“What are we doing here, really?”
It’s a question that has occurred to me a few times – purely in a professional commentary context, naturally – in the past few weeks. The business of elite competition is often a balance between sporting and commercial interests, not to mention tradition and popular appeal. Those events that somehow keep all of those factors in equilibrium tend to flourish but, from time to time, challenges arise that can take on an existential dimension.
Take, for example, rugby union’s annual Six Nations Championship, whose outsized popularity owes as much to its restoration of ancient rivalries as its status as the European game’s premier international tournament. It is with that in mind that its organisers must weigh up a request from continental body Rugby Europe to consider promotion and relegation to what has always been an invitational affair. Opening up entry would recognise the strides made by the likes of Georgia and Romania, and would provide incentive to other developing nations, but it would come with the risk that future tournaments might go without the media catnip of locally animating contests.
Or take the dilemma facing the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), which must foster goodwill among a diverse international membership with a difficult past while turning out a credible and sustainable multi-sports event every four years. The withdrawal of Durban, which was set to be the first African venue for a Commonwealth Games in 2022, has inspired a string of declarations of interest from potential replacements. But all of these cities are based in the UK, Australia and Canada, the three richest countries in the Commonwealth which have hosted the overwhelming majority of the 20 Games staged to date. Australia’s Gold Coast will hold the 21st next year.
These themes recurred last week at Football Talks, a conference hosted by the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) in Estoril, a sleeping satellite of Lisbon whose most prominent modern feature is a whacking great casino up the hill from the historic fortifications of the sea front.
Fresh from watching its national team defy the odds to win Uefa Euro 2016 last year, the FPF had got the word out to the high rollers. Fifa president Gianni Infantino was the headliner, and the final act, after two and a half days of presentations and one-on-one interviews with a platinum-calibre roster of speakers.
The Swiss’ 40-minute closing address, in truth, didn’t tell us much we don’t already know about the Fifa project, consisting largely of a laundry list of completed or in-process governance reforms. There was also a nod to an incoming human rights policy – whose ramifications for the next two World Cup hosts, in a week when Qatar was put on notice by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) about a possible investigation into forced labour violations involving migrant workers, he did not expand upon.
One matter on which Infantino did speak at some length was Fifa’s recent decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026, dispensing with the neatly divisible 32-team format that has served it since 1998. Critics of the proposal - and there are many - have detected more than a hint of bloat. Infantino argues that the expansion reflects the realities of the 21st century game, and that the prospect of qualification would serve as a fresh competitive and financial stimulus to a huge tranche of national associations.
For Aleksander Čeferin - Infantino’s counterpart back at his old employer, European confederation Uefa - the question of access to competitive opportunities is framed quite differently. The Uefa Champions League is to club soccer what the World Cup is to the international game - the place where the best players and teams congregate. Yet where Fifa is now inviting as many nations as it can book hotel rooms for, Uefa’s new rules for its flagship competition now mean half of the 32 entrants into the Champions League proper will come from just four countries.
Those who still view the Champions League as the modern analogue of the old European Champions’ Cup would no doubt set that move at odds with the tournament’s mission. The distance between the older concept and its replacement was further emphasised in Portugal when Uefa deputy general secretary Giorgio Marchetti noted that at least 16 teams in the second-tier Europa League would be national champions.
There is something happening here, though, that goes beyond the internal subtleties of each competition. Čeferin was moved in Estoril to dismiss the prospect of a European Super League, a decades-old spectre that seems to loom back into view whenever the biggest clubs feel they may be about to not get what they want. There is no question that many of them would have preferred to get more concessions when qualification reforms were discussed last year, with the proposal of automatic entry based on historic success among several thwarted attempts at creating a more closed, US-style format.
That would entirely subvert the traditional dynamics of European club soccer, which until this point has operated on the principle that competitions bestow prestige upon participants, rather than the other way around. The impression is that Čeferin would prefer to keep it that way. He spoke here of bringing in concepts that would engender greater parity between clubs, from further limits on squad sizes to the imposition of a luxury tax on salaries. There is no detail yet on how the latter regulation might operate, but further discussions can be expected at Uefa’s congress next month.
Still, he is cute enough to recognise the financial forces at play. 86 per cent of the revenues associated with the Champions League is generated by clubs from the five biggest leagues, who take home 60 per cent of that income. Resources generated by the Champions League are used to fund the Europa League. And while Čeferin - who made a more enterprising speech than Infantino, imploring his colleagues to embrace Silicon Valley as an ally - is inclined to see emerging markets like China as more opportunity than threat, he also addressed the possibility that domestic leagues or even other international investors could produce the kind of compelling financial offer that would give Champions League contenders pause for thought.
Ultimately, in professional sport as in so much else, the highest bidder tends to have their say. Beyond the bottom line, however, organisers will still be conscious of retaining a shared goal - a sense of the point of all of this.