European soccer has lost its mind
Arsene Wenger warned us a few years ago that, "The huge financial power of some clubs is basically destroying the competition." Turns out he was right!
This photo, taken last weekend at Arsenal’s grounds where the mood’s been lower than a snake’s belly this season, tells me that after so many months of anticlimax, soccer is back.
Not even 15 minutes after Arsenal fans were finally let back into the Emirates Stadium they were kicked in the beans by their club en route to a 0-2 loss to Chelsea. If the myriad faces of disappointment on display there aren’t a sign football’s back, I’m not sure what is.
For the last year and a half, German fans have called matches played in front of empty stands geisterspiele, or “ghost games,” and it’s easy to see their point.
Borussia Dortmund’s Yellow Wall is one of the most reliably raucous stands in the world, so there is something ghastly about it being empty, yet crowd noise nonetheless booming throughout the stadium thanks to piped-in sound effects.
When Real Madrid won La Liga last summer, they clinched it playing on the pitch they typically use for training. Players took selfies with the trophy, empty stands visible in the background, and confetti cannons blasted off out of a sense of obligation more than true celebration.
A few weeks before that, minutes after snapping a decades-long title drought, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp put on a backwards hat and, with Daft Punk’s “One More Time” blasting in the background, said something that became a guiding light for me for the following 12 months.
“When this bullshit virus is gone, then we will have a party all together.”
Lionel Messi’s departure from F.C. Barcelona was perhaps the single most anticlimactic thing to happen in the sport lately.
After a few decades, a million goals and buckets of trophies, Messi left Barca not in front of thousands of cheering fans, but in some board room at Barcelona’s main offices.
Messi took to the podium and explained that hey, we didn’t mean for it to come to this, but it’s where we’re at, so I’ve got to go. I’m sure Barca’s executives thought they’d find a way to keep him there, but they didn’t, seemingly due to equal parts ill will and stupidity.
Messi’s exit was stunning to me, mostly because of the underlying reason for it: someone was actually enforcing the regulations of European football! That’s not supposed to happen!
It’s not exactly a secret that financially speaking, Barcelona’s been sitting in a shopping cart rolling down ravine-lined hill for the last few years.
From 2017 to 2019, Barcelona paid $429 million on three players, and a compelling case could be made they'd have achieved the same things they did even if they hadn’t bought Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann and Philippe Coutinho.
They just couldn’t help themselves, and now they’re in a reality in which their president had to recently make some of the most shockingly honest statements I’ve heard from an executive.
“The financial and economic situation is dramatic and very worrying,” Joan Laporta said a few weeks ago. Laporta said, with the world and Barca’s rivals listening, that the club is $1.3 billion in debt. That can’t be good!
I say all this because not only has Barcelona caused me great pain over the years and watching them flounder is a real treat, but also because Barcelona’s follies are to the great benefit of Paris Saint-Germain, a French club bankrolled by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. PSG signed Messi before Laporta even had his speech notes completed.
In the time it took for Barcelona to get itself into this mess, PSG spent more money ($481 million) on fewer players (Kylian Mbappe and Neymar) in a shorter amount of time (two years).
PSG being able to then sign Messi on an annual salary of $75 million, while Barcelona flounders for having made lesser lucrative deals, shows just how broken European soccer is right now.
The root issue, I think, is there is no real governing body in European soccer. There are simply too many entities—clubs, leagues, administrative bodies— looking out for their interests and their interests alone for any real oversight to get done.
UEFA has given up on the idea that it’s the arbiter of European football with how toothless its Financial Fair Play rules have proven to be, and FIFA’s too corrupt to know which way is up, and honestly probably never cared in the first placed.
I adore the Premier League, something that feels icky to admit, but much like Barcelona, I can’t help myself.
I can’t look away from the drama Arsenal are sure to provide each week. Eccentric managers like Marcelo Bielsa and Nuno make the jockeying for position in the mid-table fun to follow. Most of all, I love the Premier League because how else would my TV be graced with images of large British men with things like “ENGLISH BEEF” tattooed on their bellies.
…and then see it happen again a few years later.
The Premier League is a pretty much a procession now, though.
Manchester City, bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi royal family, have won three of the last four league titles convincingly. It took a historic performance from Klopp’s Liverpool to keep it from being four on the spin.
City’ll probably win it again this year because they’ve already shelled out $129 million on Jack Grealish, and that might not even be their biggest deal this summer.
The club I support, Real Madrid, isn’t exactly innocent here either. Madrid set a precedent for lavish spending in the Galácticos era, and Florentino fanned the flames further by leading the Super League debacle.
(At the time of writing, Real Madrid has reportedly put in a $187 million offer for PSG’s Kylian Mbappe. It’s…not a great look for a club that just a few months ago was insisting the Super League was necessary to help them avoid financial ruination.
I don’t really support Real’s pursuit of Mbappe but I also think it’s important to note that they’ve been selling players for years, saving up for the expressed purpose to make a run at him.
I am biased but there is a salient difference between this deal and the type of spending done by City/PSG: Madrid saved for years for Mbappe and might not even get him. PSG and City just dip a bit further into their petrol-states’ coffers for whoever they want each summer.)
Maybe we need it to hit rock bottom for things to get better, but I don’t know what that looks like. Maybe it’ll be City winning its seventh straight league title to even less fanfare than they currently get, or maybe it’ll be Premier and Champions League TV ratings dropping as fans gradually get jaded by the domination of these mega-clubs.
I’m not sure what’s the best way to fix the sport right now, but beefing up UEFA’s regulatory authority is a decent place to start. A blanket ban on private ownership (be they state-backed groups or American billionaires) would help get the game back on the rails, but such a plan will only ever be wishful thinking.
With things continuing in this direction, all of European soccer may go the way of the Premier League: something that is entertaining but losing its luster year over year due to its predictability.
If it comes to that, I think we’ll look back at this summer as the turning point.