The UEFA Champions League is back with a bang after a cracking opening night. Europe’s big guns facing each other makes a fascinating and entertaining – sometimes even nail-biting – watch for football fans around the world. Tons of memories of iconic moments bring colour to this historic competition that is often widely regarded as the pinnacle of European football. But away from the spotlight and the spectacle, few problems arose across Europe.
With the level of prestige associated to the Champions League, and also all the media coverage and all the sponsors, it should not be surprising to see that this tournament is loaded with significant prize money. Although European giants would certainly aim to win it all – while the money is just a bonus – but for less reputable teams in less reputable leagues, that prize money can change the course of the league in the next few years, if not decades.
This is a point that was raised brilliantly by New York Times’ Rory Smith earlier this year, highlighting how Champions League prize money has an effect on how leagues in countries like Belarus, Greece, Croatia, and Switzerland lost their competitive edge and became mere “proceedings”. It then came to my attention that with all the fascinating spectacle football fans lay their eyes on when this prestigious tournament comes ‘round, the powerful clubs from weaker leagues are rubbing their hands preparing to milk some precious prize money from the “cash cow” – a term given by Croatian journalist Aleksandar Holiga to describe the Champions League.
To reiterate Smith, “The problem is not that a team is rewarded for its success, but in the aggregate effect” where Champions League money can ensure teams’ success in their domestic league the following year. Another successful year in the domestic league, another guaranteed place in the Champions League group stage, and hence, guaranteed prize money to further bolster their financial power and local domination. “The money serves to establish, and then entrench, a dynasty”.
Reigning Greek champions A.E.K. Athens, who were in action last night in a loss against Ajax Amsterdam, won their first Greek championship since 1994. From then until last year, the Greek league was dominated by Piraeus-based Olympiacos, who won the championship on 19 out of 23 seasons, with the other four won by Panathinaikos.
In Ukraine, their modern football league, known as the Vyshcha Liha which was formed in 1991, has been dominated by two teams, AND ONLY TWO. Both Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk have taken turns in lifting the Ukrainian Premier League trophy – with the Donetsk-based team dominating the last decade.
Other leagues in Croatia, Belarus, Scotland, Bulgaria, and Switzerland – as founded by Smith – are also dominated by one if not two powerful teams. The Scottish league has been dominated by Rangers and Celtic, with the latter winning the last seven terms after the former’s downfall. Other notable hegemonies are BATE Borisov in Belarus that won TWELVE (!!!) titles in a row; Ludogorets Razgrad in Bulgaria that won six straight; Basel in Switzerland winning the last eight; and Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia, winning eleven straight titles before they were dethroned last year by Rijeka, but won again in the 2017/18 season.
Of course there are several factors that contribute to the domination of these dynasties, and financial power is obviously a significant one. As Smith discovered, those aforementioned teams have received a hefty injection of money from their appearances in the Champions League group stage. Over the last five years, “Olympiacos has received more than $125 million from its Champions League appearances. Basel has brought in $68 million. BATE, thanks to three appearances in the group stage, has earned $50 million, and Dinamo Zagreb $55 million.”
Though they may not have the capabilities to compete with Europe’s giants in the global market, but they can hijack their regional markets, snapping up bright young talents and develop them over time until big clubs hover over them. How will these young talents be exposed to those big clubs? Well, what better stage to do that than the UEFA Champions League group stage.
This has been Dinamo Zagreb’s blueprint, according to Holiga, with notable talents coming through their ranks being recruited by top teams. Some of the names include Mateo Kovacic, Mario Mandzukic, and Luka Modric. In Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk have been looking into the Brazilian market, recruiting young talents, developing them, and then profit off of their sale. Some notable names include Fernandinho, Alex Teixeira, Douglas Costa, Luiz Adriano, Willian, Bernard and the recent £52 million man Fred – not to mention Armenian star Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Under then manager Mircea Lucescu, and with the help of their scout in Brazil, Franck Henouda, Shakhtar Donetsk had a clear plan to recruit top Brazilian talents and establish a system that enables attractive football. Financial power was then needed to make this work, and with significant incentive from multimillionaire Rinat Akhmetov – in addition to Lucescu’s fluent Portuguese which is very useful for communication purposes – this strategy worked very well. Although they did not intend to sell every single one of their Brazilian talent, their constant exposure in the Champions League have of course increased interests from big clubs, and Shakhtar did not really have to think too hard to accept significant bids. In return, that profit further bolsters Shakhtar’s financial powers and capabilities to recruit top Brazilian talents – until their strategy was hindered by the conflict in Ukraine in 2016.
In a world where financial power almost guarantees domination, the Champions League has been an important factor that fuel these dynasties, not only with massive financial boosts, but also acts as a stage where rich clubs can go window shopping and snap up talents that paved their way in less reputable leagues.
The problem is, of course, this can damage the competitive nature of these domestic leagues, and decreases interests even from local fans. This has been a concern in Belarus. Local presenter Nikolay Hodasevich have said that attendances keeps declining, as the public is becoming reluctant of watching their domestic league with a predictable outcome, and instead turn their heads on the more prestigious leagues in Europe.
Switzerland had similar problems, where teams seemed to become more interested “on the balance sheet and not the field”, said Smith as he quoted Christoph Spycher, the sporting director for BSC Young Boys. In Ukraine, Henouda admitted that the level of football in Ukraine hasn’t decreased, despite only mentioning Shakhtar and Dynamo’s appearance in Champions League and Europa League, with a rare appearance from Dnipro in the Europa League final a few years back.
Less powerful teams may have to try extra hard to come up with a way to compete with the big sharks in the small pond. BSC Young Boys came up with the ‘feeder formula’ to gain profit off of developing and then selling young bright prospects. Others may follow suit in realizing that progressive thinking is the way to go in this progressive era of football fueled by rich owners and loads of TV and prize money. Otherwise, dynasties will prevail and competitiveness will die out. I wonder if the high execs at UEFA would find that problematic, though.