The deregulation of European club football and the Belgian football league

Belgium’s Jupiler League

Belgium’s Jupiler League (Belgium’s top domestic football division) has diminished into a stepping stone for many players, looking to settle in bigger leagues. It goes without saying that Belgium is not the only country to suffer a spiralling decline in the UEFA co-efficient league table. Walter Smith recently noted the demise of Scottish league football with an increasingly uneven playing field. More striking in the case of Belgian football is its historic pedigree prior to its current also-ran incarnation – Belgium, as a national team, had its high between the late 70s to the latter 80s, not only qualifying but also reaching the 1986 World Cup semi-final. Belgian clubs were also comparable to any of their European counterparts; between 1975 – 1990, in all three UEFA club competitions, Belgian clubs figured in eleven finals and produced four winners (RSC Anderlecht winning the UEFA Cup in 1983, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1976, 1978 and K.V. Mechelen in 1988).

Contemporaneously Belgium, as other smaller leagues, have their bigger dominant clubs – Standard Liège, RSC Anderlecht and Club Brugge. There is a two fold problem here – the stronger Belgian clubs compete, unevenly, with their superior continental rivals and the rest struggle to compete with their dominant domestic rivals. A similar scenario appears not in only in Belgium but in other European leagues. With the league winners automatically qualifying for the Champions League group stage and earning from its cash-pot, domestic competition become further skewed and imbalanced.

The defining moment, continentally at least, traces back to both structural economic changes and the liberalisation of the transfer market, following the Bosman ruling (1995) both interrelated. The socio-economic shift from Fordist models of economic management to a trans-national movement of capital, de-regulation of markets and an increased involvement of trans-national corporations in public life, encouraged both an international movement of labour – in this case football players – and media conglomerates to aggressively acquire sports markets and even ownership of historic clubs. Sociologist Anthony King views this in terms of social rituals as a more broader metaphor of lived forms that are instilled into society’s members and traced back to different periods of social transformation. He states that “the new geography of European football parallels wider developments in the post-Fordist, globalised era in which the forces of multinational capital have increasingly subverted the former unity of Keynesian national economies”.

In accordance this transformation can be read into two distinct models of club management, termed by Andreff & Staudohar as ‘Spectators-Subsidies-Sponsors-Local’ or SSSL in contrast to a ‘Media-Merchandising-Markets’ or MCMM model. Clubs still relying heavily on ticket sales and local sponsors face insurmountable odds – Italy’s Serie A only averages attendance at 56% of average stadium capacity but three Italian clubs feature in Deloitte’s top twenty wealthiest European clubs, all three generate their largest revenue from broadcasting rights – Juventus receive 65% of their income from broadcasting. In terms of broadcast rights the Belgian Jupiler League, as a whole, brings in 44.7 million for a three year deal and about 14.9 million Euros annually. Contrast this with the Premier League whose contract from 2012/13 to 2009/10 (3 seasons) brought in a “total amount of 3,538 million Euros, of which 1,556 million euros on the sale of international rights. English clubs have at their disposal 1,179 million Euros per season to distribute to the 20 clubs in the Premier League”. Both Dutch and Belgian clubs earn more from match day revenues and sponsorship than broadcasting, mainly domestic broadcasting, and while not completely immersed in the SSSL model, still rely on more local factors than bigger clubs; many of whom are trans-national in their own right.

The effect of the Bosman ruling

In this setting the Bosman ruling was mainly in the interest of the bigger leagues and clubs – players may have more power than before but are more likely to choose more lucrative terrains, a supply-side logic empowering the richer clubs. The impact of the Bosman ruling in concentrating players in the bigger leagues is demonstrated by the percentage of players in each league at the 2010 World Cup – 57% of all players present played their football in the big five European leagues (France, Spain, England, Italy and Germany). This can be contrasted with the 1970s when prominent players of the ilk of Rob Rensenbrink, Arie Haan, Grzegorz Lato ,Wlodek Lubanski, and all plied their trade in Belgium.

Instead of the Bosman ruling leading to heightened competitiveness between leagues, the opposite was to happen – players are willing to offer their services to the highest bidder and their respective clubs are willing to let
them go early, in fear of losing their worth when out of contract. The case of Mesut Özil demonstrates not only a chasm between the big five European leagues and the rest but also the chasm between certain clubs within those five leagues themselves, with Real Madrid maintaining serious financial clout to manoeuvre in the transfer market. Until the signing of Özil by Real Madrid, realistically only four to five clubs were with the competitive potential and revenues to pry Özil away from Werder Bremen.

Leagues, as Belgium, find themselves losing promising players to the bigger leagues and with a poor retention of players, many Belgian clubs are a stepping stone for players to gain playing experience and then seek contracts in the more lucrative leagues. Richer clubs have  exploited this environment forming partnerships with Belgian clubs that offer a pool of younger talent to be tapped into – Manchester United’s partnership with Royal Antwerp FC and Liverpool FC with K.R.C. Genk are examples.

UEFA adapting to neoliberal realities

Trudo Dejonghe and Wim Van Opstal both argue that enacting the then Fifa 6+5 proposal would introduce an element of competitiveness to club football – this may be partially true but does not necessarily disperse or modify income generation – the bigger clubs are still able to invest into better academies, select more accomplished players within their national locality and operate as global behemoths, attracting global talent. The 6 +5 rule or the current measure enforcing a minimum of eight ‘home grown’ players in a club’s squad are all attempts to tie clubs to their national geography but all these measures do not drastically alter the current football terrain. Furthermore it can be argued that such measures are there to protect international football, member associations and combat further de-regulation, eroding UEFA’s powers and control over the game. More importantly – as Volker Eick observes concerning FIFA and to an extent this is generalisable to UEFA – bureaucratic organisation as UEFA seek to strengthen their member organisations and by extension their control over these same organisations. This without considering that UEFA have their own international football tournaments to maintain, which brings in considerable income – Euro 2008 generated a net profit of 250 million Euros.

Yet UEFA would find an ideal scenario in some balance between increased re-regulation and the bigger clubs modelled on the MCCM model, with de-regulatory forces generating much of their income. Attempting a balance and conceding to the richest clubs is none more salient than in the case of the UEFA Champions League; not only was a sum of ?746m paid out between the 32 participants but the pay significantly increased as a team progressed in the competition – usually the bigger teams from the bigger leagues (13 of the last 16 in last year’s competition, 2009-10, coming from the big five leagues).

Moreover this is none more apparent than UEFA singling out of a further media market pool stated as “the estimated available amount for the television market pool – ?337.8m – will be distributed according to the proportional value of each TV market represented by the clubs taking part from the group stage onwards”. This is somewhat like a generous add-on pay to clubs from the bigger leagues with fertile domestic television markets, singling them for a greater share of the cash-pot.

Perhaps this is to the detriment of football as a spectacle but this of little concern to anyone outside those with serious interest in the game and football is just that – a game of leisure. But the centralised organisation of football, as any social activity, is both affected and affecting in its milieu. This is everything and including the exploitation of African football players , many minors, viewed as a cheaper talent pool than their European counterparts. Football is a competitive industry and clubs still predominantly in the old SSSL model find themselves increasingly lagging behind with revenues and profits dwindling, so it is predictable that Belgian clubs were implicated in accusations of player trafficking and a football slave trade – agents buying and offering players to whatever bidder.

UEFA is an important player but the broader social setting harbours an increased plurality of global actors. Derek Layder views institutionalised bureaucratic organisations and market forces as both systemic elements that reproduce and more importantly “mediate relations of power and “relations of ruling.” The mediation of relations of power and “relations of ruling” entails that UEFA not only respond to market forces but plays an active role in adapting and elaborating these same conditions – UEFA, as FIFA, affect and are affected by neoliberalism.  It is in this sense that UEFA should not be seen as merely a guardian of market interests but often in conflict with forces of de-regulation and de-territorialization – protecting the local and representative national football associations and promoting an integration that does not compromise national sovereignties. Nevertheless UEFA organises club competitions bringing in high yields but enacts pressures from other powerful actors contesting and at times eroding UEFA’s own mediatory capacity. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman posits living in a more liquid, deregulated and fragmented social world does not negate the continued relevance of past formations only that “we do not live, after all, once in a pre-modern, once in a modern, once in postmodern world. All three ‘worlds’ are but abstract idealizations of mutually incoherent aspects of the single life-process which we all try our best to make as coherent as we can manage”.

If past solidity persists, than objective stratification and ironically centering powers of the liquid present are posterior elaborations.  It is in this backdrop that smaller leagues, as Belgium, are caught in a tug and more often lose out.

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