“I’ve long maintained that the Old Firm need to break out of the Scottish league for the benefit of all involved – to keep the two big clubs competitive at a pan-European level (by having access to serious TV money, basically) and to re-introduce the notion of competition to the Scottish league – without the OF there would be an engaging tussle for the championship, with not much separating top from bottom.

PSV chairman Harry van Raay had the genesis of a solution a few years back with his “Atlantic League” (or given that he’s Dutch maybe it was the “Atlaantic League”). This recognised the fact that the “Scottish situation” is happening all over the smaller nations in Europe – in each of Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, Norway there are two or three teams that dominate, and because of structural factors these teams are increasingly less competitive in the Champions League and, to a lesser extent, the UEFA Cup.

The Atlantic League would have taken these teams out of their domestic league competition and placed them in a league of their own; this would have the status of a Serie A or Premiership, consisting of the likes of Ajax, PSV, Brugge, Anderlecht, Porto, Benfica, Rangers, Rosenborg, Celtic…

The plan was shot down because UEFA, in their infinite wisdom, fail to see the problem; and more justifiably because this league would be a closed-shop: no way for up-and-coming teams to get in, or down-and-outs to be pushed, well, down and out.

My proposed solution would be to have the bottom two or three teams engage in a playoff (details TBD – either a knockout or mini-league) against the champions of the various ‘feeder’ leagues; this would ensure, say, Hearts could get in at the expense of, say, Sporting Lisbon. Thus the composition of the Atlantic League would change nationality over time, and good teams would get in on merit.

[Taking this even further, this model could be introduced to other regions in Europe – say, the Balkans/Greece/Turkey; Central/Eastern Europe; possibly Scandinavia on its own. Thus the big countries have their own league, and smaller nations band together to form leagues of comparable weight – as measured in TV audience, or TV dollars.]”

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I wrote that in 2004 and I stand by every word.

The Atlantic League idea has been back in the news again, with Dutch FA President Michael von Praaj taking the lead in re-floating the idea.  Like Obama’s healthcare plan, details have been thin on the ground, allowing reactionary opposition to criticise anything they care to make up about the proposal.  Given the dire state of Scottish football (Rangers FC 1, Borat FC 4) I am shocked by the strength of opposition among the Scottish hackerati, who are dismissive and cynical of the idea without offering up any viable alternative or credible defence of the status quo.  A particularly ill-informed “anti” rant from the normally reasonable Mark McGhee was the most surprising and had me choking on my protein shake on Sunday.

As I see it, there are only a handful of scenarios that could play out.

At one end, the dismal end, the end that has a noose on the other end with my neck in it, is the status quo.  For the next hundred years, Rangers and Celtic alternate the Scottish championship; they will be big fish in a small pond; or maybe shrinking fish in a pond that’s shrinking faster than them, giving the illusion of growth.  If nothing happens, we’re all staring down into this abyss, and it’s deeper than Loch Ness.  The outcome is a second-tier league with no-one at the top table and no hope of any Scottish teams getting there.  All our best players go south, and I don’t mean to Dumfries.

At the other end is a full-on European League; the Champions League replacing national championships.  But does anyone really want this?  Because once we have it, what becomes of the Champions League?  No more ‘special’ European nights… and even the most cynical Kenyon of the world can’t want to commodify his “product” that much.

In between, the Lawwell solution: Rangers and Celtic join the EPL, or the EPL2, or somewhere down the English pyramid (the longer we wait, the further down it will be).  The EPL becomes, in practice, the British Isles League; it would only be a matter of time before Dublin and Belfast manage to drum up some sort of representative team and enter as well, and maybe Cork or some other Irish city gets a go.  Cardiff could well be in the EPL this time next year, anyway.

So, Rule Britannia!  However the thought depresses me.  I know for many (most?) fans outside the Old Firm it’s a joyous thought – but I believe it’s short-term thinking.  What happens when, say, Hibs become the top dogs in Scottish football and want to move up somewhere?  Do they beg for membership to the EPL, or EPL2, or 3?  Do they end up being a big fish in the Nor Loch?  Not a great prospect.  There’s nowhere for them to go, and we’re back to square one.

Which brings us to the Atlantic League.  If it’s done right, it can work well; it has to offer promotion and relegation into national leagues, to avoid the concentration of wealth and power that continues to condense the competitiveness of football across Europe.  It should offer strong teams from national leagues an entry point, to maintain a meritocracy; and it should co-exist with the UEFA competitions, not supplant them.  If it’s done badly, then we’ll simply have another franchise league, that will have a certain shelf-life before becoming more stale ‘product’.

Like Obama’s health plan, it may take time to get the details in place and to come to the right conclusion – but for the good of everyone involved, it has to happen, and soon.

Comments

  1. For perhaps the first time, I disagree with you. In fact McGhee raises a lot of good points. Basically this idea comes around every time there is a gap in the Scottish football calendar. In fact Von Praaj has now come out and said he never supported the idea. Do you think the Scottish press might have made up the story so they could shoot it down and sell a few papers?

    I don’t disagree in principle Billy. The problem is the details. No one is putting together a proposal that would work. The summer/winter league issue is a huge problem. You either get Portugal or Greece games in summer or Norway/ Denmark games in winter. Can’t happen.

    And as for promotion/relegation tbd, what happens if Rangers and Celtic both get relegated to be replaced by Dutch teams? (if there was relegation in European rugby the Scottish teams would be in the Faroes by now). Even now there doesn’t seem to be too much interest in the Europa League, which is essentially a wee teams champions league.

    I don’t know. Give me some more details and maybe I’ll support it.

  2. Some good points. I like a challenge so I thought I’d try and come up with some actual details. But I don’t like the idea of joining English leagues.  Cap in hand etc.
    I take the point about Scandinavian leagues playing in summer so let’s forget them. Norway is too expensive anyway. My proposal is for a league including teams from Scotland, Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. Let’s stick with the name Atlantic League.

    2 things first. This would not replace the CL, it would replace the games in the national league. These teams need the CL so there would be a system to ensure entry into CL and UEFA cup (or Europa League)

    Ok 16 teams, initially 4 from each country. Home and away. 28 games with a winter break. For initial representaion in Atlantic league from Scotland it would be whoever finishes in top 4 this season.(eg Rangers, Celtic, Hibs, Hearts) 

    Promotion/Relegation
    It needs to happen. I propose bottom 4 teams are in danger of relagation and face a home and away playoff. But no more than 2 teams from any one country. So it could be 2 Belgian and 2 Scottish. They would play off against the 4 champions from each country. Teams would play their own country champions where possible to ensure that there is always at least one representative from each nation in the league.
    (eg Hibs v Scottish champs, Hearts v Dutch champs, Bruges v Belgian champs, Anderlecht v Portugal champs)

    After a few years it’s possible there could be 5 or 6 or 7 (need to have a maximum) teams from one country inthe league but that’s fair enough. As long as there is always one, you have tv interest I that country.

    Keep national cup competitions too.   

    Champions League places
    As I understand it, the national organizations nominate the teams so they’d nominate according to their finishing places in Atlantic league. So if Celtic finished above Rangers, they would go to CL.

    If successful, expansion would be for an Atlantic league 2. Another 16 teams from the same countries. Having a rule that there must be one team from each member country in the top league, is the only major problem I see, but that team would only get replaced by the winner of their country’s national league so it’s not like they have a free ride. 

    It’s also a model that could be used by other groups of countries eg Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland or Austria, Switzerland, Czech Rep and Hungary.

    The key is to have it complement the Champions League. Maybe even ditch Europa and expand Champions League at same time. 

    And all games at weekends to make it easier for fans to travel. And there can be Friday night and Saturday night games. Fortunately Im not subjected to British Saturday night telly anymore but surely watching or going to a game in Euorope on a Saturday night is better than this x factor thing everyone is on about. 
      

  3. Wouldnt happen. Old Firm dont give a shit about other teams in the Scottish league. Why would they give the “wee teams” an opportunity to get bigger on their coat tails. They’ll go to the English league and be just another mid to bottom table team like Newcastle, Sunderland, Bolton etc. And Scottish football will get even worse.