Richard Pike writes about the increasing divide between Europe’s Big 5 Leagues and the rest.
13th of December 1954, a date where an event took place which spawned a monster. Wolverhampton Wanderers, then champions of England took on Budapest Honved of Hungary containing many of the Mighty Magyar Hungarian national team who memorably lost the 1954 World Cup final to West Germany despite having been unbeaten internationally for four years. Wolves won the match 3-2 despite trailing 2-0 at half time and their manager at the time, Stan Cullis famously declared his outfit “Champions of the World”. Former French international turned football journalist Gabriel Hanot disagreed, stated that a European club competition was needed to ascertain the best and come the beginning of 1955/56, the European Cup was born.
Despite morphing into the Champions League which introduced a group stage in 1992/93, teams from outside of Europe’s perceived “Big Five” leagues (English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1) have made noteworthy contributions to its history. Bela Guttman’s SL Benfica who won back to back European Cups in 1961 and 1962. Celtic’s Lisbon Lions, who became the first British side to win the competition in 1967. Ajax Amsterdam’s three consecutive victories from 1971 to 1973. Jose Mourinho coming to the world’s attention by leading FC Porto to glory in the 2003/04 season. Some of many examples of teams from smaller leagues having their moments in the sun.
However as European football’s elite club competition enters into it’s 66th season with the upcoming group stage, one feels that teams outside of the “Big Five” are fighting for ever-more smaller leftovers of the Champions League pie. 2019/20 represented a real watershed moment for the competition since its rebranding into the Champions League. In the 28th season of the introduction of the group stages, it became the first season where none of the last sixteen teams remaining in the competition came from leagues outside of the “Big Five”. Now this could be a one-season blip. However, all the evidence of recent seasons highlights that the aforementioned extinction of clubs outside the “Big Five” from of the round of sixteen and beyond might not just be a one-off. Therefore, what could be the consequences of a second straight season of “Big Five” dominance of the Champions League knockouts?
The “Big Five” lockout of 2019/20 was on the cards eventually
Whilst it took 28 years for Europe’s “Big Five” leagues to eventually complete the aforementioned feat, one could say that such an event was an inevitability. To back this claim up, one should look at the composition of the competition’s round of 16 since 2003/04. Back in that season, three teams from outside of Europe’s “Big Five” made the round of 16, eventual winners FC Porto, Czech side Sparta Prague and Russia’s Lokomotiv Moscow. Five made it through to the round of sixteen in both 2011/12 and 2015/16.
Prior to the 2018/19 campaign, teams who were the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the Champions League through their domestic league position had to pre-qualify for the competition. Memorably, this has produced moments when teams from “Big Five” leagues had missed out on group stage qualification. Noteworthy incidents of this include Partizan Belgrade eliminating Newcastle United in 2003/04 and Braga defeating Sevilla in 2010/11 & Udinese in 2012/13. There have even been instances of two teams from “Big Five” leagues drawing each other in qualification and therefore, one having to be eliminated. Examples include Athletic Bilbao defeating SSC Napoli in 2014/15 and Liverpool defeating 1899 Hoffenheim in 2017/18.
However, from 2018/19, UEFA decided to grant automatic qualification to the group stages for all qualifying teams from the “Big Five”. England, Spain, Italy and Germany all currently receive four entrants into the competition, whereas France receive three entrants. In total, therefore, 19 of the 32 spots in the group stage are now taken up by teams from the “Big Five”. Because of this, there now exists a very high possibility when the group stage draw takes place of all eight groups now containing at least two teams from “Big Five” leagues. Such a thing happened in 2019/20 and no teams from outside of the “Big Five” made it through to the knockout rounds. The group stage draw for the 2020/21 edition has thrown up another such possibility as all the groups are populated by at least two sides from “Big Five” leagues.
The “Big Five” leagues’ TV broadcast deals have massively expanded in recent seasons
Not only are there more teams from Europe’s “Big Five” than ever before in the group stage, they also go into it with an ever-increasing financial dominance. Now of course, wealthy owners have always been around in football. Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea in 2003, Manchester City & Paris St Germain’s big money takeovers in 2008 and 2010 respectively and wealthy entrepreneurs buying and pumping money into Italian Serie A clubs throughout the 1990’s as examples.
What has not always been around is huge television broadcasting deals to go alongside these wealthy owners. Think of this as an already excellent gamer secretly having access to a cheat code whilst playing against colleagues online. However, now Europe’s Big Five leagues do have access to TV money to go alongside shareholder funding and a truly colossal amount. For the 2016-19 season cycle, the English Premier League announced a huge domestic TV broadcast deal valued at GBP 5.1 billion, a massive increase on the GBP 3 billion domestic deal for the 2013-16 cycle. It is not only the Premier League that has seen a huge increase in its TV broadcast deal recently either. France’s Ligue 1, often regarded as the “poor” relation of Europe’s “Big Five” just two years ago agreed a new four year TV deal for the 2020-24 cycle valued at EUR 4.6 billion, a huge 60% increase on the previous deal.
The knock-on effect of this is substantial. Firstly, the already wealthy elite clubs in the “Big Five” leagues such as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United, Juventus etc have even more money to throw around in the market. These clubs were already of course able to considerably outspend the top teams from leagues outside of the “Big Five”, that gap has grown even further now. The more noteworthy and possibly more damaging effect of bigger TV broadcast deals in Europe’s “Big Five” leagues though is that top-half, lower mid-table and even newly promoted clubs are now able to considerably outspend many top clubs outside the “Big Five” too.
A perfect example of this is to compare two clubs from two of the “Big Five” leagues and two of the top clubs from outside of the “Big Five”. The two representatives from the “Big Five” are Getafe CF (a club who previously found players on the cheap many of which free transfers) and Leeds United (a club returning to their country’s top tier after a 16 year absence). The two representatives from outside the “Big Five” are often considered the two strongest teams outside the elite leagues, Portuguese giants FC Porto and SL Benfica.
In years gone by, many would expect Porto to comfortably outspend a modest La Liga outfit like Getafe. However, astonishingly, this summer, Getafe spent EUR 19 million on player transfers compared to Porto’s EUR 11.5 million according to Transfermarkt. After receiving a EUR 126 million transfer fee from Atletico de Madrid in the summer of 2019, Benfica made impressive pre-season statements going into 2020/21. In came As Aguias’ legendary manager Jorge Jesus for a second spell at the Lisbon giants. In addition, in came EUR 98.5 million in transfer arrivals, comfortably more than any other club outside the “Big Five” leagues. Yet, astonishingly, Leeds, a sizeable club in stature, yet also a newly-promoted one managed to top Benfica’s business, Marcelo Bielsa’s outfit splashing out a staggering EUR 105.2 million on new incoming transfers according to Transfermarkt.
Of course, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on transfer spending everywhere. However, the aforementioned comparisons between Porto & Getafe and Benfica & Leeds illustrate two things. Firstly the financial power of leagues like the Premier League and La Liga compared to the Portuguese Primeira Liga due to the comparative TV broadcast deals. Secondly and more tellingly is that the “Big Five” leagues are shielded far better from the impact of Covid-19.
Despite the much-publicised return of Jesus and arrival of EUR 98.5 million of playing talent this summer, Benfica lost in the third qualification round of the Champions League to PAOK Thessaloniki. Missing out on the Champions League group stages and its riches meant Benfica, despite receiving over EUR 100 million for a player last summer were forced to sell Ruben Dias to Manchester City for a fee of EUR 68 million to avoid potential Financial Fair Play (FFP) sanctions. Not to mention make up for the loss of revenue from the financial impact brought about by Covid-19.
All of the above is evidence of the double-edged sword that large clubs outside of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues now face. Before the huge increase in size of the “Big Five’s” broadcast deals, players struggling to get into the first teams of the elite clubs would sign for a Benfica/Porto/Ajax. However, because the mid-table and below teams in the “Big Five” now have access to considerably more funds, they can now comfortably outbid the top clubs outside of the “Big Five”. It is much harder now to attract talented players outside of the elite leagues. Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi famously moved from Barcelona to Turkish giants Galatasaray aged 31 in 1996 and showed everyone that he still could perform to an elite level with Gala in Europe for another 4/5 seasons. Transfers like that now are very rare to see outside of Europe’s “Big Five”.
Which teams outside of the “Big Five” have a chance of making the Round of Sixteen in 2020/21?
After the draw for the group stages, one could argue that five teams from outside of Europe’s “Big Five” have realistic chances (barring a big shock of course from another candidate) of advancing to the Round of 16. The five candidates are split into three categories of possibility with regards to their chances. These are “decent chance of progression due to a weakish “Big Five” team in a group”, “underdogs but with a decent chance if they play well” and “slight chance of progression in a tough group”.
Two of the five candidates fall into the decent chance of progression due to a weakish “Big Five” team in a group. FC Porto and Olympiakos Piraeus. Incidentally, both are in the same group alongside Olympique de Marseille and Manchester City. Despite Marseille finishing 2nd in the 2019/20 Ligue 1, Les Phoceens remain an inconsistent side in Ligue 1 and are that “weakish Big Five side”. Equally FFP has hindered L’OM in the transfer market this summer. Another ace up both Porto and Olympiakos’ sleeves is Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s outfit look considerably stronger than everyone else in this group and could win all of their six games. Should this occur, matches between the other sides in the group will prove decisive, thus enhancing either Porto or Olympiakos’ chances of getting ahead of Marseille.
Two teams fall into the category of “underdogs but with a decent chance if they play well”. These are Ajax and Zenit St Petersburg. Ajax were of course drawn into Group D alongside Liverpool FC and Atalanta BC. A couple of factors are on Ajax’s side here. Firstly, the fourth team in the group, FC Midtjylland from Denmark look weak. One would expect the Amsterdam outfit to get wins both home and away against them. Secondly, despite a great campaign both domestically and in European competition last season, there is a possible question mark over whether Atalanta can keep up their recent impressive performances that thrilled football supporters.
Zenit could have a chance to progress should they play well. Despite finishing bottom of their group last season, there were some positives. Most notable of all was a draw away and victory at home in the group stage against eventual semi-finalists Olympique Lyonnais. Zenit do have talented players at their disposal, yet as last season showed, they have a habit of choking badly under pressure. Drawn into a group with Borussia Dortmund, SS Lazio and Club Brugge, Dortmund would be expected to be favourites to win the group, however, Lazio are a side who Zenit could finish second ahead of should they play well. One source of encouragement for Zenit would be how Lazio failed to progress from their Europa League group last season, which contained Celtic and CFR Cluj, two sides Lazio should in theory defeat.
Finally the side who have a “slight chance of progression in a tough group”, RB Salzburg. Drawn into a group with defending champions Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Lokomotiv Moscow, the draw has not been kind to Jesse Marsch and his troops. However, Salzburg’s performances in recent seasons in European competitions have been good. They reached the semi-finals of the 2018/19 UEFA Europa League and in last season’s Champions League group stage gave both Liverpool and SSC Napoli a good fight but eventually fell short of making the round of 16. Salzburg should win both matches against a weak & in-transition Lokomotiv and must try to take advantage of their home matches against both Atletico and Bayern.
Two other sides from outside of “Big Five” leagues who look relatively strong are Ukraine’s dominant domestic duo of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. Sadly, however, despite their pedigree, both sides are unlikely to make the round of 16 through the sheer bad luck of being drawn in very tough groups. Dynamo have to face off against both Juventus FC and FC Barcelona. Whereas if putting Shakhtar in a group with Real Madrid and Inter Milan is not punishment enough, they have the misfortune of drawing arguably the strongest side from Pot 4 in Borussia Moechengladbach.
A second-straight lockout of the round of 16 by the “Big Five” could see them lobby for more qualification spots in the future
As already illustrated, this season’s qualifiers for the Champions League group stage outside of the “Big Five” mean high-stakes. Given the way the draw has worked out, there is the possibility of a second-straight lockout of the Round of 16 by the “Big Five”. Should this situation occur, it could prompt a significant change of the football landscape.
It could lead the “Big Five” to push for even more of their own representatives each season in the Champions League. There is perception of a “Big Six” in England with four from Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur qualifying for the Champions League nearly every season. However, so far in 2020/21, competition in the Premier League seems greater than ever before. Both Everton and Aston Villa have made impressive starts to the campaign with Leicester and Wolves also making significant impressions in recent campaigns.
In the 1990’s, Italian football boasted its “Seven Sisters”. Seven sides in AC Milan, Fiorentina, Inter Milan, Juventus, Lazio, Roma and Parma all capable of realistic challenges for silverware domestically and in Europe. Today, a new “Seven Sisters” has emerged with five of the members from the 1990’s version included in it, however, with Napoli and Atalanta replacing Fiorentina and Parma. Aside of Atletico Madrid, the chasing pack in Spain have struggled to break up the dominance of the El Classico duo. However, Sevilla do look genuine title challengers this season in La Liga and have closed the gap to Barca, Real and Atleti. Plus with Athletic Bilbao, Real Betis, Valencia, Espanyol and Real Sociedad, there are enough clubs of a decent size or having enough potential for one or two more with the right management to follow Sevilla and close the gap.
Furthermore, after last season’s Champions League performances by their clubs, both the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have shaken off their unfair labelling of “farmers leagues”. Both are dominated by one elite club. However, with big TV money now flowing through them, a decent number of clubs could consistently reach that next level of club below the very elite of Europe.
The level of spending by even modest clubs in the “Big Five” is now beginning to have an impact not only in the Champions League but also in UEFA’s secondary club competition, the UEFA Europa League. 2020/21 will be the 10th anniversary since a team from outside of the “Big Five” even won the Europa League, that side being FC Porto in 2010/11. Between 2011 and 2020, Porto were the only Europa League winner from outside of the “Big Five”. Between 2000 and 2010 by comparison, five sides outside of the “Big Five won the competition. In last season’s Europa League Round of 32, Ajax, Champions League Semi-Finalists in 2018/19 were eliminated by Getafe, highlighting just how dominant the “Big Five” now are even in Europe’s secondary club competition.
Just last September, UEFA released a study carried out by accounting firm Deloitte into the financial state of European football’s 55 full member associations in the 2017/18 campaign. Staggering findings from this study include the following: 67% (EUR 3.5 billion) of the entire transfer fees spent amongst UEFA’s 55 member associations was carried out by clubs in “Big Five” leagues. This figure was 56% (EUR 1.4 billion) ten years earlier in 2007/08. In 2017/18, teams from leagues outside the “Big Five” received only 18% of spending on player transfers, this figure was 23% in 2007/08. Finally, only the “Big Five” leagues are deemed profitable, with combined aggregate club operating losses having increased in leagues outside of the “Big Five”.
A team from outside of Europe’s “Big Five” last won the Champions League in 2003/04 (FC Porto). Nothing can change with regards to the Champions League until the 2024/25 season with the competition’s format already set in stone. However, a second straight lockout of the Champions League knockouts by the “Big Five” could see the already high leverage of these elite leagues increase even further. Possibly to such an extent that potential demands for 5 teams in each automatically qualifying for the group stages with the rest of Europe fighting over just 7 spots out of 32 between them cannot be ruled out. As I previously mentioned, all of the “Big Five” leagues possesses enough monied-up clubs thanks to broadcast deals for five viable representatives each.
As the Champions League group stage format of UEFA’s elite club competition enters into its 29th season, one feels clubs outside of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues are under pressure unlike ever before. A handful do have a chance of progression to the Round of 16, however, there is not the confidence of old predicting that they will do so. If any of them were to fail to reach the knockout rounds of the competition for a second straight season, the hand of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues could potentially be strengthened in a way perhaps never seen before.
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