Posted by: davidjmarlow | 13/12/2015

Learning to love the Europa League (and its metaphor for England’s cities)

As a lifelong Spurs fan, two of my signature memories are our UEFA Cup Final victories over Wolves and Anderlecht in the 1970s and 1980s. I retain an affection for that competition’s successor –  the Europa League. It has too long been treated as the ‘runt’ of EU competitions, compared to the self-perpetuating cabal who appear to call the shots in the Champions League (ECL).

This blog has argued periodically for a ‘rebalancing’ between the relative largesse distributed to ECL and Europa League participants. The respective 2015/16 Group results of the two competitions seems to reinforce this case.

The Europa League Group Winners, runners up, and third place teams from ECL groups, comprise the R32 participants for the Europa League – to be played in February. Besides Spurs, the 2015/16 R32 cohort of clubs comprises four ECL winners from the past 20 years (Dortmund, Liverpool, ManUre and Porto), and eight clubs who have been ECL quarter finalists in the last five years. So it is a group with a strong pedigree that might easily, in other seasons, feast in the ECL trough of obscene riches.

The 2015/15 ECL group winners and runners up comprise 16 clubs with six winners over the past twenty years and nine quarter finalists. However, this cohort is extraordinarily skewed by Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Between them, these three clubs have lifted the ECL trophy 50% (10/20) of the time in the last 20 years, and comprised over 1/3 of quarter finalists (14/40) in the last five. Omit these three giants from the R16 cohort, and it has less recent winners and quarter-finalists than its Europa League comparators (albeit proportionately slightly more).

The point of this mathematical sophistry is to expose, yet again, the extraordinary disparity in ‘value’ and values of the respective competitions. At the apex of both, each of the eight quarter finalists of ECL receive the same base fixed payment (€6m) as the final Europa League winner (plus probably at least three times the market pool TV monies). Indeed, the eight ECL teams who ‘drop’ into Europa League R32 will have received well over €15m from their ECL group stage fixed payments, compared to under €5m for Europa League Group Winners.

UEFA prize money is augmented by the ‘market pool’ of distributed TV rights revenues – approximately €500m for ECL clubs, and  €150m for Europa League, distributed amongst participants by a formula based on progress and that nation’s TV market share.

Looking at relative pedigrees, it is extraordinary to think that teams like Liverpool, Dortmund, Anderlecht, Schalke (and even Spurs) might have earned €4-5m to reach R32, whilst the fourth placed teams who dropped out of the ECL group stages (of the likes of Astana, BATE Borisov or Maccabi Tel Aviv with its zero points) shall have amassed €14-16m each plus market pool shares!

There are various ways to redress these anomalies, and, to be fair, UEFA has played with a couple of them. Firstly, for 2015-18 they have reduced the disparities in ‘pots’ (of money) available for ECL and Europa League participants from the previous 4.3:1 to 3.3:1. However, within these pots the group stage disparities (from bottom of ECL group stage to Europa League group winners) remain.

They have also accepted ECL qualification for Europa League winners (which Seville took this year). I have argued for a number of years, this pre-qualification should be extended to all Europa League semi-finalists – even if losing semi finalists and finalist enter in ECL preliminary rounds or play-offs.

I am perfectly prepared to accept the argument that, in the fundamentally corrupt world of UEFA politics and the murky business of professional world soccer, this argument suffers chronically from a ‘so what’ character. But, given where we are, and the passions the sport and clubs (as opposed to the business) engenders in the lives of so many millions, there is a value in tweaking the institutional and power structures. Challenging the hegemonies of  Barca, Bayern and Real globally; the ManUre’s and Chelski’s nationally; and even the disproportionate ‘head starts’ ECL gives teams like Bate and Astana in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and, indeed, in future qualification rounds for ECL against champions from other ‘minnow’ leagues, is an endeavour with some honour and integrity!

An unlikely but apt metaphor for enhanced devolution and local growth

An unlikely but apt metaphor for enhanced devolution and local growth

As readers of this blog (and my other work) will expect, there is some read-across of this analysis to the murky business of England cities and devolution policy. If we think of the way government treats London and Manchester as the Real and Barca’s of English Cities, the other Core Cities are akin to regular ECL group stage participants, with non-metropolitan and ‘Key City’ areas habitually relegated to Europa League.

There are arguments for disparities – but government rarely airs the criteria they are applying in institutionalising these differences. And when they do, as in the elected mayor prerogative for enhanced devolution, this is  done inconsistently and/or incoherently.

A number of commentators have argued for a Constitutional Convention and/or independent commissions, with powers to challenge government (and support local leadership teams) in their negotiations and deal-making on devolution and local growth.

However, neither government nor UEFA like ‘level playing fields’ (albeit in soccer the metaphor is particularly poignant). The powers of patronage too often trump the love of the ‘beautiful game’, and of proud cities achieving their full potential. And, too often, clubs put all their energies into temporary ECL qualification, and cities into Manchester-lite devo-deals, rather than challenging and transforming the fundamental, loaded rules of the game(s).

I have historic and tactical reasons for ‘learning to love the Europa League’. Under the current regime, Spurs are highly unlikely to scale the heights of ECL very often in my life time. However, there are also strategic and principled arguments for championing that competition in soccer – as one foundation for a fairer, progressive, radical reconfiguration of the sport and the business.

Non-metropolitan, key city regions (in their broadest sense) have a similar tactical, strategic and principled set of roles and functions to be empowered if England devolution 2015-20 is to be effective, sustainable and successful.

In this vein, however frustrating and exasperating it is at times, COYS (Come on you Spurs) remains my metaphor for local growth and enhanced devolution over this parliament and beyond.


  1. Reblogged this on Sustainable Smart Cities and commented:
    Always worth a read. David Marlow uses footballing analogies to help paint the picture of provincial cities.

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