy, which is anything but fair. And as research by Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper and economics professor Stefan Szymanski show, a club's payroll is the strongest predictor of its success in the field. There is no moneyball scenario in football in which a club can do better and be successful despite a smaller budget – the gaps are simply too big.
Following the Super League fiasco, the UK government launched an investigation into football governance and promised to consider the possibility of an independent regulator to manage the game. Regulators, fans and clubs should use the April controversy and the new focus on governance to implement meaningful reforms – and avoid simply going back to UEFA's status quo with clumsy regulations and previous forms of corruption.
What the fans want and what the players deserve are games that matter – which requires increasing the quality of competition, curbing greed, and reducing overtime schedules. Take, for example, UEFA's proposals to modify the existing European Champions League by increasing the group stage from 32 to 36 teams and adding four additional group stage games to the season for each team. This serves UEFA's purposes well as it gives more clubs a place in the top, satisfies underrepresented national leagues and generates more revenue with more games. But what fans and players want is fewer games, games between the continent's elite clubs and more at stake.
There are two clear reforms that can achieve these goals. Reducing the number of group stage games that determine which teams make the knockout round and playing more of them – the complete opposite of what UEFA is proposing – would allow more high-stakes games without the Charging players unduly. Allowing more teams from the top 5 leagues into the qualifying rounds would be in line with fan preferences, seeing top clubs without taking away teams from smaller nations. Contrary to the reforms proposed by UEFA, these changes would improve the quality of tournaments, protect players and benefit clubs. Unless the European administrators regulate the fine game better, they shouldn't be surprised if their positions are threatened.