sports blog by andy shenk

The Difference Between a Billion Dollars

In Anzhi, Dagestan, Russian Football on April 12, 2013 at 9:39 PM

Published at Some People On The Pitch. I look at two Russian clubs, Krasnodar and Anzhi, and the massive effort they are making to help break up Russian football hegemony. Click here or at the bottom of this excerpt to read the entire article. 

Grasping, greedy football projects litter the globe. Almost every country has at least one, offering insight into the ambitions of its owner as well as the political and cultural values of the place. Major League Soccer, the audacious North American experiment in ‘soccer’ commercialization, offers an entire miniature army of football ventures. Elsewhere, football may be centralised in one or two elite clubs, monopolies intended to dominate.

Egypt’s Al Ahly and Zamalek, Turkey’s Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray, Moldovan Sheriff, Cypriot giants APOEL and Anorthosis Famagusta, BATE Borisov and Dinamo Minsk of Belarus, Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor – these are just a few examples.

Al Ahly have won an astounding 36 of 54 Egyptian league titles since 1949. Until 2010, when Bursaspor finished one point ahead of Fenerbahce in the Super Lig, Trabzonspor had been the only non-Istanbul club to ever take home the Turkish title. Real Madrid and Barcelona dwarf Spain’s La Liga, sharing 53 championships over just 81 years.

There are plenty of reasons to explain why success is often limited to a handful of lucky clubs. For most of the 20th century, authoritarian governments were known to promote certain teams above the rest. Real Madrid enjoyed the favour of the Franco administration; Steaua Bucuresti had the personal support of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980s, when it won five consecutive domestic titles. In the Soviet Union, the Top League consisted primarily of clubs from regional centres – Minsk, Kiev, Yerevan, Vilnius, Tbilisi, Baku, Moscow – each promoted by their local government to represent the republic.

Major metropolises also tend to attract the most dominant clubs more organically. With most of a nation’s wealth centralized in cities such as Nicosia, Cairo, Istanbul, Moscow, football clubs based there have the best chance of attracting talent, fans, and sponsors.

Moscow, one of the world’s five largest cities, provides stark proof of the control a metropolis can exert over domestic football, even in a nation as large and wealthy as Russia. During the Soviet period, Moscow clubs won the league title 61% of the time. That figure has risen to 70% since the break-up of the USSR. Even worse for provincials seeking a breakthrough, Moscow currently features four Premier League clubs, Spartak, Dinamo, CSKA, Lokomotiv, with another four teams from Moscow and the surrounding province having reached the top level in the last 20 years – Khimki, Moscow, Saturn and Torpedo.

In recent decades, money has given elite clubs an almost unbeatable advantage. Though British football lists 23 different league champions dating back to 1889, global brand Manchester United has won 12 titles since 1993, with a 13th in 2013 all but guaranteed. Since Atletico Bilbao won its last La Liga title in 1984, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the world’s two most valuable clubs according to Forbes, have split 23 of 27 championships.

The Champions League, though remarkably competitive on its own, is little more than a thinly-veiled welfare program for Europe’s wealthiest clubs, helping to ensure their dominance domestically with annual cash infusions.

Football inequity, particularly for fans that grow up cheering on the local, provincial club, can be maddening. There’s one simple reason for why Barcelona has 41 million-plus ‘likes’ on Facebook and Real Zaragoza, despite playing in the same league, counts only 20 thousand. Barcelona wins a lot more football matches.

Germany and England may be the only countries in the world where supposedly second-rate clubs receive nearly the same level of support as the elite outfits. With the two most popular football leagues in the world, averaging 45,000 and 35,000 fans per game respectively, attendance in the nations’ second divisions jumps out even more. The Bundesliga 2 and Football League Championship bring in about 17,000 fans per game, just slightly below attendance in the top divisions of Chinese, Dutch, American, French and Argentinian football.

It’s not that football is that much more popular with Germans and Brits than it is with Spaniards, Argentinians, or Italians. No, these nations are at the top thanks in part to economic prosperity, but, more importantly, clever marketing and invested club ownership.

With England and Germany marching steadily down two different paths, successful in their own ways – global marketing and star power VS fan investment and club loyalty – Russian football hopes to forge its own identity, one that will popularise the domestic game, build up the national team and perhaps somewhat loosen Moscow’s iron grip on the sport.

Continue reading at Some People On The Pitch.

  1. Great points Andy! You would really like the book ”Soccernomics”. It explores some of the ideas you have talked about

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