Picture a shipwreck. Bodies strewn, debris bobbing indifferently on the formidable surface. All is apparently still, yet a wave looms. Its cavernous shadow casts further and wider, further and wider, as preying albatross scatter and a crack of demonical thunder detonates with unholy force. The scene fades to black.
Eyes groggily blink open. Coarse sand soaks through the victim’s fingers. A saline backwash rushes over, a discontented shrimp exacting a smarting nip to the cadaver’s nose, and they are rudely awoken. Jolting upwards, they find what seems, at first glance, an island paradise. Palms slump disjointedly at bases, but firm as they reach a cloudless sky; their vast leaves carrying a gentle breeze across the deserted archipelago. A great thud lands to the distant left, and another soon after to the right. Bountiful coconut harvests are dropping with metronomic harmony. The reinvigorated body raises to its feet, strolling with golden particles between its toes as if for the first time. They break into a sprint, free of all worldly tribulations, and touch the forest floor. Evading flailing branches, imperceptible to all cacophonous chirrups and ca-caws, the sprint brings them ever closer to what unquestionably seems the islet’s very centre. They exhale deeply as paces come to a halt. Rough hands are rested on grazed, short-exposed knees and they crouch to regain breath. Unbeknownst, they scramble hopelessly for whatever foothold is possible, but their freefall begins; the trap door is open. Next time awoken, somehow, they are again cast away. These are the eyes of the perennial domestic champion. And so, the plot resets.
Their fellow floating passengers, long forgotten and deemed unlikely survivors, fare little better. As they reopen their gaze, they find themselves only coasting with the inevitable tide; laid out far at sea, with no land in any horizon. Feeble swimmers, they abandon all hope. Their fate condemns them to futile mutiny and disregarded demises.
This term, the role’s indignity falls, primarily, to Cyprus’ Ethnikos Achna, Greece’s Platanias, the Republic of Ireland’s Bray Wanderers, Wales’ Prestatyn Town, Luxembourg’s Union Esch FC, Austria’s SKN St. Pölten, Bulgaria’s Vitosha Bistritsa, Romania’s Juventus București, Turkey’s Kardemir Karabükspor, Israel’s Hapoel Ironi Akko and Russia’s SKA-Khabarovsk. Yet it is one under which they should aim to revel, and flourish. Let their superiors wallow in the filth of Champions League, or Europa League, riches; we all know where the genuine hotbeds of the sport lie.
The diversity of their ineptitude is truly astounding. The Eastern Mediterranean duo, stakeholders in the tumult of infamously compromised economies, hail from politically insignificant provincial villages; Ethnikos in Dasaki Achnas, the successor within the British military territory of Dhekelia to Achna, seized by Turkish troops in 1974 to become part of Northern Cyprus, while the sumptuous, tourist-dominated Cretan coastline plays host to football as despicable as its obesity rate. Bray and Prestatyn typify post-industrial British and Irish coastal economies when also reliant in quaint, suburban existence on tourism – in close proximity to Dublin and Merseyside – while Esch-sur-Alzette, as Luxembourg’s second ‘city’ and traditional footballing hub, evidently did not have room for a third club on its scene after Fola and Jeunesse, seven and 28-time champions. In modernised Sankt Pölten, Sofia-neighbouring Bistritsa, Bucharest, post-industrial Karabük, ancient harbour city Acre and Khabarovsk, dotting from central, gentrified E.U. heartland to the Russian city 20 miles from the Chinese border, economic negligence – either misdirected from national capitals, or deprived from lagging post-Communist progress – has rendered sporting achievement, especially among lesser outfits, of scant regard.
Though the recurrent gaffes prone even of sides in what are deemed the world’s most eminent divisions are relevant, they pale in comparison. As of 26 May, our chosen, vaulted few have accrued but 132 league points from 322 cumulative matches; a healthy return of roughly 0.41 points per game on average, with an overall goal swing of -508 (198 GF, 706 GA) equalling out at a deficit per game of -1.58. Embracing these destitute plains, at least. Esch, for example achieved just a single win and lone draw in the entirety of their 26-match season to be left 18 points adrift at the foot of the Luxembourgish table, while Vitosha went entirely winless, with eight draws amassed towards their total.
In all but the Greek instance, furthermore, titles comfortably followed expectations; Europa League semi-finalists Red Bull Salzburg 14 points ahead with one Austrian Bundesliga round remaining, APOEL Nicosia, Ludogorets Razgrad and F91 Dudelange a win or two’s length away from their closest challengers, Galatasaray extending their record Süper Lig haul to a 21st title, The New Saints celebrating their seventh consecutive Welsh title while relegating closest rivals Bangor City in the process and Hapoel Be’er Sheva adorning an ever-expanding trophy cabinet with their third consecutive Israeli championship. Even in former Communist heartlands – starkly more monetised by nature – if CFR Cluj and Lokomotiv Moscow did upset recent Liga I and Russian Premier League trends, their proximity to Bucureștean, or indeed inner-city, rivals (a point, and two, respectively, in final standings) would serve as a valuable commiseration for Steaua București and CSKA Moscow financiers. Thus, the stranglehold of the exclusive elite is complete. The self-fulfilling prophecy of dominance is unbroken – if not impenetrable, seldom permitting new entrants on a consistent and self-sustaining basis.
Need it be mentioned, a conformity to the erstwhile runs of a great many of these divisions is also evident. In the 2016-17 season, the Cypriot First Division’s two automatically demoted outfits accumulated just 12 points from 52 matches and what we only ponder as Russia’s answer to a certain GPS brand, Tom Tomsk, wound up with only 14 of their own from 30 outings. If devoid of true season-long drubbings, one certainty still applied in rebuttal of newly-promoted entities. Roundly, optimists had throats slit; the aforementioned Cypriots returning all three from whence they came, Drogheda United subjected to a familiar yo-yo in the League of Ireland, two of the three Luxembourg National League inductees immediately dispensed, two of a whole five Bulgarian B Group sides granted licences stripped of these, Adanaspor failing to make an impression on their Super Lig return, and Tom Tomsk and debutants Orenburg – of Siberia and the Ural mountains, respectively – fell to a swift Russian demise. Only by the narrowest of margins did St. Pölten survive the same fate, alongside ACS Poli Timișoara, Hapoel Ashkelon and Arsenal Tula of Romania, Israel and Russia, respectively.
When gazing down the navel of genuine European elites, such discrepancies jut out only in unique instances; North Ferriby in the English semi-professional ranks, the heavily docked Akragas, Rot-Weiß Erfurt and Achilles ‘29 in Italian, German and Dutch third tiers, FSV Luckenwalde in the Regionalliga Nordost, Raon l’Étape in the French step four, Brechin City in the Scottish Championship and a couple in both the amateur Highland/Lowland leagues and Portuguese third divisions. They wouldn’t begrudge remaining nameless.
Humberside, Sicily; equally desirable holiday destinations, but seldom linked, at least by the average travel agent, through financial deprivation. The former, hosting a village outfit whose entire Conference North existence was dependent on Allam family funds, and by November Hull owner Assam’s daughter Eman and her husband Steve Forster had fully wavered. An Ancient Greek colony by trade, the latter, at the southernmost extremity of the island – the ball to Italy’s boot – certainly got kicked around the courts this season, with all fifteen measly points rescinded in procedures concerning the failure to fulfil on mid-season payments of both players and staff. Medievally morphed, central Germany’s Erfurt had carved their reputation as the 3rd Liga’s survivors – the only club to have hosted all seasons since its 2008 inception – but fell to an unappreciated (let’s admit it, inevitable) demise this term; a fate shared by Achilles, whose heel was exposed when surrendering meekly to an amateur reprise and a second successive relegation.
Comparatively, these are petty concerns. Relinquishing influence gained under false pretences, these flagrant manipulators endure the wrath of the system quite fairly. In the Turin-owned – and, since capitalist overhauls, artificially repatriated – Romanians, the far-isolated Khabarovsks, the marginalised Luxembourgers and sleepy Western European ports, lowly standings are validated. They are ineffective, unpopular and alienated; the forgotten men. Yet they do not challenge their circumstances. Who dare argue this not to be a beautiful game?
These are not undeveloped leagues, either. According to 2016 UEFA statistics, Russia and Turkey are the immediate successors to Europe’s ‘big five’ in relation to average top division club revenues; €43.8 and €40.8 million, respectively. External to the European Union, these are the continent’s greatest economic arms. Lucrative investment schemes fund Luxembourg’s rise above post-Soviet states such as Armenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Moldova – albeit at just €0.7M per club – while Ireland, Israel, Bulgaria and Cyprus all perform admirably to exceed their relative size, aided by improving corporate milieus. Romania and Greece perhaps underperform given their stature, but a population diminished by economic migration and a calamitous recession do forgive such facts. The same report – The European Club Footballing Landscape for the 2016 financial year – however, evokes far more than social introspection. Squeezed out of the latter, or often even knockout, stages of elite competitions, the Scottish, Norwegians, Greeks and Ukrainians have all made six-year net financial losses in their premier divisions. Driven by rapid downturns in gate receipts – average revenue, across all 54 UEFA constituent states, increasing 9% in this area only due to ever-increasing exclusivity and stadium redevelopments in England and Spain while 19 states saw attendances fall – and scarce enhancement in televisual demand (29 of the same 54 leagues deriving less than 5% of their income from broadcasting deals as England draw 46% and Italy 51%) it appears the digitalisation of the sport, coupled with the filtration of commercial expertise at the very top, has left lesser states far adrift. The top twelve teams in Deloitte’s annual Football Money League only strengthen their hegemony with the regularity of publication; in the 2016 financial year, over 60% of increased sponsorship revenues enjoyed by this V.I.P. band, along with 50% of growth in commercial income.
By all accounts, then, the accessibility of the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga has fed the deprivation of domestic products unable to compete. While UEFA have enacted an otherwise laudable expansion of reward payments in their two continental competitions – omitting, largely, the impact of fatigue on those regularly involved deep into the competition, alongside other domestic and international cups, à la Real Madrid – their saturation of lesser divisions has pulverised competition to a near-unbreakable divide. While previously exempt from the competition, Armenian, Albanian, Gibraltarian and Latvian Champions League preliminary stage qualifiers can now reinforce their dominance in a ruthless manner; Alashkert streaming to three consecutive titles, Skënderbeu Korçë successful in seven of the past eight seasons, Lincoln Red Imps 15 of the last 16 and FK Ventspils, though not so prolific, only falling from the Latvian top three for the first time in over twenty years in 2017, with six titles between 2006 and 2014 succumbing to greater powers in Riga and Jūrmala. All four nations received 50% of divisional income through exploits of individual clubs on the prestigious stage – only Ukraine and Croatia, of all higher nations, have equal returns.
FC København, Qarabağ, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Istanbul’s boisterous brethren, when consistently emerging through a desperate broth of lesser domestic victors, have altered the map of UEFA payments. In Denmark, Azerbaijan, Israel and Turkey, revenue from involvements have increased by an astounding 938, 107, 619 and 136 per cent. In comparison, Italy, Portugal and Russia are the only across all 54 states to suffer diminished values, and marginal proportions at this. As administrative prosperity only brings further grand rewards from 2018/19, the trend cannot reverse. The self-fulfilling prophecy finds fewer and fewer caveats.
Unless economic expansion and broadcasting revenue washes over these states with the unbounded optimism propelling post-Soviet economies, there is little to be done. To be placed so tantalisingly close to the pots of UEFA-derived riches is, irreconcilably, more a curse than a blessing. When spared scant mercy, as new arrivals or even as decrepit, underachieving, guards find, recurrent floggings are of little joy. Symptomatic only of divisions with vast financial inequalities between two or three dominant forces and the globular, inseparable remnants, revenues will remain low and authorities reinforced. Leicester City may beg to differ, but since their nostalgic triumph, much has changed. The same mistake will never be made by the establishment again, it seems.
Though it is in the English and Spanish interest to maintain omnipotent internal rivalry, their respective policies – piecemeal, by comparison with the radical formation of the Premier League and announcement of unprecedented TV deals – towards this do not focus on those at the top, but instead those with no hopes of title contention. The former’s drip-fed monetisation of the Championship bolsters their resources by churning unpredictability outside of the modern ‘big six’, ensuring that even the most minor of administrative faults will be harshly punished, while the latter’s gradual dispersion of long-hegemonised broadcasting income will encourage, as evident this season, the reprise of Villareal and Valencia, joined by Real Betis, Eibar and the likes jostling for Europa League berths. These are not empowering or honest – they are patronising, and hints of subterfuge.
The solution to the issue amongst our marginalised underlings is not, as they appear inclined, to restrict their elite. Since 2016, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Montenegro, Ukraine, and most radically Georgia, have all streamlined their top divisions. The only positive result yet visible is Qarabağ’s advancement to the Champions League group stage. The absolute intentions of the ploy are surely to carve out more sustainable livings for each who remained involved in premier competitions, yet a decrease in supporter enthusiasm is surely the internal repercussion. As evident in Scotland, Hungary, Croatia and all three Baltic states, the appetite for three or four turns in domestic competition – as opposed to the two-round structures favoured by 17 nations, including all of the big five – is, if alive at all, seldom proclaimed. Illogical administration, starving constituents of the public zeal so evident as the forerunner to a sustainable financial outlook, is just the first of their concerns.
The lax management of Financial Fair Play, though not the most immediate thought of these sides, by UEFA has done little to ease the brutal monopoly of a select class either. If leniency is the existential dogma, sides of the meteoric rises of the Arabian peninsula’s Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City will, with impatient financiers, examine the length of the law. Either in terms of overdue UEFA payments, breaching break-even restrictions or flagrant over-expenditure, domestic victors past and present in 13 states (Italy, France, England, Portugal, Croatia, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Russia and particularly Turkey) have all been closely investigated. With the exception of Anzhi Makhachkala, FC Rostov, Bursaspor, Ruch Chorzów, Hull City and, interestingly, Karabükspor, all other 27 instrumental outfits remain, if not assured of natural berths, in close contention for Champions League positions.
What separates those weeded out and the survivors, simply, is the matter already addressed. They fought the law and the law won. Institutional orders are now UEFA’s trademark – in upcoming proceedings, it will be fascinating to view how Everton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and if finally due an ownership overhaul West Ham United, attempt to combat the ever-entrepreneurial English big six from lofty placements in Deloitte’s compilations. Even through these challenges, 2018/19 will not cast doubt in UEFA HQ. With ten qualifying places reduced to just six in the Champions League and Spain, England, Germany and Italy each offered a fourth automatic group stage place, the Europa League receives the offcuts. Little will here be done to restore the reputation of the latter; derided by elitist Western Europeans and scorned by inferior victims of the mincer. Shamefully, for UEFA’s long-fostered vision, they are excluding the majority of their constituents. There are no surprises here. Their perpetual subservience to the upper echelons, however, should shock – having left all others with the sole resort of localism. CSKA Sofia, roaring back onto their true arena, had adopted an all-Bulgarian recruitment policy under sporting director and former international Hristo Yanev, and if deprived of continental funds, similarly displaced clubs will have little choice but to retreat from the globalist trends for which England has much to answer. One line they will not cross, however, is the subservience Red Star, Partizan, Steaua and Dinamo Zagreb subjected themselves to as Londoners, Madrilenians and Romans et al, carved up the morsels of continental victory in the early 1990s. Talent will not escape the hands of these new regimes unless explicitly necessary; their defiance, let alone pride, is impervious to competitive embarrassment.
We should not be exposing deficiencies, but embracing them. These are mortal clubs run by mortal servants with no pompous legacies, only exhausted histories. They deserve our deepest respects rather than ridicule. You need not refute the continental drive for impassable dominance, inherent of the heightened and globalised iteration of capitalism we revel in, to mark moral voids in the modern European form. We only need recognise the plight of those left behind, and to pursue it as the major implication of our age – the latter of which, UEFA is evidently incapable of. It is far from inevitable that this should be the case. Whether it takes philanthropic collective action to force an unlikely charitable hand from Nyon, or to raise totemic opponents back to their feet, it is not unrealistic to state that power is in public hands. If the demand returns for the depths of greatness to be spread, with desperate point returns as here viewed raising publicity, UEFA will most certainly act on each lucrative proposition. If those betrayed by the institution in the past are reticent to revamped prospects, it is both understandable and a grand shame. For such rifts to be healed may take yet another generation’s engagement with the global community – an impossibility if forefathers are to repel outsiders. Essentially, the sport – in every single capacity – must decide how its present era is to be remembered. Its inefficiencies, impracticalities and uncertainties are what make it human, but also those which hinder its full potential; a potential that may not be bountiful for all, but can certainly be for so many more.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!