Elite kick off their game of monopoly

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The Independent Football

Were football a normal industry the buzzword would be "consolidation". This is the dominant trend of the global economy. From travel agents to mobile phone companies, bankers to insurers, and coffee shops to supermarkets. Football is different. Even the EU, in its grudging acceptance of collective bargaining in television negotiations, has recognised that without multiple competition, the industry would cease to exist.

Were football a normal industry the buzzword would be "consolidation". This is the dominant trend of the global economy. From travel agents to mobile phone companies, bankers to insurers, and coffee shops to supermarkets. Football is different. Even the EU, in its grudging acceptance of collective bargaining in television negotiations, has recognised that without multiple competition, the industry would cease to exist.

Instead, the ongoing financial crisis which grips the European game has prompted consolidation by stealth. With a few exceptions, notably in Belgium, clubs have neither merged nor been subsumed. Large clubs have forged operating agreements with smaller ones, like Manchester United's with clubs such as Royal Antwerp, Shelbourne and Gothenberg, and PSV Eindhoven's with Silkeborg of Denmark and Lommelse of Belgium. Individual companies have taken a stake in several clubs, such as Enic in AEK Athens, Tottenham and others; adidas in Marseille and Bayern Munich; and BSkyB in several Premiership clubs.

Yet these have been minor developments. The most significant movement, from Ukraine to England, Italy to Norway, has been the concentration of power and wealth within a few leading clubs. Instead of buying up other companies they purchase their brightest personnel. Thus West Ham lose Joe Cole to Chelsea, Bayer Leverkusen's Michael Ballack is seduced by Bayern and Parma's Stephen Appiah by Juventus. Next on his way will be Fernando Torres, Atletico Madrid's rising star.

Even in the wealthiest countries only a handful of clubs are not, when the crunch comes, selling clubs. In poorer nations everyone is. Any promising player in the Dutch game is enticed by Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV and then, having been exposed to the Champions' League, moves abroad as Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam did.

It can be argued that it was always thus, at least it has been since the abolition of the minimum wage and introduction of freedom of contract. The difference now is the degree. Almost every change, from Bosman to the Champions' League, even the collapse of the transfer market and decline in television revenue, has strengthened the hands of the über-clubs. In a previous age Wayne Bridge may have stayed at Southampton, Cole at West Ham. Now they go to Chelsea attracted in part by the money, but also by the promise of Champions' League football, the modern game's elixir and its driving developmental force.

This competition, while achieving its remit in enriching the swaggering western clubs, has also had unexpected side-effects. In Norway, Rosenborg's early success gave them the resources to edge ahead of clubs such as Viking Stavanger, Lillestroem, Moss and Valerenga, all of which won the title in the '80s. They have built on this, fuelled by the annual windfall of Champions' League participation, and are heading for their 12th successive title. The lack of competition has led Aage Hareide, the coach, to call for a Nordic league.

This may fall on snowy ground as the Swedish, Finnish and Danish leagues do not suffer such a monopoly. The downside of a competitive domestic game, they have found, is a lack of club success in Europe. This is most evident in France. In the decade from 1992, eight different clubs won Le Championnat. Only Marseille, their success based on the backhander as much as the back four, and to a lesser extent Monaco, made any impression in Europe. This is hardly surprising as most leading French internationals play elsewhere. It is not just the crippling taxes and low gates which limit resources, it is the inability of any French team to string together income-generating Champions' League campaigns. Maybe Lyon, who have won the last two titles, will break this trend. It would give the French club game a higher profile, but at the cost of competitiveness.

The riches available in the Champions' League have also attracted investors from unexpected quarters. Roman Abramovich at Chelsea may be the most high-profile but he is not alone. In Greece, a Saudi-Spanish partnership have taken over at Aris Salonika. In Switzerland, FC Wil are now run by a Ukranian company led by Igor Belanov, the former Russian international and European Footballer of the Year who made a subsequent fortune in steel.

Not all investors are welcome. Stricken Monaco were to have been 'rescued' by Fedcominvest, a Russian company, before it was revealed that the French secret service portrayed Fedcominvest as a "shop window of Russian organised crime".

Rinat Akhmetov preferred to invest closer to home. Ukraine's richest man intends to make Shaktar Donetsk, a club no one had heard of prior to the Champions' League, an über-club. His money has attracted Germany's Bernd Schuster, once a gifted but temperamental player, to coach the team, and has helped alter the traditional pattern of Balkan transfers.

Many promising players from that region now go east, to Donetsk, Dynamo Kiev and Russian clubs, rather than west. Either way their departure accelerates the decline of the former Soviet bloc satellites. The Champions' League, following as it did the fall of the Iron Curtain, has also contributed to the diminution of once powerful clubs such as Dinamo Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade. Last year 32 clubs participated in the group stages but a huge swathe of the continent, from Poland's Baltic coast to the Serbian Adriatic, went unrepresented. East European clubs, with their crumbling grounds, poor gates and miniscule television deals can only survive by selling but, like Football League clubs, the collapse in the transfer market has wounded them.

Impoverishment can lead to corruption, as in Poland where Garbania were relegated and six players from opponents Swit given life bans after Garbania bribed their way to a play-off victory. But wealth can also corrupt with the president of Portugal's Vitoria Guimares arrested and accused of embezzlement. All of which confirms the truism that football reflects life - there has even been crowd trouble in Switzerland.

A year ago in this space it was suggested the platinum age was over, that when Fiorentina can collapse, no one is safe. Football's attraction to the likes of Abramovich means that Doomsday scenario has been postponed. With Monaco surviving, the only significant casualty this year was Mechelen, European Cup-Winners' Cup victors in 1988, but otherwise a mid-ranking Belgian club. Even Fiorentina are on the way back, winning promotion from Serie C2 as Florentia Viola after being revived by a Tuscan shoe magnate.

Yet the dangers remain for there are debt mountains everywhere. In Italy only the Milan clubs and Juventus have real spending power. In Germany, still reeling from the collaspe of the Kirch media empire, Bundesliga clubs have had to tighten their lederhosen. Only four made a profit at the last reckoning, one of which, Schalke, promptly cut management pay by 10 per cent. Kaiserslautern, the cup finalists, were bailed out by the city. Even mighty Bayern has cut bonuses.

In Spain debts are even greater, with clubs such as Valencia and Deportivo La Coruña, regular Champions' League players, indebted to €90m (£63m). In the Netherlands five clubs needed local government rescues, including cup-winners Utrecht and Uefa Cup qualifiers Breda.

No wonder Abramovich and his ilk are popular. But what happens when a man who rose to dominate the Russian aluminium industry on the back of mergers finds he cannot even defeat Charlton, let alone absorb them?

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