Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino

by Richard Brook

UEFA appear to be paving the way for transnational club competition in European football. Europe’s governing body have already sanctioned a three year trial period, in women’s football, of such a league. The BeNe League is made up of women’s club sides from across Belgium and the Netherlands and comments from a leading UEFA official seem to indicate that they would be prepared to consider the introduction of such competitions into the men’s game.

The BeNe League, jointly supported by the national associations of the competing clubs, is still in its infancy having only been approved by UEFA in March of this year, with the 2012/13 season the league’s inaugural campaign. The objective of the league is ostensibly to create a more competitive tournament than the national leagues of Belgium and the Netherlands previously represented. It is the highest league, in women’s football for the two countries, and the highest placed Belgian and Dutch teams will qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League. A brief pre-cursor to the league was played in the shape of the BeNe Super Cup, a single match between the two countries respective national champions.

The format of the league is complex bordering on convoluted, although arguably no more so than some of the South American leagues in the men’s game. The initial stage sees each country hold a preliminary national league. BeNe League Red, for the eight Belgian teams, and BeNe League Orange for the Dutch sides. Following this stage each nation’s top four will form BeNe League A and the remaining teams will form BeNe League B, for the second half of the season, deciding Champions League qualification, and the league title itself.

This may be a suitable compromise for the national associations involved in the women’s game, and obviously they feel that it is given their compliance with the trialling of such a competition. It seems likely however that UEFA’s suggestion that transnational competition could replace some of the traditional leagues in the men’s game might set alarm bells ringing for national associations, clubs and indeed European football fans.

UEFA General Secretary, Gianni Infantino, has made comments, of an unveiled nature, that suggest transnational competition in the men’s game is a very real consideration for UEFA. Infantino has been quoted as saying on the matter; “We are having discussions with the associations on supranational leagues… It’s those who are are more geographically aligned like the Nordics, the Balkans. We have to wait for this test [the BeNe League] to be finished”.  Ingrid Vanherle of the BeNe League is unsurprisingly enthusiastic on the subject of supranational leagues and has commented; “As two little countries together we will be more powerful… All eyes are upon us to see if it’s successful”.

The case for supranational leagues focusses on the dominance of a handful of the larger European Leagues when it comes to the UEFA Champions League in men’s football. Since the first season of Champions League football, 1992/93, only Marseille, Ajax and Porto have won the competition, from outside of the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Spain’s Primera Liga and Serie A in Italy. It is considered that forming supranational leagues amongst the countries who fall outside of this golden four, might make the respective domestic leagues more competitive, better preparing the champions of such tournaments for the rigours of facing Europe’s finest sides in the Champions League.

Supranational leagues in the men’s game have been proposed before. Notably in 2001 the Atlantic League was mooted and would have included teams from the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal and Scotland. This idea however never game to fruition amidst opposition from UEFA. As recently as last November many of the leading clubs in Eastern Europe put forward the idea of a Balkan League, to improve the standard of play and revenue streams in football within the region. UEFA’s main concern with the proposal is uncertainties over Champions League qualification.

The current rationale for leagues such as the BeNe League and the proposed Balkan League, could not be a cause for concern for anyone. Seeking to improve the standard of football through increased competition is an admirable pursuit. There arguably lies a greater concern over the precedent set by allowing supranational leagues.

For many years now there have been concerns on the part of some, and threats on the part of others over a breakaway European super league whereby some of the best teams in Europe turn would turn their back on the competitions of their respective national  associations, and form a league of their own. While it is not to be suggested that this is necessarily the agenda of anyone involved in the current discussions, it just might be an unwanted by-product, that supranational leagues advance the cause of those who would have a European Super League as a reality.

The smaller the change involved the greater the likelihood of such a league becoming a reality. The ratification of supranational leagues would allow the opportunity at least for the Super League to come into being by stealth. Admitting one extra country at a time into a supranational league could result in the European Super League becoming a reality before anyone really noticed.

It is easy to dismiss the notion of a breakaway league as it has been discussed for so long, however leading figures in European football regard the idea more seriously. In 2009, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was quoted as saying; “The national leagues will survive but maybe in 10 years, you will have a European league… The way we are going financially is that even the money coming in from the Champions League will not be enough for some clubs because they spend too much money. The income is basically owned by UEFA and they distribute the money to the clubs”.

As recently as last November Barcelona president Sandro Rosell was speaking openly of a breakaway. Rosell’s comments were effectively a threat aimed at UEFA that a breakaway was a plausible option if Europe’s governing body did not accede to demands that the top flights of the highest profile leagues see their membership reduced from 20 to 16. This would allow for various ‘glamour friendlies’ and for the expansion of the Champions League. Rosell an executive board member of the European Club Association whose understanding with UEFA expires in 2014.

With such recent threat it his perhaps surprising that UEFA are willing to investigate supranational leagues at this point in time. There was disappointment in the English game over the initial reduction in clubs in the top flight from the 22 in the old division one, to the 20 in the Premier League, as it would restrict opportunities in terms of promotion and revenue from those clubs outside the top division. It would be scandalous at this time, when so many of our old, traditional clubs find themselves in such profound financial difficulty that their predicament be made worse by a further reduction. It would represent a further erosion of football’s working class roots, handed down from parent to child since the 1800’s. The BeNe League and a breakaway European super league, on the face of it, are light years apart, but it might yet prove to be a small step in the wrong direction.