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.
Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk are beginning to run away with the Ukraine Premier League title as it enters its three month hibernation period for the winter. Mircea Lucescu’s men completed the year with a 4-0 win over Arsenal Kyiv and with eternal rivals Dynamo Kyiv already a distant twelve points behind the Miners it appears that the title already seems destined to end up in eastern Ukraine once again.
With nineteen matches played it is already past the halfway stage in the Ukrainian Premier League as each team plays thirty games to complete a league campaign. The only reverse that Shakhtar have suffered in the league so far is a shock 1-0 away defeat at Obolon Kyiv on Matchday 9 but that was as played in early September, at which point Shakhtar’s advantage over Dynamo Kyiv was a mere two points. Since then Shakhtar have been in great form, winning all ten of their league matches including a 2-0 home defeat of Dynamo Kyiv on Matchday 12 in early October. Dynamo have only picked up twenty of the available thirty points since September and that is the reason for the huge gap that now exists between the two clubs.
This Saturday saw Dynamo narrow the gap temporarily to nine points with a laboured 2-0 win over PFK Sevastopol, who lie second from bottom in the table. Roman Eremenko gave Dynamo the lead as early as the 10th minute but then the home side had to wait until midway through the second half to secure the game when Ognjen Vukojević doubled their lead. On Sunday Shakhtar made easier work of sixth place Arsenal Kyiv with all of the goals coming from South Americans. Brazilian Jadson gave the Miners the lead on 17th minutes from the penalty and Bolivian Marcelo Moreno doubled the lead eight minutes before half-time. After the break another pair of Brazilians got in on the act to complete the rout. Eduardo made it 3-0 just after the hour mark before Douglas Costa got the fourth from the penalty spot in the 79th minute.
For Dynamo the second half of the season could prove to be a useful rebuilding exercise ahead of the 2011-12 season as, barring miracles, it seems that nobody will be able to dig away at Shakhtar’s 12 point lead.
“Stoppage Time” concludes its look at the major European leagues, which take a few days break and resume after the international matches in midweek:
UKRAINE (1st – Dynamo Kyiv 17 games/45 points; 2nd – Shakhtar Donetsk 18/43; 3rd – Metalist Kharkiv 17/35)
The Ukrainian Premier League returned to action this weekend with the top two teams recording expected victories to stay well ahead of the chasing pack. Champions Dynamo Kyiv had Croatian midfielder Ognjen Vukojević to thank for their narrow 1-0 home win over FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih who are rooted to the bottom of the table. Shakhtar Donetsk, fresh from the disappointment of their UEFA Europa League exit to Fulham FC on Thursday, returned to winning ways. They defeated Vorskla Poltava, the team who defeated Shakhtar in last season’s Ukrainian Cup final, by a goal to nil thanks to Brazilian striker Jadson (pictured). Third place Metalist Kharkiv lost for only the fourth time this season going down 2-1 to Karpaty Lviv.
GREECE (1st – Panathinaikos 24/55; 2nd – Olympiakos 24/53; 3rd – PAOK 24/53)
Panathinaikos have been feeling the pressure recently as they have let an eight point lead slip to just a mere two having recorded only five out of the last fifteen points available. One of the two defeats suffered in that time by “Pana” was against PAOK Thessaloniki who, on Saturday, went on top of the Super League for at least 24 hours with a 3-0 win away at Škoda Xanthi thanks to strikes from Vieirinha (2) and Vladimir Ivić. League leaders Panathinaikos, fresh from knocking out AS Roma in the UEFA Europa League, returned to the top of the table with two Djibril Cissé goals giving the Prasinoi (The Greens) a 2-0 win over Panionios. Champions Olympiakos, despite an up-and-down season, still retain a realistic hope of the title with six matches to go beating Atromitos 2-0 thanks to Matt Derbyshire and Konstantinos Mitroglu.
ROMANIA (1st – CFR Cluj-Napoca 19/38; 2nd – FC Timişoara 19/35; 3rd – FC Unirea Urziceni 19/35)
There are very few championships anywhere in the world, at the moment, that are as intriging as the Romanian League. Eight points separates CFR Cluj in first from FC Brasov in eighth place so any team that can put a run together from now until the end of the season has a very good chance of winning the title. Leaders CFR Cluj drew 1-1 away at record champions Steaua Bucharest but they still retain a three point at the top of the table thanks to Unirea’s inability to win away at seventh place Rapid Bucharest, recording a similar 1-1 scoreline. FC Timişoara went up to second on goal difference as they joined Unirea and Steaua on 35 points thanks to a 2-1 defeat of Politechnica Iaşi. Other games at the top saw FC Vaslui victorious in a 2-1 home win against CS Pandurii whilst Dinamo Bucharest jumped up to sixth place with a 3-1 away win at FC Internaţional.
TURKEY (1st – Galatasaray 23/50; 2nd – Bursaspor 22/46; 3rd – Fenerbahçe 23/45)
If recent history is anything to go by then the Turkish Süper Lig should go all the way and, with eight points separating the top five teams, there’s a chance that it could go to the wire. League leaders Galatasaray still look favourites though after recording a easy 4-1 over Kasimpasa with Abdul Keita scoring a brace for the home side. Surprise package Bursaspor are only four points behind “Gala” and have a game in hand. They kept in touch with their more illustrious title rivals beating last season’s runners-up Sivasspor 3-0. Third place Fenerbahçe slipped up against local minnows Istanbul B.B. with Iskender Alin scoring the winner seven minutes from time to give the home side a 2-1 win. Last season’s Double winners Beşiktaş are now trailing fourth place Kayserispor on goal difference after defeating the latter 2-1 with strikes from Ekrem Dağ and Chilean midfielder Rodrigo Tello.
BELGIUM (1st – RSC Anderlecht 25/60; 2nd – Club Brugge 26/51; 3rd – KAA Gent 26/43)
With only a few rounds of games to go in the regular season of the Belgian Jupiler League there is no doubting that RSC Anderlecht will finish on top as they have a nine point lead over nearest challengers Club Brugge with a precious game in hand. Anderlecht won away at Roeselare 2-1 but the other teams around them in the table could only draw with Club Brugge drawing 1-1 against St. Truiden. Similar scorelines were recorded for third place KAA Gent away at Germinal and fourth place Kortrijk away at Mechelen.
POLAND (1st – Wisła Kraków 18/40; 2nd – Legia Warsaw 18/38; 3rd – Lech Poznań 18/35)
Poland’s Ekstraklasa has been anything but easy for champions Wisła Kraków to defend this season and Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to GKS Bełchatów is further proof of this, the home side’s goal being scored as early as the third minute by Dawid Nowak. This allowed nearest challengers Legia Warsaw to creep up behind the leaders and this they did with a 2-1 win away at Cracovia. Lech Poznań and Ruch Chorzów both secured 3-0 away victories at Polonia Warsaw and Arka Gdynia respectively whilst KS Lechia Gdańsk remain in sixth after a goalless stalemate against MKS Odra Wodzisław.
CZECH REPUBLIC (1st – FK Jablonec 17/34; 2nd – FK Teplice 16/33; 3rd – Sparta Prague 17/33)
The Gambrinus Liga is another one of those championships with a competitive edge to it with two points separating the top four. FK Teplice’s 0-0 draw away at SK Dynamo České Budějovice allowed FK Jablonec to climb to the top of the table after their 3-0 win at home to Bohemians 1905. Record champions Sparta Prague could only muster a 1-1 home draw against Pribram whilst local rivals and defending champions beat Bohemians FC 1-0. FC Baník Ostrava blew their chance on Monday night to join Jablonec at the top as they could only manage a 0-0 draw at FC Viktoria Plzeň.
AUSTRIA (1st – Red Bull Salzburg 22/48; 2nd – FK Austria Wien 22/43; 3rd – SK Rapid Wien 22/42)
Rabiu Afolabi, Red Bull Salzburg’s towering centre-half, scored the only goal for the league leaders in their highly anticipated Austrian Bundesliga clash away at third place SK Rapid. This allowed Rapid’s local neighbours FK Austria to get some daylight between themselves and their Viennese rivals thanks to a 1-1 draw away at SV Mattersburg. Sadly for Austria though the gap between themselves and Salzburg has been increased to five points due to their inability to win on the road.
CROATIA (1st – Dinamo Zagreb 18/42; 2nd – HNK Cibalia 18/36; 3rd – HNK Šibenik 18/34)
The Croatian league resumed this weekend after a long winter break. Dinamo, who have won five out of the last six titles, continued where they left off before the break dismantling bottom side Croatia Sesvete 6-0 with top scorer Mario Mandžukić scoring a hat-trick. HNK Cibalia have second place all to themselves after their 2-0 win at home to Inter Zaprešić whilst HNK Šibenik could only muster a 1-1 at home to thirteenth place NK Zadar. Dinamo Zagreb’s usual title rivals Hajduk Split are still trying to recover from a bad start to the season and have climbed up to fifth place in the table with a 5-0 win over Slaven Koprivnica. NK Osijek, who were in fifth place before this weekend’s round of matches, are now down to sixth after losing to fourth place NK Karlovac by a goal to nil.
SWITZERLAND (1st – Young Boys 22/50; 2nd – FC Basel 22/46; 3rd – FC Luzern 22/38)
Last, but by no means least, we take a look at the Swiss League were Young Boys from the capital city Berne are leading the way after a 2-1 win over last season’s champions FC Zürich. Four points separate the leaders from FC Basel who, having been the dominant force in Swiss football until last season, are desparate for the title. They picked up three points easily enough at the weekend with a 2-0 win away at ninth place (out of ten) AC Bellinzona. Third place FC Luzern may have got three points as expected away at bottom side FC Aarau but they still lie a distant twelve points away from the league leaders.