There was a report in the British press earlier this week in which the UK prime minister David Cameron is said to have expressed his desire for the Glasgow “Old Firm” of Celtic Football Club and Rangers Football Club to join the English Premier League (EPL). One may question Cameron’s political motives behind the proposal as he seeks to influence the vote north of the border in the oncoming referendum on Scottish independence to be held in September 2014 but the idea is far from new. In the Former Soviet Union (FSU), momentum has also gathered pace as a number of owners from top clubs in Russia and Ukraine seek to form a breakaway championship run along the same lines as the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) which has been a major success since its inception in 2008. In the United States three Canadian clubs feature alongside their American counterparts showing that cross-border championships do happen in soccer as well as in other sports such as ice hockey, basketball and baseball. If the ideas proposed in the UK and the Former Soviet Union are eventually given the green light in the future will the leagues be as super as they look on paper or will it destroy the essence of the game?
As the Scottish Premier League has diminished in strength over the last 25 years it was always going to result in calls for the big two of the Scottish game to apply to join the English league system. Since Aberdeen FC, under the management of Alex Ferguson, became the last team from outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish championship in the 1984-85 season, Rangers and Celtic have completely dominated the league to the point where any potential third force capable of breaking the duopoly seems almost impossible. But where would the Old Firm begin any potential English journey? Some have suggested that they should begin the Conference league (fifth tier), some say in the Championship (second tier) whilst some call for the Old Firm to join the Premier League at the first opportunity in order to increase what is already a substantial TV contract. Were the two Glasgow giants to join the EPL any time soon they see themselves playing against the likes of traditional major English clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, to name but four, as well as the possibility of facing the two biggest Welsh clubs of Swansea City, who are already in the EPL, and Cardiff City, who look very likely to join them next season, in order to create a truly British super league.
This proposal, although attractive to many, would also see any number of clubs voting themselves out of a certain league in order to accommodate the Old Firm. Therefore the situation would be unlikely as it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas but it seems unlikely that the issue will go away. The alternative for the Old Firm would be to create what has been termed the “Atlantic League” along with the biggest clubs from the likes of Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia in order to create more meaningful and lucrative opposition. The biggest clubs from those countries, for example FC Porto, Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht, continue to dominate leagues in which competition over the years has weakened due to the increasing financial and sporting might of the big leagues. An Atlantic League would, therefore, allow stronger competition outside of officially sanctioned UEFA tournaments such as the Champions League and Europa League.
In the case of the Former Soviet Union there will be many who miss football matches of the calibre of Spartak Moscow v Dynamo Kyiv, Zenit Saint Petersburg v Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Shakhtar Donetsk v CSKA Moscow. Owners and sponsors of the some of the biggest football clubs in the region are behind the idea to merge the top leagues of Russia and Ukraine together. Just like with the situation in the UK, there are perhaps political machinations at work in relation to the proposed new set-up here too. Ukraine is a country which is stuck between a rock and a hard place and seems to face a choice as to whether it wishes to become a member state of the European Union or to align itself with its former master of Russia. Whatever the political issues the new money which is prevalent amongst the biggest clubs in both Russia and Ukraine could force the hand of European football’s governing body UEFA who are naturally against such mergers. Increasingly, in the modern game, money talks and one wonders if the status quo will remain in place for much longer especially as the sport of ice hockey in the FSU region provides the footballing hierarchy with a prime example of a trans-national sporting competition which provides ice hockey clubs from Russia the chance to compete in arguably the second best competition in the world (after the National Hockey League in the US and Canada) alongside clubs from Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belraus, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
It is not just in ice hockey where the trans-national approach has been broadly welcomed. Rugby union has embraced such competition in both the northern and southern hemispheres with the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Celtic League (top 14 clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy), Heineken Cup (equivalent to the UEFA Champions League) and the Super 15 (featuring the top 15 provincial teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). The other oval ball code of rugby league also embraces such competition but on a much limited scale with one French club, the Catalan Dragons, playing in the northern hemisphere UK-based “Super League” whilst the New Zealand Warriors feature in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL). As mentioned at the top of the piece there is currently one example of a football championship which currently uses such a system, namely Major League Soccer. Three of Canada’s top clubs – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – play alongside the best 16 American clubs in a league which is run alongside similar lines to the other major leagues of ice hockey (NHL), baseball (MLB) and basketball (NBA).
These events have largely come about for two reasons. With travel getting easier and the world becoming smaller thanks to modern technology it is natural that teams and individuals want to constantly challenge themselves against the very best on a regular basis. With the financial rewards that this brings then it is, for better or worse, another natural consequence that such teams and individuals will try to gain those rewards and, if necessary, upset the status quo in order to do so. If UEFA was to allow such cross-border league mergers along the Russia/Ukraine route or allow more of the MLS style leagues to become a reality (for example, a British League as discussed) then this could, and probably would, open up a can of worms for the game’s administrators at both UEFA and at FIFA, world football’s governing body. If such eventualities occur in Europe then how long before mergers become commonplace in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania? Whereas administrators from other sports have had to think outside the box and have undertaken such measures in order to broaden their appeal, football is the one truly global sport and it seems that whatever the traditions and customs which have made the game great in the past, its future could and probably will take a financially driven path down a whole new route.