THE days when clubs such as Celtic, Panathinaikos, Steaua Bucharest, Malmo and FC Bruges and could reach the European Cup final appear long gone with the continent’s smaller leagues in the shadow of the big five.
Even four-times European champions Ajax and twice winners Benfica now find it impossible to compete with the financial clout of teams from England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
Frustrated by the growing gulf, some smaller countries have dabbled with the idea of merging their national leagues to increase the possibilities for sponsorship and television rights to even things up again.
In the past, the Old Firm have talked about joining English football and, while they have received no encouragement from either the Premier League or Football League, the debate has resurfaced due to Rangers’ displeasure at proposals for a 12-12-18 league structure.
With Rangers 19 points clear in the Third Division and seemingly certain to be champions, the proposed restructuring would leave them in the bottom tier of Scottish football for a second successive season.
They believe reconstruction would render the current campaign pointless and chief executive Charles Green expressed an interest in instead joining English football – even if that meant the Blue Square conference
However, the subject of cross-border leagues remains a prickly one with football’s authorities.
There have been rumblings about a Czech-Slovak league, a Belgium-Netherlands league and a Balkan league but nothing has come to fruition and Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s abrupt rejection of a proposed resurrection of the old Soviet league suggested that clubs will have to make the most of what they have got. “It’s impossible,” he said in St Petersburg on Sunday. “It goes against the principles of Fifa, therefore Fifa would never support such an idea.”
Last month, several top Russian clubs, including champions Zenit St Petersburg, big spenders Anzhi Makhachkala and CSKA Moscow unveiled a plan to break away from Russia’s top flight and start a multi-national league of up to 16 teams.
The plan was for six or seven elite Russian clubs, such as Zenit, Anzhi, CSKA and their Moscow rivals Spartak, Dynamo and Lokomotiv, to join top Ukrainian teams, namely Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, plus one or two from Belarus, Armenia or Azerbaijan to make up the new CIS league.
A similar plan was announced by clubs from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Hungary and Bulgaria at a meeting in Sofia in 2011 but progress has fizzled out as they wait for approval from Uefa. Plans for a Czech-Slovak league also appear to have hit the buffers.
“It was talked about on different levels in different times but it never got far enough to put some concrete proposal on the table,” said Czech FA spokesman Jaroslav Kolar. “There is nothing that would suggest that it will come about in the foreseeable future.”
Ten years ago, an attempt to form an Atlantic League involving teams from Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Netherlands also failed after Uefa warned that the winners would not be able to play in European competitions.
In a recent concession, Uefa has allowed Belgium and the Netherlands to hold a combined women’s championship known as the BeNe-League on an experimental basis this season. Depending on the outcome, it could authorise similar moves in the men’s game and Green pointed to this precedent as possible legal leverage to allow Rangers to play in England.
A spokesman for the European Clubs Association (ECA) said that, even if Uefa approved the idea, nothing could start until the next cycle of competitions begins in 2015.
“We’ve received requests from a small number of clubs and a few discussions and we’re not dismissing it,” he said. “It’s not easy, there’s the question of how to qualify for Europe but we have told our clubs we are here to facilitate communication.”
Even so, many still feel that keeping national leagues is the lesser of two evils. “I am a strong supporter of national leagues and totally against any combination of countries,” said Theo van Seggelen, secretary-general of the world players’ union FIFPro . “Football has its own culture and we have to keep national competitions as they are.”
Bernhard Heusler, president of Swiss champions FC Basel, was not keen on the suggestion of combining the Swiss Super League with the Austrian Bundesliga. “It’s an idea which always comes up when one club wins the Swiss championship twice in a row,” he said. “I’m not so sure that, if you bring in five teams from Austria and five from Switzerland, it would really work. In the first season, it might have a novelty effect but FC Basel supporters want to see their team playing the derbies against FC Zurich, Grasshoppers, Young Boys and the other Swiss teams.”
Heusler admitted that the ten-team Swiss Super League, in which the teams play each other four times a season, was not ideal but made sense in the circumstances.
“For economic and sporting reasons, it was right to reduce our first division to ten teams but, in terms of excitement for the fans, the derby loses its significance because you play four times a season,” he said. Heusler added that the days, such as in 1977, when FC Zurich reached the European Cup semi-finals were unlikely to return. “It seems impossible nowadays,” he said, adding that the influence of the big five leagues had is pervasive.
“It is not so long ago that in Switzerland you could watch one English match every year, the English FA Cup final. Everybody would watch it on television and this was the big thing. Nowadays, football fans can watch English league games ten times a week if they want. They can watch Barcelona every week, so it’s understandable that the level of expectation has risen. Nowadays, they are world selections, it’s not simply the best English team playing the best Spanish team. You have a game between world selections, they play in a wonderful stadium with 60,000 people and, three days later, people come to domestic matches that partly take place in outdated stadiums. Not surprisingly, they complain that Swiss football has no quality.
“All leagues in Europe below the top five are suffering because of this. In Switzerland, FC Basel is in a special situation. We have won the national championship three times in a row, so the objective remains the same every year. Apart from that, we aim to play in the Champions League.
“However, the investment needed to get to the Champions League is too high for the reality of the national league, since the domestic market does not provide for the necessary turnover.”