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.
European football’s governing body UEFA has decided against allowing Swiss club FC Sion back into the 2011-12 UEFA Europa League, thus maintaining Glasgow Celtic’s place in Group I of the competition which begins this Thursday.
FC Sion qualified for this season’s competition following an aggregate victory against the Scottish giants in the Play-Off round but were subsequently expelled following a protest from the Parkhead club who claimed that a number of the Swiss club’s players were ineligible.
FC Sion, last season’s Swiss Cup winners, lodged an appeal through a civil court case in Switzerland which found in the club’s favour. However the Swiss court’s judgement has had no impact upon UEFA’s final decision and means that Celtic can finally look forward to the opening game of the group stages against 2009-10 UEFA Europa League winners Atlético Madrid to be played in the Spanish capital on Thursday.
FC Sion, meanwhile, are considering further action and could take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The attack on Glasgow Celtic coach Neil Lennon by an opposing supporter in Wednesday’s Scottish Premier League match against Heart of Midlothian is the latest in a string of unsavoury incidents that have been directed at the former Northern Ireland international player. Surely now is the time for such ugly personal attacks on Lennon to stop.
It has been well documented in the recent past that Lennon, a lifelong Celtic fan from Northern Ireland, has been the victim of a targeted campaign including death threats, parcel bombs and assaults throughout his career and the latest episode, which took place in Celtic’s 3-0 win over Hearts in the SPL, has completely overshadowed what has been an exciting championship chase between the Bhoys and their Old Firm counterparts Glasgow Rangers.
How much more abuse and personal vitriol Lennon is expected to take is open to question and one wonders whether he will tough it out beyond this season. The attack on him from the Hearts supporter, who was promptly arrested at the scene, was all the more suprising considering he has 24 hour security on the back of the recent discovery just two months ago of a parcel bomb which was intended for him in the post. This incident, therefore, could either be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, thus calling time on Lennon’s insofar brief tenure at the club, or it will drive him on to show his critics that he will continue no matter the provocation. Lennon appears to be, on the surface, a tough nut who has handled most things thrown at him but even the man himself must wonder if it is worth carrrying on given the circumstances.
One hopes, for his sake and for that of Scottish football, that this catalogue of disgraceful incidents will stop before he, or anyone else for that matter, ends up on the receiving end of something truly tragic.
The voices seem to get louder and louder at this time of year from the Scottish Premier League (SPL), and the clubs within it, over the issue of the controversial “league split” system which sees the twelve clubs in Scotland’s top flight split into two groups of six for the final five matches of the league season. This season is no exception with many critics of the system expressing disbelief in this year’s end of season fixtures with some teams having to play certain opposition for a third time away from home. The SPL have argued that there was no way that the post-split fixtures could have worked out with everybody having two home and two away games against all opposition this season because of the way the table finished after 33 games. If that’s the case then there is only one thing to do and that is to scrap the current system.
After the announcement on Saturday that champions Glasgow Rangers will have to play three away games in a row in the final games of the season the club have lashed out at the SPL saying that the system lacks “sporting integrity”, especially as they have to play Dundee United for the third time in four league fixtures between the two clubs this season away from home. Seeing as Rangers finished top of the table at the time of the split it seems like they’re being penalised for their success. It also doesn’t help Rangers that the three away games against Hibernian, Dundee United and Celtic come in the space of ten days so it’s just as well that Rangers will have a double digit lead going into the final five games of the 2009-10 season. But Rangers are far from the only team that are unhappy with their lot. Motherwell are angry at having to play Glasgow Celtic for a third time away from home and St Mirren also have a third away game at Falkirk. For any team that is fighting for European places or against relegation it is invariably going to be controversial to keep a system which can throw up these sorts of anomalies from time to time.
So what changes should be made to eradicate the need for a split? Rangers’ coach Walter Smith has often called for an eighteen team league with each team playing everyone else twice a season, instead of the usual four times as it is currently, meaning thirty four league games a season for each club – four fewer than it stands at the moment. If anything, in my opinion, eighteen teams may just be a couple of teams too many as the necessary quality and finance just isn’t there at the moment to sustain a league of such numbers. Gradually I feel that the Scottish Premier League should be looking at ways to increase the league to sixteen teams, therefore playing thirty league matches. This will mean that clubs have more time to recuperate inbetween matches, even allowing for the fact that there are two domestic cup competitions in Scotland. At least there will be a balanced fixture list which is drawn up at the start of the season with teams not playing against the same opposition so many times. The clubs may talk about losing potential revenue, especially the smaller clubs who rely on the Old Firm coming to their grounds at least four times a season, but I think the financial aspects will sort themselves out over time. If one wants an example of a country with a sixteen team league and two domestic knockout competitions which is doing well in UEFA’S Co-Efficient table (a system used to rank leagues across Europe) then Portugal is perfect. Using a similar system to the one suggested Portugal currently ranks as Europe’s ninth strongest league in the UEFA rankings and their clubs have often performed well in European competition, an area where Scottish football as a whole really needs to improve despite the heroics of the Old Firm reaching UEFA Cup finals in recent years.
In my view the split, which has been a part of the SPL since 2001, has not helped the quality of the league whatsoever. It was used as a balancing measure between those people who advocated a smaller league but who wanted the income and additional revenue by the extra end-of-season matches created. Now that this silly situation has come about it is time that the powers-that-be in Scottish football began to produce a new system which reflects fairness, balance and which is seen, most of all, to help the quality of the domestic game.
The Old Firm derby took place at Ibrox Park today and the hoardes of Rangers supporters were the ones celebrating at the end of the game as they earned a deserved 1-0 win thanks to Maurice Edu’s dramatic last-gasp winner two minutes into stoppage time. The three points won are another significant step for Rangers in their quest to win a record extending 53rd Scottish league title. The Gers now have a ten point lead and a game in hand over their arch-rivals from Parkhead although Celtic boss Tony Mowbray will feel that the red card shown to his captain Scott Brown in the 65th minute was yet another example of his team receiving no favours from referees this season.
The 50,230 crowd inside Ibrox Park were in fine voice before a ball had been kicked with Rangers fans showing banners with a host of trophies highlighting their domestic dominance whilst the visiting Celtic support threw white, green and orange streamers on to the pitch whilst waving their traditional Irish tricolor flags. However it was sad that a minute’s silence before the game for former Rangers goalkeeper Gerry Neef, who died on Tuesday February 23rd, was interrupted by certain sections of the crowd. This fixture doesn’t exactly need any extra needle but the Rangers fans certainly reacted with their disapproval.
The action on the pitch soon kicked-off and it was after only thirty seconds of the contest when loan signing Robbie Keane had Celtic’s first chance, shooting at Allan McGregor from just inside the box. Three minutes later the Scottish league’s top scorer Kris Boyd had Rangers first good chance of the game when he rounded keeper Artur Boruc only to hit the side netting with his shot. As is so often typical of Old Firm games the contest turned into a midfield scrap but it was the home side who had the best chances with sub Edu, who had come on for Lee McCulloch in the 27th minute after he suffered an ankle injury, having a goal disallowed after Kenny Miller had handled the ball before it fell into Edu’s path. Kenny Miller then went close in the 29th minute but he shot straight at Celtic keeper Artur Boruc after being put through from Kris Boyd. Celtic did have their chances too with Keane volleying an effort at McGregor on 36 minutes and then, close to half-time, Marc-Antoine Fortuné turned both Madjid Bougherra and David Weir on the edge of the Rangers box but turned his shot wide of the right-hand post.
The game was goalless at half-time but the home side came out much the more determined after the break having plenty of possession and territory. In the 50th minute Rangers thought that they should’ve had a penalty kick after Edu appeared to be fouled in the Celtic 18-yard box by Andreas Hinkel but the referee waved away the shouts of the Rangers players. Six minutes later Robbie Keane thought he was fouled just inside Rangers’ half but the referee waved play on and Steven Davis picked up the ball and let fly from just outside Celtic’s box. After Boruc made the save Davis followed up along with a host of other players but the ball didn’t fall to a blue shirt in the box and Celtic were able to clear. It was in the 65th minute that the game’s pivotal moment occurred when Rangers’ Kyle Lafferty and Celtic captain Scott Brown were involved in a tangle after going for the ball. Brown appeared to lean in on Lafferty’s chest with his head and the Rangers player went down to the ground resulting in referee Dougie McDonald showing Brown the red card, much to the dismay of Celtic boss Tony Mowbray who has complained of the quality of refereeing already this season.
Following on from the red card Rangers began to dominate possession as Celtic were forced to put Robbie Keane up front on his own and try to see out the rest of the game to force a draw. Celtic’s loan signing from FC Bayern München Edson Braafheid wasted a great free-kick opportunity on 82 minutes but that was about the only chance they would have of threatening Rangers’ penalty area. Celtic infuriated Rangers one minute from regular time after Diomansy Kamara had been treated for a head injury and then kicked the ball into touch deep into Rangers half. Walter Smith and Ally McCoist were fuming on the sideline as they thought this was a blatant lack of sportsmanship from Kamara. However Rangers got their just reward in the 92nd minute of the game when Boruc dropped a corner in front of Kris Boyd whose attempts at forcing the ball home were stopped by the Celtic keeper before Edu managed to toe poke home from a couple of yards out sending the Rangers fans into raptures of ecstasy.
In the second half of our UEFA Europa League group stage round-up “Stoppage Time” looks at the groups that concluded on Thursday, December 17th:
GROUP A (RSC ANDERLECHT, AJAX AMSTERDAM, DINAMO ZAGREB, FC TIMISOARA)
Blessed with years of European experience and tradition, Benelux neighbours Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht of Brussels easily negotiated their way through this group. Their Matchday 6 match in Amsterdam still had some importance, though, as Anderlecht’s 3-1 win meant that they topped the group on account of a better head-to-head record over their Dutch challengers, both teams finishing on eleven points. Dinamo Zagreb were optimistic of further progress earlier in the competition as they had three points from two matches but they failed to build on their good start. Champions League Play-Off losers FC Timisoara scored a respectable five points on their maiden Europa League campaign but still finished fourth in the group table.
GROUP B (VALENCIA CF, LILLE, GENOA FC, SLAVIA PRAGUE)
Valencia secured qualification and the top spot on Matchday 6. They went into their game away at Genoa needing only a point to be certain of going through to the last 32 whilst hosts Genoa needed all three points to finish at least second. With the game tied at 1-1 in stoppage time, David Villa was gifted the ball from Genoa goalkeeper Alessio Scarpi to secure the victory in the 94th mnute. Elsewhere Lille’s 3-1 win at home to Slavia Prague ensured that they finished second, two points behind the leaders. Slavia, who have dominated the Czech league in the last two seasons, have been struggling domestically this season and this form was transferred into Europe as they remained without a victory after six games.
GROUP C (HAPOEL TEL AVIV, HAMBURGER SV, GLASGOW CELTIC, RAPID VIENNA)
Israeli side Hapoel were the surprise winners of this group finishing two points ahead of German giants Hamburg. Their Matchday 6 encounter in Tel Aviv ended as a 1-0 win for the hosts and it was they who leapfrogged “HSV” into first place. The biggest disappointment of the group were Scottish club Celtic who were unable to re-create their many great European nights under new coach Tony Mowbray. Among the highlights of the group were the encounters involving Celtic and Austrians Rapid Vienna, whose little known rivalry dates back to a controversial European Cup Winners’ Cup second round match in 1984-85. Both games ended drawn but the Matchday 6 encounter would’ve felt like a win for the Glasgow giants as they came back from 3-0 down after 18 minutes to draw 3-3 with virtually the last kick of the game and demote their Austrian hosts to last place.
GROUP G (RED BULL SALZBURG, VILLARREAL CF, SS LAZIO, LEVSKI SOFIA)
The only team who finished their campaign with a 100% record was Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg suggesting that they could be a good outside bet to go far in the competition. Huub Stevens’ men beat all challengers home and away to finish a clear nine points ahead of second place Villarreal. Italian capital side Lazio frustrated their followers as they could only win two of their six games and finished three points behind the little Spanish village team. Bulgarians Levski Sofia fared little better than their local rivals CSKA (see previous blog) finishing bottom with three points.
GROUP H (FENERBAHCE, FC TWENTE ENSCHEDE, STEAUA BUCHAREST, FC SHERIFF TIRASPOL)
Steve McClaren’s FC Twente were looking comfortable after two games but then nearly blew their qualifications chances. After Turkish side Fenerbahce secured the leadership of the group, FC Twente were relying on them to do them a favour on Matchday 6. Twente needed a win away at 1986 European champions Steaua Bucharest but could only manage a 1-1 draw in very cold, frosty conditions played in front of a sparse crowd. However the surprise team FC Sheriff from Moldova had to win against the already-qualified “Fener” to grab the second spot but the Turkish team did McClaren’s a favour beating the Moldovans 1-0.
GROUP I (SL BENFICA, EVERTON FC, BATE BORISOV, AEK ATHENS)
No surprises in group I were Benfica and Everton went through to the Round of 32 with one match to spare. Benfica, in particular, showed their class in their two matches with nearest challengers Everton scoring seven goals without reply in their two games (5-0 at home and 2-0 away). The Merseysiders, however, did progress thanks to three wins out of four against their eastern European opponents, the only defeat coming on Matchday 6 at home to Belarussian champions BATE Borisov but Everton were already through to the next round and played a very young team on the night. Benfica finished top with 15 points (only a shock defeat away at a very poor AEK Athens denied them a 100% record), Everton scored nine points, BATE avoided the wooden spoon scoring seven points compared to AEK’s four points.