Can English Clubs Dominate European Football?

There was a time when English clubs seemed to be the best in Europe. The major European competitions were consistently being won by the likes of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Manchester United. It seemed that English clubs could do no wrong.

But the ban that followed the Heysel Stadium disaster saw a period of time when English teams weren’t facing major European rivals. There’s no doubt that, in footballing terms, this saw the top English clubs falling behind. For a number of years, it appeared as though the best club sides in Europe were to be found in Italy.

Even enthusiasts in this country couldn’t help but admire the cultured, multi-national teams that were representing AC Milan, for instance. Gradually, however, things started to swing back in favour of the English giants. Money poured into the Premier League and it wasn’t long before Manchester United and Liverpool were back ruling the European game.

With rich owners appearing at Chelsea and Manchester City, it seemed that English football was set to dominate once again, just as it had done twenty years ago. But things aren’t quite that simple. Over in Spain, a fantastic team has emerged in the city of Barcelona. Already having defeated Manchester United in two Champions League finals, the Barcelona team is being held up as an example of one of the great footballing sides of any generation.

Now, questions are suddenly being asked again. Can the best English teams recover and really compete? On the one hand, it can be argued that the finances available to the big Premier League sides should ensure that they can continue to be powerful. While this may be the case, there are certainly problems on the horizon.

The Premier League (established 20 years ago) has brought many financial benefits. It’s recognised throughout the world as a competition that offers an example of how sport and money can be combined. To a certain extent, the money has been shared between member clubs. The most successful clubs have received a larger share of the income, but it’s clear that things could have been very different.

To see how much different, we can simply look to Spain. In that country, the individual clubs have been able to negotiate their own television deals. This has created a real split, with the two biggest football clubs in Spain (Real Madrid and Barcelona) becoming even richer. They are now able to generate the sort of incomes that even threaten their rich English opponents.

Unless there’s a change in the way that the money is distributed in the Premier League, it seems that Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and the rest may have finally met their match. Should this concern domestic fans? Some won’t be too worried. There’s always a tendency to focus on rivalries that are a little closer to home.

However things turn out, it seems clear that the next decade will see some significant changes. The world will be watching.

European Footballer of the Year Candidates

Real Madrid president, Ramon Calderon announced that his newly signed Italian centre-back Fabio Cannavaro had won the prestigious Ballon D’Or, or Golden Ball, and was to replace Ronaldinho as the European Footballer of the year. This came to the surprise of many and rose more than a few eyebrows. Not, through the fact that Cannavaro had been the selection, far from it given his dominant displays during the World Cup, but due to the fact that the winner of the much hyped award is not actually announced until 27th November. Surely this means one of two things. The first of these is that France Football, the magazine that actually host the prize, have a mole in the camp and need to seriously bolster their security, alternatively Senor Calderon is living up to the traditions of the Madridistas and filling newspaper columns with self gratifying propaganda.

If it was a media frenzy that Calderon wanted, then he will be a happy man. Italian newspapers were not slow in announcing: “Cannavaro, it’s all true.” (Gazzetta dello Sport) and: “Golden Ball to Cannavaro.” (Corriere della Sera). Despite the excitable nature of the Italian media, it would appear that the issue is done and dusted. Which would change the purpose of this article from a preview of the front-runners, to a selection of the nearly men. However, the famous trophy is not yet causing the Italian skipper feng shui difficulties at chez Cannavaro and so I will continue with my initial intentions.

The Ballon D’Or was created in 1956 by France Football magazine. At a time when Europe had begun to come out from the hangover of World War II a decade earlier, and football was enjoying its progression as a worldwide game. The inaugural European Cup (now known as the UEFA Champions League) was played out in the same year, and Stanley Matthews, the Blackpool winger was pronounced as Europe’s first Player of the Year. In the years that followed, the awards were dominated by the all conquering Madrid side, their forward Alfredo di Stefano claiming the title twice. The very idea of the award showed that football was now a sport that could bring people of different countries together, such an important factor when we consider that much of the continent had been a battlefield little over a decade before. Despite being held by France’s leading football publication, the award is based upon the considered opinion of journalists Europe-wide.

The award has been pretty evenly distributed around the leading lights of European club football over the years, Juventus lead the way with a total of eight winners (a total that could well have been further extended had the Calciopoli match fixing scandal not intervened), AC Milan (seven), Barcelona (six), Real Madrid (five) and Bayern Munich (five) all follow. Of course we must take into consideration that the award ceremony is traditionally held in November of every year, so many victorious players may well have been at new clubs at the time of the award, having earned the plaudits that lead to the prize at another side (both Luis Figo and Ronaldo are examples of this, having only moved to Madrid a few months prior to the presentation). The only major change in the award since it began came in 1995 when it was decreed that the winner need not be European in nationality himself, merely have his contract held by a club that comes under UEFA’s jurisdiction (much to the delight of the Liberian forward George Weah who took full advantage of the rule change in 1995).

An obvious start point for such an award would be to begin where we left off last year. The Brazilian Ronaldinho, who won last years award (to sit proudly on the mantelpiece next to his World Player of the Year award) to reconfirm him as being regarded as the planet’s finest player. The Barcelona man, by his very high standards, had a disappointing year. Despite adding the Champions League to his collection of medals, he was relatively below par in the World Cup (a competition that usually can be considered the deciding factor for the award) as his Brazilian side (and pre-tournament favourites) limped out in the quarter finals having been widely tipped to take a sixth title. Of his compatriots, only really Kaka’ shone in Germany and unfortunately the AC Milan forward ended the season medal-less despite enhancing his growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with in world football, and possible future winner of the award.

As we have previously examined, major tournaments often have a large impact on who is to be the recipient of the award. Take, for example, Ronaldo’s Ballon D’Or of 2002. Following yet another injury plagued season in Italy with Internazionale, el phenominon (as he is known by his adoring fans) turned it on in the Far East to help Brazil claim a fifth World Cup, scoring an incredible eight goals along the way and exorcised the some of the demons of his breakdown in the 1998 competition. Although many commented that surely seven games does not make a season, Ronaldo, who had since joined the Galacticos of Madrid, took the coveted prize.

From this theory, we can assume that this year’s victor will most likely hail from Italy. As previously mentioned, all of this talk is fairly irrelevant as Fabio Cannavaro has been, although as yet unconfirmed, declared by his club’s president as the winner. In reality, should this be the case, few could argue. The Italian captain was a lion in the heart of the formidable Italian defence that provoked headlines of ‘campione del mondo’ (‘champions of the world’) across the Mediterranean peninsula. However, the 33 year old former Juventus man is himself not getting as excited as his President (at least not before the famous ‘fat lady’ has had her moment). Cannavaro has said: “Of course I would like to win it. It would be wonderful and very gratifying on a personal level.”

As well as the Madrid man, Italy can boast strong claims for the award through both midfielder Andrea Pirlo and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Pirlo, during the previous season with Milan, and the World Cup with his nation, enhanced the reputation that he had, in his early career at least, threatened without ever achieving. Some superb displays in the heart of the Azzuri’s midfield raised Pirlo’s profile to be rated amongst the continent’s finest in his position, although lack of success on the domestic front may have cost him. More interesting though, is the calls for the award to be given to Gigi Buffon. The Juventus and Italy stopper has long been regarded as the finest in the World in his position. In Germany, Buffon further embellished this claim. Some heroic performances, most notably in the semi final against the hosts and his penalty saving performance to claim the trophy in the final, gave credence to him becoming only the second goalkeeper to win the award. In claiming the Ballon D’Or he would truly claim a place amongst the greats as the only other ‘number one’ to have won the award was the Russian Lev Yashin in 1963. He also has the support of Italy legend, and former European Footballer of the Year, Gianni Rivera. Upon hearing of Cannavaro’s premature victory, Rivera proclaimed: “I would have chosen Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon but if it is true that Fabio is to win it, I’m happy anyway.”

If the Golden Ball is to head to Italy, it will be the country’s forth winner after Rivera himself (1969), Paolo Rossi (1982) and Roberto Baggio (1993).

However, not all are in agreement that the award should be given to an Italian. Upon hearing Ramon Calderon’s claims, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger reacted in typically defiant fashion: “Congratulations to Cannavaro if that’s the case,” Wenger said Friday. “But for me there’s only one candidate this year, it’s Thierry Henry. He just deserves it.

In retrospect, this is a fair argument. Henry appeared in both of the showpiece events in world football during 2006, and despite being on the losing side in both the World Cup and Champions League finals, getting to both is a testament to the man. Henry is widely regarded to have been the best striker in world football of the past few seasons. Consistently the English Premiership’s leading marksman and considered amongst the finest ever to have graced these shores, so perhaps, for once, Mr Wenger has seen something, he went onto say: “What does he have to do? Just to keep going. Sometimes you get rewarded at the moment where you expect it the least. That’s as well the sign of a superchamp.”

Other possible contenders are pretty thin on the ground. Samuel Eto’o of Barcelona was at his explosive best helping propel his side to titles in both La Liga and the Champions League, although not appearing in the summer’s festival of football due to Cameroon’s failure to qualify did not help his cause, as neither did the long term knee injury that will keep the striker out of action until the new year. The Portuguese midfielder Deco is another who has been mentioned in relation to the award. The diminutive string puller was considered to have been as, if not more, vital than Ronaldinho to Barcelona’s success last term. Another option, and one for the romantics, would be if the award was to go to Zinedine Zidane. The mercurial Frenchman finally hung up his golden boots during the summer after dragging his nation to the final. Some imposing performances from the one di Stefano dubbed ‘the maestro’ won Zizou the World Cup Golden Ball for being the tournament’s most outstanding player. However, we all know how it ended and, head-butts aside, the play-maker had a relatively poor season with Real Madrid.

With all considered, I feel I am largely discussing the competitors in a race already won. From a personal perspective I find this somewhat disappointing as it appears to be the closest competition for the award for some time. Not that I do not perceive Cannavaro a worthy winner, we have to go all the way back to Franz Beckenbauer in 1976 to find our last defender to have won the prize in a roll-of-honour dominated by players more accustomed to creating and scoring goals rather than stopping them. In this similar vein it would appear that given our three perceived favourites of Cannavaro, Buffon and Henry, only one is a striker. Perhaps a reflection upon the changing face of football? Perhaps merely a reflection of an Italian World Cup win? Either way, for me it is sad that such a prestigious award may not be announced with all of the pomp and ceremony that the eventual winner would undoubtedly deserve.

The Unseen Threat From Europe – the Premier League’s Dominance of European Football is in Danger

So, Manchester United look like they are going to win the Premier League title again. And with Chelsea dying a slow death in West London and Arsenal constantly shooting themselves in the foot, while Liverpool argue with their own manager, can anyone challenge them?

The Reds one-sided success (this year would make it 11 wins out of 17) in the English Premier League puts the league in danger of turning itself into an Eastern European backwater-type league where a single team is dominant for decades, as the rest of the country scratches around for scraps. The red herring this season is Aston Villa, who have broken into the top four, but is that because they have improved to meet the top four, or is it that the three below Man Utd are drifting down to meet them?

The fact that the top tier in the English league has an obvious second league of teams nowhere near good enough to challenge for anything other than mid-table obscurity, underline the crossroads English football appears to be at.

Of course, there’s the money. Last week it was announced that Sky accidentally blew Setanta out of the water and took five out of six Premier League TV packages by upping their bid to £1.4bn over three years. All good for clubs who can continue to throw money at players in a bid for the Holy Grail of football, a place in the top four .
But that money is only the base on which the big clubs are building their brands – and Man Utd’s success is such that they are in danger of getting too big for British football. A survey last year suggested that United had 333m fans worldwide compared with 75m in 2003. Clearly, success is paying off globally – one only has to look at the growing percentage of southeast Asian fans popping up at Old Trafford for visual evidence.
 
Man Utd’s dominance would not threaten “Brand Premier League” on its own: what the English leagues should be really worried about is that the rest of Europe appears to be getting its act together. As TV pays the bills, and global branding pays for the pretty dresses, any danger to Brand Premier on the world stage will be disastrous, particularly as the world lurches into a financial crisis.

The four big leagues (France, Italy, Spain and Germany) are in the midst of becoming more exciting by the week, with competition at the top and engaging action at the bottom, with a little quality, too. There finances appear to be improving rapidly, too. France’s Ligue 1 has seven teams vying for the title this year: perhaps because the team that has dominated for a decade, Lyon, has not had the global branding Man Utd has had. And the French leagues hit the jackpot in 2005 when a bidding war put the price of TV packages at £1.6bn – almost on a par with the Premier League.

Last year, the German Bundesliga took over the English Premiership’s mantle as the league making the most money out of shirt sponsorship: a small part of a club’s overall revenue but significant in that it suggests how bankable the league is in terms of marketability.
A year ago a rather doom-laden Spanish La Liga was looking at multiple bankruptcies as economists warned that clubs had radically overspent to keep up with Real Madrid and Barcelona. But the fact that Spain has two clubs bigger than Man Utd means that it will always be more competitive on a global market. It also has the advantage that there are more football-mad nations that speak Spanish than English-speaking nations.
 
The fate of Italian clubs, meanwhile, should serve as a warning for the money-bloated Premier League. For years they fed on bloated cheques from rich owners – often local companies done good or senior politicians or Italian oligarchs. Now it doesn’t look so good. Juventus has been dropped a league and since returned, while many other clubs suffered from wage bills hitting 85% of income. Now, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Clubs like Napoli, which suffered from the previous wage profligacy (Maradona and Paul Gascoigne the highest profile luxuries), are back in the black and highflying in Serie A.  Oh, and Italy still has four of the top 20 richest clubs in Europe.

Perhaps more importantly is the strong support in Italy for a salary cap which, if implemented, will drive Italian clubs back up to the top in Europe.
 
If the Premier League continues on its current path, three things could happen:

1) Of course, everything could work out fine, with the money levelling off as Brand Premier begins to help every club in the league. Competition becomes more intense, the world is hooked,

2) Man Utd continue to dominate and the fans slowly but surely switch off. United decides it doesn’t want to share the TV money so, as the only show in town, decides to break away from the TV package and sell itself. With little or no competition at home European action becomes more important. The spectre of a European super league raises its ugly head again.

3) Brand Premier goes the way of Italy: money breeds corruption, breeds alienation and eventually the English falls into a bitter sea of fear, court cases and recriminations. Millions worldwide switch back to a revitalized Serie A and La Liga and the old world order is duly re-established.
 
Sepp Blatter allows himself a quiet, triumphant smile.