“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.]”
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.