2014 March | FREE

Archive the month of March 2014

March 20, 2014

A closed league, licencing and franchising in European football? The FA Women’s Super League experiment.

Doncaster Belles in action at the Keepmoat stadium

Will football ever see a European Super League for the top teams across the continent? If it were to become a reality, it would likely follow a closed system similar to American sports with no promotion or relegation. So in a sense, very ‘un-European’. Football remains a sport where the traditional pyramid system is fundamental, and so the proposal for a closed league for the elite few is widely rejected. That’s not how European football works.

However, look closely and you will see a closed football league in full flow within Europe, where the top teams in the country play with no fear of relegation. The Football Association Women’s Super League (FAWSL) was established in England in 2011. Yes, women’s football – but keep reading, as this closed league model, an experiment in European football, has had consequences that should be of interest (and concern) to any football fan.

Women’s football in England has always been overshadowed by its male counterpart – so much so, it’s hard to see at all sometimes. The FA launched the first semi-professional league for women in England in 2011, to increase the profile and standard of the game. But it came with a catch: clubs had to apply for one of the eight FAWSL places, and meet strict minimum requirements of business and financial management, infrastructure, and commercial sustainability and marketing.

The FA asserts that the WSL has increased competition, and fostered a growth in the profile of the game, media coverage and commercial investment. Live matches are shown on (subscription) television, and are played in the summer months when there is no competition with men’s football for pitches or fans. Fundamentally, this should all be of benefit to the game and the army of football-playing girls who need visible role models in a similar way as their brothers have.

But under the surface, tensions are bubbling.

Manchester City Women will join the FAWSL for 2014, with significant financial investment from the male club. They will take the place of Doncaster Belles, with their long history at the top of women’s football, whose licence renewal application was rejected one game into the 2013 season. After 22 years in the top flight of women’s football, they had to play out the season knowing that they would not be there next year, even if they finished as champions. Unsurprisingly, they finished bottom.

Franchising is another concern. The Lincoln Ladies management team put their FAWSL 2014 bid in under the name of Notts County, a professional club in Nottingham. This was to meet application requirements: Notts County (men) could offer more than Lincoln City (men). The Lincoln fan base have seen their local team moved 40 miles away and given a new name and colours – echoing the heavily criticised relocation of Wimbledon F.C to Milton Keynes. Worryingly for the football fan, the FAWSL proves that this was not a one-off. Although this being women’s football, the story passed almost unnoticed outside of Lincoln.

The impact of the club licencing system stretches worryingly beyond the FAWSL. With no hope of promotion, clubs outside the top tier know that they can only ever be ‘the best of the rest’. Players who want to fulfill their dream of elite women’s football will have to move elsewhere. The gap between the FAWSL and the rest may affect the quality of the lower leagues. And so on. Success in women’s football is now more about your off-field performance as your on-field.

Should football fans be concerned that this is a pilot run for a closed league that could be replicated elsewhere? Is women’s football a playground for the FA to trial new ideas? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, this is an experiment that could go very wrong.

Women’s football has never traditionally been dominated by money. There has never been enough floating around for it to be an issue. But in this closed league for the elite, money is becoming a major player. Liverpool’s 2013 FAWSL title win came after finishing bottom the previous two seasons and coincided with Liverpool F.C investing in their female side. The FA claims that the exciting finish to last season demonstrates “the unpredictable nature of the game we all know and love”. The counter argument may hold more weight, in demonstrating the most predictable aspect of modern football: success requires money. Few would disagree that the biggest concerns facing men’s professional football in England increased rapidly when money began to flow into the game at an alarming rate. Women’s football might still be far from this state, but the warning signs are there: money talks, and it rarely says the right things.

Post by : Welford in the category : Posts - No comment

March 10, 2014

Words of Wisdom

Sepp Herberger, the father of the famous ‘miracle of Bern‘, was not only known for his remarkable tactical cleverness, but also for his aphorisms. Used at the time mainly to shut up critical journalists, some of them have entered the German dictionary as legendary words of wisdom. When the intellectual weekly Die Zeit published a list of the most famous quotes of the 20th century, it included Herberger’s ‘The ball is round’, usually understood as something close to ‘anything can happen any time’, and often cited together with ‘The match lasts 90 minutes’, which pretty much fits all occasions. Two other wonderful stock quotes are ‘After the match is before the match’ and ‘The next opponent is always the most hardest’, perfectly applicable to professional life, or life in general for that matter.

My personal favourite, however, remains his answer to the ultimate question of what makes so many people watch so many football matches: ‘Because they don’t know the outcome’ (‘weil sie nicht wissen, wie’s ausgeht’). It is true that hardly any other sport matches the capacity of football to respond to the ‘quest for excitement’ identified by Norbert Elias. Statistical research has shown that no other team game tends to create and maintain as much ‘instability’ in the evolution of scores as football; a fact that was once attributed by Gérard Ernault to its inherent fluidity, ‘which equalises chances between players and teams more than static and more repetitive sports’.

‘Because they don’t know the outcome’ - well, come to think of it, nowadays they do, don’t they? This week’s Champions League round of 16 return leg should pit up the best teams of Europe, the ones that made it through long and tough qualification stages to the knock-out phase. A certain density of performance levels should normally be expected. In reality, however, I am not going to watch any of the return matches, simply for lack of ‘excitement’. Six of the eight outstanding matches are devoid of any suspense, and the two matches with a minimum of uncertainty are played by teams that one might suspect of not being able to go beyond the quarter-final stage anyway.

More than ever the Champions League seems to be controlled by literally one handful of clubs. No need really to stage a total of almost 30 evenings a year if the competition starts to be interesting only from the semi-finals onward. And given the distribution schemes of the revenues generated by the event, the same handful will be even richer next year, widening further the already frightening gap to the others. At the same time, in a large number of major European championships, the winner 2014 can be reasonably predicted as early as in March (the English Premier League being the only one to maintain a suspense configuration of four potential champions). And the winner will invariably come from the small pool of usual suspects.

I am certainly not the first to raise such concerns. For several years now, the tendency described above has been deplored by many observers. For the time being, the decrease of suspense has not yet been sanctioned by a significant decline of public interest. Perhaps because the marketing machines of the Champions League and the major national leagues is rather efficient. But it may well be that the spring of 2014 will be remembered as a tipping-point.

One way or another, allowing such a concentration of market power is risky business. Even liberal market capitalism, with all its laissez-faire principles, has introduced safeguards against monopoly building and abuse of dominant positions. Football, for which fair competition is essential, does not really seem to see the necessity. Both UEFA and national leagues would be well advised to reconsider solidarity principles when it comes to formulating financial redistribution or perequation schemes. They would to well to remember Herberger’s words of wisdom. Once people will realise that they actually do know the outcome, that the ball is no longer round, and that the match is over long before the ninety minutes have been played, the game will no longer be the same.

Post by : Albrecht Sonntag in the category : Posts - No comment