Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has been criticized for the lack of competitive balance in recent years. The rise of clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona have led to fears that soccer is heading towards a situation where the best teams keep getting better without challengers to push them further. Is this problematic?
The “types of sports” is a question that asks whether or not it is time for European clubs to curb their dominance.
If you’re a lover of thrilling championship chases, you’re probably not looking forward to the 2021-22 European soccer season.
Bayern Munich leads the Bundesliga by six points over Borussia Dortmund, and FiveThirtyEight believes the German giants have a 97 percent probability of winning their 10th Bundesliga title in a row. After losing Ligue 1 last season, Paris Saint-Germain increased their spending, adding Leo Messi among others, and now lead by 11 points with a 98 percent probability of winning the league. With 82 percent chances, Real Madrid and Inter Milan lead LaLiga and Serie A with four points apiece.
Even the prestigious Premier League, with its deep coffers and Big Six teams, is facing another season without a compelling title competition. Manchester City leads Liverpool by nine points and has an 82 percent probability of winning the Premier League. Beginning in early November, City ripped off 12 straight league victories, thus ending any possibility of a tight contest. As thrilling as the 2018-19 championship race was — City and Liverpool rode away from the field with 98 and 97 points, respectively — it’s the first time the Premier League title has been decided by less than seven points since 2014. Almost often, someone pulls away.
We’re all too familiar with big clubs dominating soccer; it’s not really a novel notion. Bayern has won more than half of the Bundesliga championships since 1969, while Real Madrid and Barcelona have 57 LaLiga titles between them since 1945.
It wasn’t always like this, however.
In the 20 seasons between 1995 and 2014, the Premier League was decided by five or fewer points ten times, and by zero or one point five times. Even with Bayern winning more championships than anybody else, the Bundesliga used to be the epitome of dramatic title battles, with 10 title races decided by zero or one point between 1977 and 1995, and seven title races determined by two or fewer points between 1997 and 2009. During Bayern’s current championship run, it has only been decided by single digits once.
Since the mid-1950s, the Elo Football rankings have tracked practically every European outcome. The Elo system is straightforward and simple: the winning team deducts points from the losing team, you get more points for defeating someone much better than you (and vice versa), and a lower-rated team may deduct points from a superior team in the event of a tie. From year to year, it may be used as a kind of running scorecard. It may also reveal a lot about a big club’s strength.
The more you win, the more points you take from your opponents, and the most successful clubs are taking more points from their opponents than in the past. Juventus finished the 1994-95 season with 2,116 points, winning Serie A and the Coppa Italia but losing in the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) final against No. 9 Parma. Ajax defeated AC Milan in the Champions League final; the teams were ranked third and fourth in the year-end Elo Football ratings, respectively, with 2,091 and 2,070 points.
Those point totals would have placed seventh, 12th, and 13th overall ten years later, in the 2004-05 season. They’d barely get you into the top 20 today: With 2,117 points, Borussia Dortmund is in 15th place, while FC Salzburg is in 23rd place with 2,073.
Only two teams reached 2,200 Elo points at the conclusion of the season between 1965 and 2003: 1973 Ajax and 1979 Liverpool, both widely considered as two of the best ever teams. In the decade of the 2010s, 11 teams surpassed 2,300 points. In 2011, Barcelona established a record, which was surpassed in 2012 by Real Madrid, and in 2015, Barcelona reached an all-time season-ending high of 2,372 points. Bayern is now ranked 2,373rd in the world.
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SUNDAY, JANUARY 29 • Melbourne Vs Wellington (1.30 a.m. ET) • Blackpool vs. Fulham (9.55 a.m. ET) • Sheff U against Peterborough (12.25 p.m. ET)
• USG vs. Anderlecht, SUNDAY, JANUARY 30 (7.25 a.m. ET) • Birmingham vs. Derby (8:25 a.m. ET) Nottingham Forest vs. Cardiff (10.55 a.m. ET) • Antwerp vs. Gent (11.55 a.m. ET) • Club Brugge vs. Kortrijk (2.55 p.m. ET)
MONDAY, JANUARY 31 • Portsmouth hosts Charlton Athletic (2.40 p.m. ET)
Of course, you don’t need complex math to realize what we’re seeing; all you have to do is glance at the table. Five of the Premier League’s top six point totals have been achieved in the last five seasons, and the current Manchester City club is following suit. Before 2017, no top-flight English side had ever won more than 14 consecutive league games; City and Liverpool have both done it twice since then. Before 2011-12, no Bundesliga side had ever scored more than 2.32 points per game; Borussia Dortmund accomplished it in 2012, and Bayern Munich has done so practically every season thereafter.
Then there are three questions: How did things go so bad? What could be done about it (if the powers that be determined that anything should be done in the first place)? And, if nothing is done, how much more can the wealthiest teams distance themselves from the pack?
The retreat from parity
It’s simple to describe how we get here.
Almost every significant advancement in the sport in the last 30 years has driven us farther away from parity. The 1995 Bosman judgement made it illegal for teams to collect transfer fees from out-of-contract players, resulting in a huge rise in player mobility throughout Europe. This has been terrific for players (and their agents), but it has come at a cost: some teams with larger names and checkbooks were in a better position to profit.
The Champions League is another option. The change of the European Cup competition into a league in 1992, with more marquee matchups (and more matches overall), resulted in a significant rise in income for those who were fortunate enough to participate. The Winners League’s extension to include teams other than league champions expanded the margin of error for the elite clubs as well. They’d be able to budget more accurately if they knew they’d be in the Champions League.
The amount of money flowing in and out of the Champions League has increased dramatically in the last three decades, and the recipe for inequality has been baked right into the cake: the “market pool” portion of the revenue distribution ensures that clubs with bigger names will earn more for reaching a certain round of the tournament than clubs with lesser names will earn for reaching the same round. Simply because they were Barcelona, Barcelona earned roughly €40 million more for losing in the 2019 semi-finals than Ajax.
All of this hasn’t prevented some of the world’s most well-known businesses from failing at times, but the consequences have been palpable. Given the current state of affairs, it would have been surprising if the wealthiest teams had not pushed away from the pack.
Playoffs, salary caps, and player caps
The possible solutions are simple to outline (and are potentially unrealistic).
Inequality and the presence of big-bads do not inherently harm the sport on a global level. A Real Madrid-Barcelona Champions League final would very surely bring far greater TV ratings than, example, Sevilla-Atalanta, and overall revenues, TV ratings, attendance, and so on didn’t indicate many high-level difficulties prior to the COVID years. Again, to the degree that the Bosman verdict increased club spending, it did so in the players’ benefit. Even if the game’s mega-agents gain more influence and money as a result, this isn’t always a terrible thing.
Manchester City has seemed to have the Premier League championship locked up for months. One of their top scorers has been Kevin De Bruyne. Getty Images/Matt McNulty
Nonetheless, the epidemic years shone a strong light on the impacts of inequality, wreaking havoc on lower-level teams and leagues and exposing all the flaws at the sport’s top echelons. And the unsuccessful Super League endeavor this spring demonstrated both how stratified the haves-versus-have-nots split is and how tough it will be to cross it.
People like Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, and Joan Laporta, the president of Barcelona, still think that the Super League was required to sustain the sport. “It’s a framework to prevent football, which is losing popularity, from dying,” Perez said. Allow them to generate as much money as they want, and it will eventually trickle down and fix everything, as you can see.
It seems like the struggle for the spirit of the sport is being waged by the most soulless in a battle between the wealthiest clubs vs. UEFA vs. FIFA. Still, we have a good idea of what possible remedies are (or may be) in the works.
In the late 2000s, UEFA enacted a series of Financial Fair Play restrictions to prevent clubs from spending more than they make. It hasn’t even worked to restrict expenditure or promote parity, as seen by the rise of big-brand dominance in the 2010s. The laws have proved too simple to get around with innovative accounting, and have disproportionately penalized lower-level groups. (It’s funny how that’s usually what happens downstream.)
UEFA is working on a new set of rules that might include a wage ceiling and perhaps a luxury tax for overspending. Perhaps, as in certain American sports leagues, it will rein in the wealthiest of the affluent; at the absolute least, LaLiga’s efforts at a wage limit framework have kept Barcelona from building up even more unsustainable amounts of debt in recent years.
As league races become less exciting, more talk about changing league formats will emerge, such as adding an American-style playoff at the end or forming multi-nation super leagues like the much-discussed “Benelux” league, which would pit the best teams from the Netherlands, Belgium (and Luxembourg!) against each other, theoretically increasing revenue and competition levels. None of these adjustments seem to be a hot topic among real decision-makers at the present.
If UEFA really intended to create a more level playing field, it could do a number of other apparent things. Obviously, it could dump the “market pool” distribution. It may also enhance solidarity payments to teams and leagues at the bottom of the totem pole. And, as ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti describes here, one of my personal favorite ideas is limiting the amount of players a club may register. You could at least redistribute talent if you can’t spread income.
Is there a limit to how far domination can go?
In the meanwhile, what is the limit?
The most well-known brands have always been and will continue to be the most well-known brands. It’s a rather exclusive group, to say the least. Their power has grown, and although it’s necessary to consider how this may be curtailed, it’s also intriguing to consider how much farther this can go. How much more powerful will the biggest clubs become if money continues to flow upward?
In principle, we’re getting close to the limit, and not only in terms of “Bayern can’t win more than 100 percent of Bundesliga championships.” Because of soccer’s inherent randomness — and the fact that no matter how much money you have, you can only fit 11 players on the field (and a lot of them will get injured, no matter how much money you put into your physio staff) — it will be difficult for the top teams to win more than they already have.
Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Inter, PSG, and Ajax are the top eight teams in the current Elo Football rankings. They have played 205 games that are not against each other throughout their current league seasons and the 2021-22 Champions League. They’ve won 154 of them, with 34 draws and just 17 defeats, for an overall average of 2.42 points per game.
Bayern Munich is on the verge of winning their 10th Bundesliga championship, thanks to Robert Lewandowski and a slew of other high-priced players. Getty Images/Boris Streubel
That’s powerful, but it goes much further: Only four of the 17 defeats had a negative xG differential. So, even in their defeats, they were the better club in terms of predicted productivity, often drastically so. Even with injuries and the most recent COVID-19 version causing a lot more player absences and weird lineups, it’s difficult for these top teams to improve on their prior results, if only because the game is always going to create unpredictability.
As a consequence, soccer may not be capable of creating teams with more dominating outcomes than we’ve witnessed recently. Isn’t that something?
Real Madrid (1990), Arsenal (1991), AC Milan (1992), Barcelona (1993), Manchester United (1994, 1996, and 1999), and Juventus were the top clubs in Europe throughout the 1990s, according to Elo Football (1995, 1997 and 1998). Names that are rather well-known. However, their dominance wasn’t so great that Cinderella runs were impossible. Marseille, together with Ajax (1995) and Borussia Dortmund (1993), won the Champions League (1997). Even as recently as 2004, a series of shocks resulted in a Porto-Monaco final, which formally presented Porto manager Jose Mourinho to the world, for better or ill. Teams from lower-tier divisions, such as Galatasaray of Turkey in 2000, CSKA Moscow of Russia in 2005 and Zenit of Russia in 2008, and Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine in 2009, were all good enough to win the Europa League not long ago.
Spanish, English, and German teams — well, one German club — have won the last 11 Champions Leagues and ten Europa Leagues as of 2022. The top leagues have gotten farther away from the pack, the wealthiest league (the Premier League) has gotten even further away from the pack, and in any given year, a small group of clubs not only lords it over the rest but, more often than not, eliminates any drama from league championship races.
Obscene sums of money plainly do not ensure global dominance; Manchester United and Arsenal have just shown this, while Barcelona’s recent woes have demonstrated that possessing the fattest checkbook does not guarantee effective use of it. (Plus, Newcastle’s nouveau-riche are swiftly learning that throwing money at a problem may not attract your first-choice solutions.)
Good management will continue to be important, while unpredictability will continue to play a part in the sport’s results. Southampton will sometimes steal points from Manchester City, while Lille will occasionally defeat PSG for the league championship. It wouldn’t take too many significant changes to level the playing field a smidgeon — a Financial Fair Play method that really works, for example, as well as a minor reduction in the player registration maximum and the dreaded market pool removal. We’ll see whether people in control of the sport have the required resources and can come to an agreement on important choices.
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