The major leagues of European football, with the exception of the striking Italians, have all got their season underway now. La Liga in Spain played its first round of games this weekend, and once again we saw the big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona, swatting their opponents aside with ease. Madrid put 6 past Real Zaragoza while Barcelona scored 5 against Villareal, last season’s fourth placed team.
In England, Manchester United scored 8 against Arsenal, the fourth placed team in the Premier League last year. The day before their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City scored 5 against Tottenham Hotspur, the fifth placed team in 2010. At least Chelsea, and possibly Liverpool, look able to challenge the two Mancunian teams, but few would bet against City and United making up the top two at the end of the season. Arsene Wenger’s refusal to spend like his opposite numbers at the other top teams in England have left his team in the worst state they have been for some time. How they get their season back on track after shipping 8 goals against Man United depends on what business they can do in the remaining few days of the transfer window.
In Germany Bayern München, moved to the top of the Bundesliga after a 3-0 away win at Kaiserslautern. They spent heavily to recover from the humiliation of last season. Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga, but have seen their best player Nuri Sahin leave for Madrid, and Chelsea and Man United making eyes at the next best player Mario Götze. Bayern nailed on favourites to reclaim the Bundesliga title?
In France, the nouveau-riche Paris St Germain won 3-1 away at Toulouse. Lille’s triumph last season has been made more remarkable in that they have managed to retain their best player Eden Hazard, for the time being. Their other stand out players last year, Gervinho, Adil Rami and Yohan Cabaye, have all moved on though. It looks like a race between Marseille and PSG for the Ligue un title.
It is early days in all these leagues, and too early to draw conclusions just based on this season, but the general trend of football in Europe is of a drain of resources i.e. players, money and supporters, to the top clubs. It is unthinkable that a small provincial team would win any of these leagues. Blackburn Rovers were the last team to achieve that feat in England in 1995, albeit when they were being bankrolled by Jack Walker’s millions.
In Serie A you have to go back to Sampdoria in 1991, or Verona in 1985 to find a team outside of the major powers with a scudetto (with the possible exception of Lazio in 2000, they are from Rome, hardly provincial and were being bankrolled by Sergio Cragnotti).
In Spain Valencia in 2004 were the last team to break the Barcelona/Madrid duopoly, but have been unable to sustain their challenge since then. Now they are forced by spiralling debts to sell their best players, as David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata have all gone to wealthier elite clubs (Barcelona, Manchester City and Chelsea, respectively).
European domestic leagues, as competitive events have all but died. The only games that really affect the outcome of the title are the ones between the contenders. In Spain you can look forward to December 11th for the first clasico, if you want to see who will win the league.
There appears to be very little opportunity for a surprise title winner across Europe this year. Possibly Napoli in Italy, but both the Milan teams, and Juventus, have recruited well. Napoli, at the time of writing have managed to keep hold of their three star players Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik. They haven’t won the scudetto since Diego Maradona inspired them to victory in 1990. If they do so this season it will be a nice break from the norm.
In previous seasons we have seen the arrival of a new phenomenon, that of less-wealthy teams playing weakened sides against the top teams in order to rest their players for the games that really matter to them. If West Bromwich Albion lose to Chelsea, it doesn’t matter. Equally it doesn’t really matter if they win. Not really, for they would expect to lose to Chelsea and would have factored that into their plan for the season, if they win it’s an unexpected bonus. If however they lose to Bolton, or Swansea it is much more serious. These two teams are direct challengers for their place in the Premier League, losing points to rival teams can put you in the relegation zone. It is logical for them to rest their best players for the games that are the most important to them, it is illogical to expend too much effort trying to beat Chelsea.
Likewise for Chelsea, they would expect to beat West Brom without playing a full-strength side. The games against lower placed teams are a good opportunity for younger players to get experience, just like those meaningless pre-season friendlies.
Like the retiring Javi Poves said, ‘Football is capitalism… It’s money, and when you realise it’s all money you lose the illusion.’ The richer teams are going to dominate domestic leagues again, the less wealthy are going to fight to stay out of the relegation places and maybe cause an upset in one of the cups.
In reality the often-talked about European Super League already exists. Competitive games only exist between members of the same footballing class. Within the Champions League they become transnational entities. There are the wealthy elites, the mid-table triers and the relegation fodder. Games with teams from a different strata of this wealth-created class system are pointless, and have little bearing on the final league table.
Football has been neoliberalised to within an inch of its life. It is inevitable that the wealthy European clubs breakaway from their respective domestic leagues to form a European super league. I would be very surprised if in 10 years time it hasn’t already happened.
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UPDATE: Sid Lowe recently wrote about the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Guardian, with a telling quote from Jorge Valdano,
‘With every passing day there is a greater gap between the two greats and the rest of the league in Spain,” Valdano said. “You look ahead and the sensation is that this situation will only get worse. There will come a time when this [situation] does not suit the big two either. In the future Madrid and Barcelona will have to look at teams that travel at the same speed as them and that will lead to a European league.’
The article makes the point that the top two get so much more revenue than the other teams in La Liga, supposedly justified by their greater fan base in Spain. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that as a consequence of a league without Barcelona & Madrid, would be a rising fan base for the other teams.