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When Champions League Cash Tilts the Playing Field

When Champions League Cash Tilts the Playing Field


The pressure, then, is overwhelming, in part because the circumstances are so rare. Most of the time, even by this stage of the season, Olympiacos already has tied up the championship. A few years ago, it won the league by 27 points. The scale of its dominance is staggering: It has claimed the Greek championship every year since 2010, and in 19 of the last 21 seasons.

Every year — until this year — Olympiacos has seemed to pull a little farther ahead. Every championship means another year in the Champions League, another multimillion-dollar payday from UEFA, another set of signings its supposed rivals cannot hope to match. It is locked into a cycle that almost guarantees success.

Sotirios Michalatos, a fan sheltering inside the Olympiacos team shop before the A.E.K. game, said supporters welcome the occasional challenge from teams like A.E.K., as well as PAOK Salonika, from the north of the country. They can afford to, safe in the knowledge that, eventually, the pretenders will fall away.

“We expect,” he said, “to win the title every year.”

Winning Before the Start

Across Europe, more and more leagues are starting to resemble Greece. Though no team can quite match the length of Olympiacos’ hegemony, an increasing number of domestic competitions are starting to turn into the playgrounds and playthings of one all-powerful club.

In the Belarusian Premier League, BATE Borisov has won 12 titles in a row. In Switzerland, Basel has swept the last eight. In Bulgaria and Scotland, Ludogorets Razgrad and Celtic have been untouchable for six. In Croatia, Rijeka won the championship last year. But the previous 11 had all gone to Dinamo Zagreb.

These are no longer title races. They are now simply processions, their result almost preordained, entire seasons stripped of drama and intrigue.

“It is not good for any league in the world if one team always wins,” said Kostas Katsouranis. Now retired, Katsouranis, 38, spent his career competing against Olympiacos, forlornly. He played for all of its rivals: A.E.K., PAOK and its foe in the game known as the Derby of the Immortal Enemies, Panathinaikos. That none of those teams could keep up, he said, is down largely to one thing: the distorting effect of the Champions League.

Over the last five years, Olympiacos has received more than $125 million from its Champions League appearances. Basel has brought in $68 million. BATE, thanks to three appearances in the group stage, has earned $50 million, and Dinamo Zagreb $55 million.

By the standards of the Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga, these are not vast sums, sometimes less than the cost of a single new player. But in Belarus, Croatia, Greece and Switzerland, they are a fortune. Financially, no other domestic club can hope to compete and so, as a result, few can come close on the field.

“It is a huge head-start,” said Traianos Dellas, formerly of A.E.K. and Greece, and now coaching Panetolikos, one of Greece’s more modest clubs. “It is a mountain to climb for every other team.”

The problem is not that a team is rewarded for its success — that is only natural — but in the aggregate effect. The prize money for making the Champions League group stage makes success the following year more likely. Over several seasons, it makes it all but certain. The money serves to establish, and then entrench, a dynasty.

In the last five years, only one other team from Greece, Belarus, Croatia and Switzerland has received any meaningful prize money from the Champions League: Young Boys, of Bern, which made $3.7 million. UEFA makes so-called solidarity payments drawn from its massive Champions League television income to other teams in those leagues, but the amounts are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars: a drop in the ocean compared to the giants’ direct earnings, and nothing at all when indirect benefits are included.

“Money from the Champions League has allowed BATE, for many years, to feel confident in the Belarusian market,” said Nikolay Hodasevich, a sports presenter for the broadcaster Belarus 5. “The club could annually buy the best young players in the country, develop them and sell them on to Russia or to Europe.”

It is a business plan that has been perfected by Dinamo Zagreb, for so long Croatia’s perennial champion. Dinamo’s “core business,” said Aleksandar Holiga, the editor of the Croatian website Telesport, “is not football, but developing talent for sale.”

“Dinamo does everything to win the league and try to reach the Champions League group stage, the cash cow,” Holiga said. The aim, once there, is not necessarily to qualify for the knockout rounds, but to use the exposure to promote the club’s rising young stars on the big stage.

Soon enough, a club from one of Europe’s cash-soaked major leagues will be coaxed into an offer, giving Dinamo an even greater financial advantage over its rivals. Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Mateo Kovacic, among many others, have taken this route.

“Dinamo has been able to live off UEFA prize money and big transfers,” Holiga said. The income has been so great that — until last year — all of its rivals simply were swept into its wake.

The Feeder Formula

When Christoph Spycher was appointed sporting director at the Swiss club Young Boys in 2016, he realized there was only one way to try to close the gap on Basel. His club could not count on Champions League revenue, he decided, but it could try to mimic the competition’s benefits.

“In the previous years, the club had tried a lot of different approaches,” he said. “It had made big investments in experienced players, but it had never reached its goal.”

The solution, in his eyes, was simple. Young Boys would focus on signing, developing and selling young players, matching Basel as a profit-generating hothouse of talent. If Young Boys could make money in the transfer market, the proceeds could be reinvested in the team, and Basel’s financial advantage might be minimized.

It was, at first, a little controversial. All but a handful of senior players were sold. The club had to be “courageous,” Spycher said, as well as committed to Adi Hutter, its Austrian coach, who preaches a high-intensity, adventurous style. Spycher revamped the scouting operation, instructing it to look specifically for players who could meet Hutter’s demands, and hired a raft of youth coaches to develop homegrown talent.

The effects have been impressive. When Switzerland’s league season reached its halfway point — and its winter break — Young Boys sat top of the table, raising hopes that Basel might be dethroned as champion for the first time since 2009. “Last year, there was not much tension in the league,” Spycher said. “Basel was 15 or 16 points ahead of us, and we were 12 or 13 points ahead of third.” This year, he said, things are “more interesting.”

There is a whiff of similar change in Croatia, Greece and Belarus. Holiga said that he believes Rijeka’s success in Croatia last year was a one-off affair, but pointed to the revival at youth level of Hajduk Split, the country’s other power, as a sign of promise. A.E.K. is back in Greece’s top flight after several years of hardship and financial crisis, some of it perhaps brought on by rash decisions prompted by the need to try to close the gap on a runaway rival, but less than a week after its cup tie it beat Olympiacos to leapfrog its rival in the table. Hodasevich said the stunning climax to last season’s title — when only a 95th-minute equalizer on the final day extended BATE’s title streak — was “encouraging” for all of Belarus.

Беларусбанк – Высшая лига. Городея – БАТЭ Video by Беларуская федэрацыя футбола

What has brought those changes about is complex, and multifaceted. In Belarus, Croatia and Switzerland, the lesser lights have started to shine. In Greece, Olympiacos, with its owner facing trial on match-fixing charges, has uncharacteristically stumbled.

The effect, though, is the same: relief at just a glimmer of hope for everyone else in leagues that had grown stale.

For most teams in Belarus, attendances have been locked in steep decline: most clubs, said Hodasevich, have “failed to take a huge problem seriously.” Instead of going to watch relatively low-quality soccer with an ultimately predictable outcome, the public prefers handball or ice hockey, the cinema or theater, or simply to watch “the best leagues in the world on the internet,” he said.

In Switzerland, Spycher picks up on the same issue. “Football, across Europe, is moving to the extremes,” he said. Fans, especially young ones, are more tempted to watch Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on television than a local league that is determined on the balance sheet, not the field.

The fear — for UEFA, in particular — is that as these smaller leagues have recently begun to show signs of competitive life, Europe’s grandest stages are starting to go the other way.

In Italy, Juventus has won the last six championships. Bayern Munich is on course to land a sixth Bundesliga title in a row. Paris Saint-Germain hopes to establish a similar dynasty in France. Each has seen its appeal boosted, its squad strengthened, its primacy reinforced, by the promise of the Champions League.

According to data gathered by 21st Club, a soccer analytics consultancy, the number of points per game accrued by champions in Europe’s four biggest leagues — England, Spain, Germany and Italy — has been steadily growing in recent years, a sign of a metastasizing dominance.

In the Bundesliga, for example, the champion earned 2.13 points per game between 2005 and 2008. In the last three seasons, it has picked up 2.49. The pattern is the same in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga. Here, too, success is not just breeding success, but starting to guarantee it.

They know — in Greece and Switzerland, in Belarus and Croatia and the rest — where this leads: first, to falling attendances, then to dwindling interest, and finally domination bleeding into dynasty, likely lasting for a decade or more.

Across Europe, the most glamorous races are turning into processions. Olympiacos, BATE, Basel and Dinamo Zagreb are no longer exceptions, small-town tyrants in second-rate leagues. They are the trailblazers for soccer’s new future.





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