Football: Fresh eye on Europe's grand design

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The Independent Online
THE Premier League has decided to do something about that after- Christmas feeling when clubs who have lost all hope of a successful season know they have several more months of mainly unprofitable matches, broken only by the possibility of a run in the FA Cup. Doing something as far as the new League management is concerned inevitably means throwing in more BSkyB/BBC money, but lurking in their thoughts may have been the worry that, in the coming year or two, they will have to do everything possible to stop their competition from breaking up under threat from Europe.

A League for Europe idea has been discussed and shelved so often that the chances of it ever getting into the fast lane always seem as remote as Brussels forcing us to drive on the right. In any case, the whole concept has the sickly smell of elitism about it, with Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of Milan, determined that in the future his investment will not be threatened by anything as democratic as the possibility of being knocked out of the European Cup before the final stages. If he has his way, any future European league will be so dominated by himself, Milan and a few other rich clubs that there will be no chance of ever being relegated.

Alex Fynn, the Saatchi & Saatchi man whose original proposals for a streamlined English league were so scandalously diluted, leaving what we have now (last season's First Division with a different title and just as many matches), says we would be wrong to assume that nothing will ever happen over a European league. He has come up with a plan that could possibly meet with the powerful Berlusconi's approval but has a strong element of meritocracy. Fynn goes so far as to report considerable interest in his latest proposal, which, he says, has been well received by many of Europe's big clubs. Its great attraction is that it could appeal as much to Berlusconi as, say, Sam Hammaman, of Wimbledon.

So what is so different about this idea? Fynn points out that a large number of clubs throughout Europe find themselves out of the present cup competitions before Christmas. In spite of what Berlusconi may say, Milan can well afford such ignominy - though not too often - but the rest desperately need to keep creating interest. Some of them who have also slipped downwards in their own domestic league competitions (Leeds being an example) are doubly frustrated. The Premier League's latest money (a useful but hardly life-saving total of pounds 9m) will make little difference to a club such as Leeds, which has expensive building projects.

The new league format of the European Cup has helped extend the interest of the teams who reach that stage but the possibility of failing to get that far haunts clubs like Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Rangers, whose owner/chairman, David Murray, is keen to keep his club rooted in Scotland while at the same time wanting something approaching a guarantee of permanent European football.

The Fynn proposal is a promotion and relegation pyramid system with a premier division and three regional divisions. It would run concurrently with domestic leagues and have the UEFA Cup as a 64-team feeder contest. The European Cup and Cup Winners' Cup would be abandoned.

Entry to this new structure would at first be based on past records in the European cup competitions - hard on England who have only recently finished a suspension. Fynn maintains that over a period the whole structure would be a fair representation of merit and has the advantage of allowing quite unfashionable small clubs to reach the top division. Splendid. A fascinating proposal deserving widespread debate, but flawed in one crucial area.

One of the biggest problems now facing the smaller clubs in the English league is the plethora of games lacking in that fundamental attraction, local rivalry. Neighbouring clubs struggling near the foot of the Third Division can still draw their best gates of the season when they play each other. Alternatively, they attract larger than average crowds when the opposition happens to be a big-name club fallen on hard times.

Of course the fans of an English club who eventually qualified for the Premier Division would be delighted to have Milan or Barcelona as visitors, and the fact that only 10 clubs would play in the division might even allow some of the fans to attend the away games, but when it comes to the regional divisions, the whole plan takes on the look of the early stages of the present UEFA Cup when matches against, say, Lahti, of Finland, are on a par with a visit from Halifax on a wet night.

No doubt the coming year will see the European league debate reopened. Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have even been tempted to lead a breakaway and are unlikely to be overwhelmed by the latest Premier League handout, but Fynn's proposals, based on merit rather than just fame and the resources to get up and get out, are the most attractive to have been put forward since he himself designed a different version in 1988.

The football industry is becoming increasingly one with poor relations who are getting poorer while the rich want to protect their vast investments. Berlusconi can afford to keep international players in Milan's reserve team - an appalling situation because it deprives all of us of seeing them - while, in the English league, clubs are facing closure, part-time employment of players or, at best, the need to sell merely to keep going. The Premier League, in spite of this week's worthwhile plan to distribute television money on a sliding scale, has done virtually nothing to inspire fresh interest.

The only slight hope is that teams in the lower reaches will play that much harder to keep plenty of noughts on their pay cheques. The possibility of a place in a regional division of a European league only becomes attractive if the bulk of those matches are against Europe's household names. The fact is the house of names famous enough to attract larger crowds than presently attend league games in England is still only marginally bigger than it was nearly 40 years ago when the Frenchman Gabriel Hanot first mooted a European super league.

(Photograph omitted)

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