(Editor’s note: This column will be moving permanently from its Tuesday slot and will now appear regularly every Thursday.)
What is the purpose of a sports league? Not long ago, the argument could have reasonably been made that domestic leagues were the provenance of the people, points of congregation for fans in a given city or region. The calendar was predicated on home and away, of fortnightly treks to the stadium on the weekend and your favorite club’s away match occasionally hitting the TV waves. Clubs were civic institutions more than businesses.
Now, too often, it seems like professional clubs are merely way stations that help determine qualification for various intercontinental competitions. Damn near every match is being broadcast, on a satellite or cable or streaming feed, and the stadium experience just isn’t what it used to be. Now the amenities have by and large been improved upon from the terrace terror of yesteryear, but the sterility of the experience and the rising cost of attendance have driven figures down. Couple that with the fact that TV networks have been inclined to pay for the rights to certain (i.e. European) leagues disproportionately, and the ingredients are there for the rift between buyers and sellers to become wider.
Take a country like Brazil with its proud soccer tradition. Only three clubs — Gremio, Corinthians, and Sao Paulo FC — averaged at least 20,000 in attendance per match. Only three other clubs — Bahia, Recife, and Atletico Mineiro — top even the 15,000 mark. As a whole, Brazil’s Serie A sees fewer than 15,000 people walk through the turnstiles for the average match.
Convoluted calendars and late start times dictated by television time slots don’t help matters in Brazil. Yet this situation plays out all over the world — outside of the German Bundesliga, La Liga in Spain, and the English Premier League, no top-flight division in the world averages even 25,000 fans per match. That reality is sobering enough in and of itself. But it speaks to a larger issue that has become even more pronounced in the 21st century.
Television has been a boon for the sport, yet it has funneled the lion’s share of resources to the European leagues with global reach. The preeminence of the UEFA Champions League and weekly broadcasts from England, Spain, and Germany have turned the top clubs in those countries into behemoths, hegemonic institutions that act as black holes for the world’s elite talent.
Fans of soccer in the United States hear about how MLS has become merely a feeder league, exporting its best talent to the cosmopolitan clubs across the pond to the detriment of the quality of play. This has been perceived as a weakness for the American league… but is it?
The reality is that the majority of clubs and leagues around the globe are sellers. African and Asian clubs aren’t immune. The largest and most legendary clubs of South America, the River Plates and Fluminenses of the game, aren’t exempt from this reality. Most of the leagues of Europe are sellers. Even perennial Champions League teams — up to and including former champions such as Borussia Dortmund, Ajax Amsterdam, and FC Porto — can’t escape seeing their top players siphoned off for ever-escalating dollar amounts to the Bayern Munichs and Real Madrids of the game.
UEFA has tried to stem the tide with its Financial Fair Play regulations designed to curb out-of-control spending that has put increasing numbers of clubs at risk of insolvency. But this initiative isn’t designed to stop the escalation of spending, merely the debt-to-income ratios being incurred by European clubs. If anything, it sends clubs searching for cheaper talent, merely increasing the motivation to siphon the world’s talent at younger ages.
So what should a league like MLS strive to be in the hierarchy? Ultimately, without global television reach and not merely millions but billions of dollars, there really is no viable choice on the table. A club like Santos, where Pele played the entire prime of his career, couldn’t justify holding on to a player like Neymar until even his 22nd birthday. If institutions with such mythic pedigrees can’t afford to hold on to their best and brightest stars, why should any league try to compete with the limited cadre of clubs that can outspend everyone else?
Ultimately soccer is more than just the monolithic clubs currently competing in the UEFA Champions League. The beauty of the game comes not solely from the sublime performances of superstars, but from the union of 11 players competing for a common goal. And even in those countries where the best talent has been redistributed to foreign lands, the players that remain can still play well-matched battles that offer fans a sublime experience. The catharsis of goals and saves emanates from anywhere and everywhere that the beautiful game is played, and growth is defined by more than just the ability to buy the best players in the world.
Catching Up Around the Globe
I won’t go into too much detail here, given that I covered the second set of Champions League matches and their impact in greater depth, but the interesting part to this point has been the fact that so few teams are dominating their groups. After two matches, only three teams have claimed the maximum six points — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund, three of the four participants from the past two Champions League finals. Teams like Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and Chelsea have had difficulties closing out matches and taking the full three points, something worth watching moving forward into the competition lest it jeopardize chances of qualification for the knockout round.
Ronaldinho might be hitting the tail end of his career, playing out his last years in Liga MX for Queretaro after leaving Atletico Mineiro in his native Brazil, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still beloved by fans. In a match against Atlas this week, the veteran dealt with a pitch intruder in a classy way. The video says it all:
The Asian Games have yielded yet more controversy surrounding match fixing in the sport of soccer. The tournament, taking place in South Korea, has been the just the latest incident in a recent string of fixing allegations throughout the continent. In a culture where gambling is not just accepted but widespread, the problem has gained increasing attention from the authorities at all levels of the sport. Yet it seems, especially in Asia, that the prevalence of rigged matches is increasing rather than decreasing. Perhaps it is merely a case where increased vigilance is bringing more allegations to the surface, much like increased drug testing will find more dopers. Or, possibly, it is an inevitability on a continent where there are many matches and lax oversight. But the fact that this took place at one of the largest continental tournaments does not bode well for the Asian Football Confederation should it be revealed that the allegations are true.
Matches of the Week
- THURSDAY/2 October 2014
- PSV Eindhoven at Dinamo Moscow (UEFA Europa League, 11:00 am Eastern)
- Dinamo Zagreb at Celtic (UEFA Europa League, 3:05 pm Eastern)
- FRIDAY/3 October 2014
- Shamrock at Dundalk (Irish Premier League, 2:45 pm Eastern)
- Sporting Kansas City at DC United (MLS, 8:00 pm Eastern)
- SATURDAY/4 October 2014
- Hannover 96 at Bayern Munich (German Bundesliga, 9:30 am Eastern)
- Atletico Madrid at Valencia (Spanish Primera Liga, 10:00 am Eastern)
- Manchester City at Aston Villa (English Premier League, 12:00 pm Eastern)
- America at Cruz Azul (Mexican Liga MX, 6:00 pm Eastern)
- SUNDAY/5 October 2014
- Arsenal at Chelsea (English Premier League, 9:05 am Eastern)
- AS Roma at Juventus (Italian Serie A, 12:00 pm Eastern)
- AS Monaco at Paris Saint-Germain (French Ligue 1, 3:00 pm Eastern)
- Boca Juniors at River Plate (Primera Division de Argentina, 4:15 pm Eastern)
- MONDAY/6 October 2014
- Lanus at Rosario Central (Primera Division de Argentina, 5:10 pm Eastern)
- WEDNESDAY/8 October 2014
- Corinthians at Cruzeiro (Futebol Brasileiro, 9:00 pm Eastern)
- San Jose Earthquakes at Portland Timbers (MLS, 10:30 pm Eastern)