CROSS-border leagues and the prospect of the Old Firm one day playing in England: a new year begins with the oldest of old chestnuts.
There hasn't been a dead horse in history flogged as mercilessly as the idea of Celtic and Rangers playing in the Barclays Premier League, but once again the notion has been gaining momentum.
There have been rumblings that UEFA has “softened” its opposition to clubs from one country playing league football against those from another. To say that Celtic and Rangers have their antennae up to any movement would be putting it mildly. Their frustration and feelings of isolation are profound and understandable – what riches they would enjoy if they were admitted to the English top flight – but desperation and realism have been mutually exclusive for years. UEFA’s previously entrenched position on “supranational” championships has morphed over the past few months. What does not necessarily follow, though, is that this takes the Old Firm any closer to what they want.
The matter has arisen because of frustrations evident across Europe. Earlier this season, UEFA gave approval to a 16-team Balkan Football League likely to begin in 2015, with 16 teams from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Hungary.
Last month, it was mooted that Russia and Ukraine’s top flights merge into a regional football Super League. Russian Premier League head Sergei Pryadkin and officials of CSKA Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and Anzhi Makhachkala all spoke in favour of it. They have formed a working party.
Then there was “BeNeLiga”, a proposed a 20-team championship of Belgian and Dutch clubs reportedly supported by Standard Liege, Anderlecht, Bruges, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. Standard Liege reportedly even threatened the Royal Belgian Football Association that they would resign from the Belgian Pro League and try to play in France’s Ligue 1 if BeNeLiga is not created.
Since August 1, BeNe League has already existed: it is the highest women’s football league in Belgium and Holland, set up to increase competitiveness and given UEFA’s blessing on a three-year trial basis.
UEFA president Michel Platini has said this much: “We have to decide whether to allow two leagues to play together. At the moment, we don’t allow it but in the future it’s possible that we will.”
Standard Liege’s frustrations reflect what Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell told the club’s annual meeting in November, when he optimistically discussed UEFA’s changing stance.
“It’s very early days, I emphasise that, but what they are beginning to realise is that there is a huge chasm between the top leagues and smaller leagues in Europe. What they are thinking is that maybe one solution, maybe, is that smaller nations could form regional leagues that allow them to have bigger markets and therefore bigger media rights and close the gap slightly.”
Rangers’ chief executive Charles Green has also been predictably swift to talk up the possibilities.
“I’m excited,” he said last month. “Not just because I managed to pick Rangers up at a very, very low price, but the whole model of football is changing. We’re looking at cross-border leagues. There’s change out there and it’s coming now.”
Green was getting way ahead of himself. UEFA’s say-so sunk the proposed Atlantic League more than a decade ago and if they are more receptive to such tournaments now that certainly carries some significance. But UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino has talked of cross-border leagues being relevant to “those who are more geographically aligned, like the Nordics and Balkans”.
Geographical alignment must, crucially, meet mutual enthusiasm, and in this respect Celtic and Rangers’ ambitions seem no closer to being realised. Barclays Premier League clubs have never shown the Old Firm that they want them, or feel their own commercial monster would benefit from their inclusion. Premier league chief executive Richard Scudamore has been on a world tour of their markets. Celtic and Rangers were not mentioned. Around 40% of premier league income derives from Asia, where the Old Firm has no relevance. The likelihood of them taking a vast travelling support would be of no significance: top-flight English attendances stand at 95% of capacity. Scudamore respectfully sees no need for them and – notwithstanding the historical anomaly of Swansea City’s involvement – regards his league as a championship to determine England’s best club.
Could Celtic or Rangers enter via admittance to, and eventually promotion from, the English Football League? In theory, yes, but crucially there has never been any collective interest or will from English football to take them. All those nations investigating cross-border championships are doing so because of shared frustrations and disadvantages which do not exist among English clubs. Why would 72 clubs vote to admit two massive clubs which would instantly reduce their own prospects of reaching the top flight?
UEFA’s softening objections could mean they would not stand in the way of an Atlantic League if anyone could be bothered resurrecting that half-baked plan, but that’s not what the Old Firm want. The reality is that their frustration shows no sign of being relieved. For all the impression tectonic plates are moving across Europe, they are not bringing England any closer.