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.
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.