ZURICH (Reuters) - European soccer’s governing body UEFA has long led the opposition to the global game’s boss Sepp Blatter, so it’s no surprise that its officials have taken the moral high ground as corruption scandals brought the FIFA president down.
UEFA president Michel Platini, a former player who describes himself as a romantic, says the goings on at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters turn his stomach.
But UEFA has critics of its own, who say its policies have showered wealth on a handful of super-teams in a handful of rich leagues, while draining competition from the sport.
For all its scandal-plagued image, FIFA, which distributes revenue equally among its member nations, does a better job of promoting soccer away from the mainstream. Blatter’s rein, whatever his flaws, saw unprecedented success for soccer in poor countries, especially in Africa.
In Europe under Platini’s eight-year leadership, meanwhile, it is the rich who have done best, with football becoming more unequal than ever.
The Champions League, UEFA’s flagship competition, is dominated by the same few clubs year after year, thanks to a financial system which critics say has a snowball effect.
Three clubs - Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich - have each missed the competition’s final four just once in the last six seasons.
“It is a two-speed football with an increasingly unbridgeable gap separating the ultra-elite of the wealthiest ones and the remaining 99 percent of clubs,” said Jerome Champagne, a former senior FIFA official who launched an unsuccessful bid against Blatter for the FIFA presidency.
European football, he says, is now divided by “a financial iron curtain”.
To some extent, FIFA and UEFA represent opposite philosophies of soccer with opposite aims. The global body seeks to spread the game to the far-flung corners of the world. The European body promotes it back home on the continent where it is already most entrenched.
FIFA’s corruption scandal has laid bare the risks of its approach. By giving an equal vote to all 209 member countries, it handed outsized power to officials from tiny countries where little soccer is played, like Trinidad’s Jack Warner, indicted in the United States on corruption charges and whose two sons have already pleaded guilty.
But UEFA’s policies foster the opposite problem: money and power are steered to precisely the clubs and leagues that are already the most established.
UEFA splits 75 percent of revenue from its European club competitions among the clubs that play in them. Around half is channeled through the so-called market pool, “distributed according to the proportional value of each television market represented by the clubs playing in the UEFA Champions League,” according to UEFA.
As a result, in the 2013/14 competition, Italian club Juventus received nearly 32 million euros ($36 million) from three games played in the group stage. Czech champions Viktoria Plzen played the same number of games but received just 1.5 million euros.
Little surprise then that only four countries have provided Champions League finalists since 2005: Spain, Germany, England and Italy.
Even once-proud clubs from other European leagues, such as Ajax Amsterdam from the Netherlands and Benfica and Porto from Portugal, now act as feeders for clubs from the big four, developing young players and then selling them on.
Domestic leagues suffer because the windfall from playing in the Champions League makes top teams harder to unseat. FC Basel have won Switzerland’s league title six times in succession; Maribor have won five straight Slovenian titles and Dinamo Zagreb clinched Croatia’s for the tenth year in a row.
“What makes football and sport magical is ... the uncertainty of the result, and we have less and less uncertainty these days,” said Champagne. “In some countries we already know at the beginning of the season who will win the league.”
For players, the gap has grown between the gaudy riches of the top leagues and a tough life elsewhere. FIFPro, the world players union, says that in countries outside the mainstream it is common for players to go without pay, and be fined or sacked if they complain.
UEFA’s break-even rule, a flagship of Platini’s adminstration, further reduces the chances of smaller clubs making it to the top by restricting their right to spend more than they take in. Devised to stop rich owners buying success by splurging on top players, it forces smaller clubs to sell stars to bigger rivals.
“What you do is actually protect the few who already have the things geared up to create enough revenue for them to invest more than anyone else,” Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany, a Belgian international, told the Sunday Telegraph.
Meanwhile, other continents look on as their best players are snapped up by rich European clubs, where they sometimes languish on the substitutes bench.
“The pervading view seems to be that we live in a world of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, and that Europe is growing rich at the expense of significant parts of the rest of the world,” said Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports business strategy at Britain’s Coventry University.
Editing by Peter Graff