OWhat unites us in Europe? In the current crisis, as the world moves from a rules-based to a power-based order, Europe is coming together and remembering its most important principle: rules and laws apply. This was agreed in Porto and Helsinki, Bruges and Athens, Warsaw, Prague and Ljubljana.
Football is a mosaic of social life. It contributes to the negotiation and communication of values. For it to be accepted and for Western society to recognize itself in it, its competitions must be fair and subject to good rules, that is to say that many are authorized to participate in them with a chance of success.
This works surprisingly well in national teams, as the size of the countries is a decisive factor for them and no one in Europe wants to change the sovereignty of their borders. There have been 10 different winners in 16 European Championship tournaments.
The problem lies in club football. A lot of money is flowing there, which some leagues and teams benefit from disproportionately. This creates national monopolies and in the Champions League whole regions of Europe are left behind. It is now up to the competition authorities.
“People go to football because they don’t know the result,” said Sepp Herberger, West Germany’s 1954 World Cup-winning coach. Germany and the situation is similar in France. The two metropolises of Munich and Paris have become monopolies.
Because Bayern are aiming for their 10th championship in a row, the Germans are discussing play-offs. The title would then depend on a few games at the end of the season. This is how the Bundesliga is supposed to get exciting again. But the play-offs cannot be the solution. They would only fight the symptoms, not the cause. Changing modes does not replace the question: how do you organize the competition so that football is fun and that many get involved?
The greatest density of competition is in the Premier League, where almost all clubs are in the hands of very wealthy owners. However, no attention has been given to who is allowed to fund football as a national asset. Roman Abramovich was hit with sanctions. And the debate about how to regulate who is allowed to invest under what conditions in the future is being fought very intensively in England. In Europe, universal human rights must be fundamental in this matter.
International competition needs innovation, it needs to be reinvented regularly. The Champions League is attractive, the finals are watched by more than 100 million people worldwide. But the winners of the past 11 years come from three countries. In this century, no club from Scandinavia, the Balkans, Central or Eastern Europe has reached the semi-finals. The last was Dynamo Kyiv in 1999.
Does European football only consist of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France? What about other nations? Should they be happy to only play the preliminary round?
Benfica, for example, winners of the European Cup in 1961 and 1962, has a large stadium, many members and a rich tradition. The city exerts its charism as far as South America. Benfica are now in the quarter-finals, but since the Portuguese league is too small, it is very difficult for the club to compete in the Champions League. The same can be said for Ajax.
Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Copenhagen are also only allowed to watch from the start of the decisive phase. However, these large cities would be interesting for investors who could create the framework conditions for success.
The disc looked different. The last 10 winners of the European Nations Cup, as the Champions League was called before its introduction in 1992, came from eight countries, including Romania, Portugal, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. This diversity generated enthusiasm, made football socially relevant and the Champions League possible.
Europe needs to find smart solutions at the negotiating table – be cooperative, ready to compromise and accommodate different interests. This includes forming a league that offers many a chance to succeed, sportingly and economically. It’s not an easy task, but it’s interesting. UEFA and all national associations have a responsibility here, including those that fund sport. When, if not now, is it time to reform? The desire for change and the sense of solidarity are great at the moment.
The experience of the Super League expected last year shows that if the institutions do nothing, the case could be taken away from them. But if a few big clubs then set the terms, the more lucrative European league model will prevail, not the more culturally interesting.
Europe has great appeal in the world because it adheres to its democratic order and stands for freedom and equality. This also applies to its sports competitions, as long as they offer equal participation and opportunity. These are values that are constantly being rebalanced in an alliance of equal nations. The West is strengthening its cohesion these days and weeks and football must make its contribution.