When Tottenham stepped off the pitch at Tynecastle, having subjected a Hearts team who finished in 3rd place in the SPL last season – and briefly looked to challenge the Old Firm duopoly – the laments for the state of Scottish football were loud and numerous.
It’s not hard to see how this position came about, and as usual, it’s all about money. The club finishing top of the SPL can expect to gain around £2million from TV rights and prize money, whereas the club finishing bottom of the English Premier League will gain around £40million. And it’s as bad in all small nations: Ajax’s European record in recent years is worse than Celtic’s, and the Dutch league receives just 100m Euros a season, a twelfth of the Premier League. Rangers and Celtic are among Europe’s top twenty clubs for matchday income – these are clubs that have done nothing wrong besides being based in their own countries. So what can be done
There’s been much talking about the new Financial Fair Play laws about to be introduced to football. The idea, a direct response to the actions of Chelsea and Manchester City, has been ushered in with the purpose of preventing billionaires from artifically boosting clubs with unsustainable levels of spending. It’s not as cynical as the reigning powers burning the ladder that they ascended to the top – preventing clubs from racking up dangerous levels of debt is a noble goal. But when they come into power, the 518 million or so people who live in European countries outside the ‘big five’ of Spain, England, France, Italy and Germany will feel short-changed, for It will do nothing to address the slow decline that their clubs have suffered.
These clubs still compete in Europe, though only nominally. Since Porto’s triumph in 2004 – a feat for which the club was rewarded by seeing their team instantly dismantled by Europe’s giants – no team from outside the big five leagues has come close to winning the Champions League. Instead, they are often relegated to the dreaded Europa League ,where European has-beens scrap around for a competition that most see as a distraction. The rewards on offer barely register compared to the Champions League – a game between Ajax and Juventus in the group stages of the Champions League is worth many times more than if the two clubs met in a Europa League Semi-Final.
And it’s not just the big clubs that have felt this. Rangers and Celtic have visibly declined over the years, but the gap between the Old Firm and the rest of the league has not diminished. The ‘trickle-down effect’ of money being poured in at the top may be as dubious as it’s supposed social equivalent, but there’s no doubting the impact in prestige. If up-and-coming players don’t want to go to Celtic, they certainly don’t want to go to Kilmarnock.
If there is some hope to be had, it’s that things cannot continue this way forever. Even with the vast TV deals of the big nations, the levels of spending being seen by some clubs are unsustainable. Wages are increasing at a phenomenal rate, and basic economics will tell you that the bubble will burst at some point. Whether it’ll be a slow shuffling decline or a cataclysmic financial apocalypse, we don’t know. But it will happen.
Anyone investing in a football club now is like a property investor of a few years back – making the mistake of assuming that prices will continue to go up and up. Yet football, like all markets, fluctuates. This has been masked by new income sources, but it cannot keep going forever. The limit appears to already have been reached with ticket prices, and when the decline does begin, European football will have to reorder itself on more sustainable terms. But until then, clubs from smaller nations will find themselves like their fans – priced out of the game. We cannot know the future, but when the present is bleak certainty, change can’t come soon enough.
Written by Callum Hamilton from Surreal Football.