After some horse-trading towards the end of last week, involving a reluctant Spartak Moscow, a huge step was taken on Monday towards establishing a Unified Football Championship across former-Soviet countries. 14 Russian clubs met a representative club from the Ukrainian league in Moscow, with Ukrainian clubs now due a corresponding meeting.
The event was hosted by Gazprom deputy chairman, Alexei Miller, an ally of Vladimir Putin, who afterwards briefed Russian media and indicated Uefa were aware of their plans.
Miller said, “We think it is realistic to hold the championship from the autumn of 2014 to the spring of 2015, but if the time to reach agreements drags on, we plan to hold the championship from autumn 2015 to spring 2016.
“Since a championship like this is a complicated diplomatic matter, we have decided to initiate the championship initially with Ukraine only.
“In the future, if everything works out, we will be able to co-opt clubs from the other countries in the post-Soviet territories, but that’s the next step. All former-Soviet countries would be eligible to join.”
Show me the money
Gazprom sponsor the Uefa Champions League and are keen to sponsor the new league. Miller was clear that money would drive the change, promising annual sponsorship of €1 billion, which in world football is (a close) second only to the value of the next FA Premier League TV contract.
Uefa Financial Fair Play requirements make change, of some sort, inevitable in Russia and Ukraine. Leading clubs there are heavily subsidised by benefactors and, unless they manage to considerably improve their income, they will have to either get rid of all their expensive players, or forgo European competition.
As things stand, the sums don’t add up but money from a Unified Football Championship would allow clubs in Russia and Ukraine to meet Uefa Financial Fair Play requirements and compete with major leagues in the west. Gazprom have the seed cash and political influence, both domestically and at Uefa, to oil the wheels.
In 2005 Uefa sanctioned the Royal League in Scandinavia between the top four clubs from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, but the initiative was poorly organised and perished three years later due to a lack of a TV deal.
After this experiment several clubs across Europe started lobbying to extend the strategy to other leagues which were disenfranchised by a lack of competition or TV income. The principle was further confirmed by Michel Platini and the Uefa Executive Committee in March last year, when they approved a three year probationary period for the BeNe League, which combined top women’s teams from Belgium and the Netherlands, the first season of which is now underway.
The Committee stated at the time that, subject to a satisfactory outcome of the BeNe experiment, other cross-border leagues would be considered by the Executive Committee if all stakeholders (national associations, leagues and clubs) came to agreement on a way forward.
The former-Soviet countries are now motivated to regionalise. The Scandinavians have understood the potential of regionalisation for years but didn’t get it right (they retained national leagues which determined European qualification, the Royal League was effectively a friendly competition). The Belgians and Dutch have a pan-national league already underway, while the former-Yugoslav countries have discussed implementing the same for a couple of years now.
Wales and England have the longest-established regionalised league system in the world.
Meanwhile…………. at a national stadium near you, the only change on the agenda is whether to have three lower leagues or two.
Scottish football is fully aware the viability of many clubs is at a critical level, but have singularly failed to present the vision evident elsewhere in Europe. Whatever world-class technical, stadium and coaching resources we have is being squandered by unambitious leadership.
Months into deliberations Scottish football is only addressing how to slice up an ever-smaller pie. The enormous increase in income possible from regionalisation to SPL clubs, and what trickles-down to the lower leagues, dos not seem to have registered.
Hard cash can focus minds..
Spartak Moscow owner, Leonid Fedun, was highly critical of plans for the new league and insisted he would not attend Monday’s meeting but after doing so he said, “When I heard the budget per year was €1 billion I changed my mind and decided to attend. You can’t miss a chance to be the part of that game.”
Football across Europe is set for change, a fact a great deal of the UK media seem to have missed.
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