Barcelona, Manchester United: Is there enough parity in international soccer?

The stadium scene.
March 3 2011 10:11 AM

Parity vs. Greatness

The most important debate in sports.

Wayne Rooney. Click image to expand.
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney

In reverse chronological order, the last eight champions of Portugal's top soccer league are Benfica, Porto, Porto, Porto, Porto, Benfica, Porto, and Porto. In Scotland, the list reads Rangers, Rangers, Celtic, Celtic, Celtic, Rangers, Celtic, and Rangers. In England, the same three clubs—Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea—have won all but one Premier League title since the competition was founded in 1992. La Liga, the top division in Spain, has ended 51 seasons by crowning either Real Madrid or F.C. Barcelona.

Winning a title in European soccer, like having fox-hunting experience or standing near Charlotte Casiraghi, is largely a matter of pedigree. Europe's top divisions are dominated by two- or three- or four-club blocs, groups of old-guard status-quo titans who manage, year after year, to win just about everything. (This season's front-runners in the leagues listed above: Porto, Celtic, Manchester United, and Barcelona.) There are exceptions—France and Germany are both somewhat more egalitarian—but they don't so much prove the rule as huddle irrelevantly alongside it.

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For a smaller club hoping to dislodge one of the soccer world's doorstops, the odds are exceedingly grim. Not only do the domestic superpowers have the advantages of tradition and popularity—their fan bases are bigger, they sell more replica shirts, and the top players and coaches tend to fall right into their wallets—but the leagues themselves are often designed to protect their interests. In soccer, money is destiny, and destiny's not distributed equally. The bulk of the game's revenue comes in the form of television-rights income, a sizable chunk of which, in many countries, is handed out according to factors like a club's league standing, the size of its supporter base, and the number of times its games were shown on TV. The clique of ruling teams is guaranteed the largest share.

The Premier League, in fact, began when a breakaway faction of top English clubs decided to stop sharing their television money. And even within that protected class, there are large disparities. Chelsea took in $30 million more in TV revenue last season than their London neighbors and Premier League rivals West Ham. That's cash the larger club can instantly lavish on fresh superstars, making it that much harder for West Ham to catch up. (Keep in mind that, like most soccer leagues, the Premier League has no salary cap and no draft.) The clubs that finish highest in their divisions then qualify for the Champions League, where even greater riches await. Soccer's not fixed, but it's a little fixed.

For American fans raised on revenue sharing and luxury taxes and the idea that the least successful teams should get the first crack at new talent—all mechanisms designed to keep the little guy in the race—it can be startling to realize that many soccer leagues are out to crush the little guy under a boulder. Consider the new TV rights plan in Spain. In the past, Barcelona and Real Madrid negotiated their TV contracts individually. Now, they've agreed to join a collective with many of the other top clubs, a gambit that should increase the overall revenue pool. But as a condition of joining the group, the two goliaths demanded 34 percent of the TV proceeds for themselves. Over the life of the deal, this will grant them hundreds of millions of dollars more than even the third and fourth best teams in Spain. Their ongoing supremacy has essentially been written into the rulebook.

The old joke about soccer and American sports is that mild, single-payer Europe somehow gave birth to ruthlessly capitalist sports leagues, while laissez-faire America coughed up socialist ones. In light of the systemic inequalities facing soccer clubs, it might be more apt to say that European leagues are feudal aristocracies—a free-for-all for the lords, not so free for the peasants. American leagues include built-in social mobility: The NFC has sent 10 different teams to the Super Bowl in the last 10 years. Even the Yankees and the Red Sox, the most European-style franchises in American sports, have their dominance checked by Major League Baseball—imagine how mangled they might have left the rest of the league without the luxury tax and the last-place-team-picks-first MLB draft. With no such enforced equality, the only clubs to break into, or even threaten to break into, the ranks of the English soccer dynasties in the last decade are Chelsea and Manchester City, clubs bankrolled, respectively, by a Russian plutocrat and the royal family of a Middle Eastern emirate. For a nouveau richeclub to break into the landed gentry, it needs a whole lot of riche.

All of which leads to the big question: Should fans worry about any of this? Clearly, it's a maddening situation for supporters of second- and third-tier clubs, teams that are effectively barred by law from achieving great success. (Especially in the smaller soccer countries, it's not uncommon for fans to support both their own local club and one of the national giants—there's no contradiction, because they're competing on different planes.) From the perspective of neutrals, the question is more complicated. It's a matter of sacrificing one source of excitement for another.

We don't usually think about sports in these terms, but a league is a design problem—an aesthetic problem, really. A professional sports league has to balance distinct and often contradictory priorities, and how it does so helps to determine, before a player sends a single ball moving through space, the sort of experience it will offer fans.

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