Why European Soccer Is Damned and Thrilling at the Same Time
The European soccer season is almost done and dusted. The domestic leagues have been won and the trophies handed out. In an exciting climax to the German Bundesliga, Bayern Munich won the championship for the seventh season in a row. In Italy, Juventus—the Old Lady of Turin—won its eighth consecutive Serie A title. Barcelona, guided by a bearded Lionel Messi, who has entered an even more extreme, mesmeric phase as the world’s greatest player, won La Liga for the fourth time in five years, and Paris Saint-Germain became the champions of France for the sixth time in seven. In the English Premier League (E.P.L.), which is the richest competition in world soccer—and is traditionally more unpredictable than some of its counterparts in mainland Europe—Manchester City won the title for the second year in succession, as well as England’s two cup competitions, making it the first club to win all three major domestic honors.
Now only two major European matches are left: the final of the Champions League, soccer’s most prestigious club tournament, on Saturday evening, in Madrid, and the final of the Europa League, its junior version, on Wednesday evening, in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Whether by chance or because of the sheer, unremitting financial power of the E.P.L., both finals this year will be all-English affairs, with Liverpool taking on Tottenham Hotspur, in the Champions League, and Arsenal up against Chelsea, in the Europa League. It’s as if the summit of the sport has been reduced to the status of an English playoff, with the winners recognized as runners-up to Manchester City, which everyone knows is the best.
It is a paradox of the world’s greatest sport that its results have become so boring. I, you—anyone with even a passing interest in soccer—can safely predict the winners of four out of Europe’s five biggest leagues next season, before this one is even over. Yet, despite these diminished conditions, last month’s Champions League semifinals produced two of the best matches in recent memory. As my colleague, Ed Caesar, recounted, first Liverpool beat Barcelona 4–0, overturning a three-goal deficit from the first encounter, in Spain; then, the following evening, Tottenham Hotspur came from two goals behind to beat Ajax, of Amsterdam. The games were thrilling, open, and charged. When Tottenham won, right at the death, the Ajax players collapsed on the turf, as if they had been felled by a higher power.
It’s hard to tell whether games of this quality happen by coincidence—a last flickering before the sport becomes entirely routine—or as a result of the steady distilling of money and talent into a tiny group of top teams. The E.P.L. season was dominated by an unrelenting contest between Manchester City and Liverpool. Both teams had spent lavishly. Since the summer of 2017, Liverpool, the underdogs, have paid more than four hundred million dollars in transfer fees to acquire new players. And they drove each other to new heights. It was like watching Rafael Nadal against Roger Federer in 2008. The two teams finished twenty-five points above everybody else. To claim the title, City won fourteen games in a row. In their penultimate match, against an obdurate Leicester City, the game was drifting toward a draw, with twenty minutes left, when Vincent Kompany, Manchester City’s long-serving captain and defender, lashed a preposterous, swerving shot into the top corner. “It’s hard to over-achieve with a team as good as we have,” Kompany said, a week later, when the title was secured. “It was ridiculous.”
Earlier this year, I spent two days talking with Rui Pinto, the young Portuguese fan behind Football Leaks, a whistle-blowing platform that, since 2015, has revealed widespread tax evasion and financial craziness in European soccer. Pinto came of age during the European economic crisis, and he despairs of the unchecked wealth and power that has massed at the top of the sport. He’s also a supporter of F.C. Porto, the last team outside Europe’s four big leagues (in Germany, Spain, Italy, and England) to win the Champions League, fifteen years ago. Pinto is a complicated character, but he is also an authentic voice for millions of European soccer fans, who feel increasingly alienated by the unstoppable excellence of the richest teams. He is convinced that the game is in a bubble, after which it will be reformed by strict spending rules and other changes to make it more competitive. “I think most of real football fans want this,” Pinto told me. “But I doubt that will happen in the next few years. Maybe that can happen after football starts to collapse.”
Such a collapse is hard to imagine. The structural forces driving the popularity and prosperity of European soccer are immense and growing. The Champions League final will be watched by a TV audience of around four hundred million people. Since 2017, UEFA, which administers European competitions, and the E.P.L. have both signed deals to stream matches on Facebook. (In the next three years, the E.P.L. will receive around two hundred and fifty million dollars to stream games to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.) The money propelling the European élite is not coming from their fans. This season’s E.P.L. title race between Manchester City and Liverpool was paid for by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, and the Fenway Sports Group, owners of the Boston Red Sox. As the sport’s revenues become increasingly global, it is the brands—the winning clubs—that sell.
To compensate for the fact that this is a shrinking group, ways must be found to share them around the world. Hence Wednesday’s Europa League spectacle in Azerbaijan. The game will kick off at eleven local time, in Baku, twenty-five hundred miles from London, where both Arsenal and Chelsea are based. The Olympic Stadium, in the Azeri capital, has a capacity of sixty-eight thousand seats, but only twelve thousand tickets were given to the clubs involved, leaving plenty of room for the sport’s global V.I.P.s. British fans have had to apply for visas; one of Arsenal’s more experienced players, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is from Armenia, will miss the match because there are no diplomatic relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which is ranked a hundred and sixty-sixth on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index—above Yemen, below Somalia. “I remember some people saying we would not need a big venue like the Olympic Stadium when the construction was underway,” President Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since 2003, said, when the final was awarded to Baku.
It all makes for a dizzying moment. When I was reporting my story about Pinto, I spoke to a number of agents, club officials, and lawyers at the top levels of European soccer. They all spoke of the commercial possibilities that remain untapped. “We haven’t reached the sky yet,” one told me. But, at the same time, they know that something is wrong. Last month, Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, accused Manchester City of ruining soccer, because of its access to the seemingly limitless oil wealth of Abu Dhabi. “This is no longer sport,” Tebas said. “This is no longer an industry.” Because of Pinto’s disclosures, Manchester City is currently facing a possible ban from the Champions League.
Yet the president of UEFA, Alexander Čeferin, who will decide the club’s fate, told Der Spiegel, the German news magazine that has led the Football Leaks reporting, that he was happy with the competition as it is. “Football is the only European product which is the best in the world in its field by some distance,” Ceferin said. He also defended the decision to host the final in Baku. “There are people who live there who love football,” he said. Even with their measly allocations, Arsenal and Chelsea have reportedly returned thousands of unsold tickets for the match, as fans have decided to watch the game at home, in London. It will probably be a classic.