The Case for the Atlantic League
Before we get into the details of the article I want to stress that I am a traditionalist. I like football the way it was intended, 1 country with a footballing pyramid where people support the local side and people of all backgrounds are able to attend. This means that the entire idea that I am speaking on pains me entirely (especially as my club would not be dealt a favourable hand by it). I am however, also a pragmatist and understand that football is changing, so we need to embrace that change to ensure a favourable end result.
There have been murmurings of dissent within the football world after changes announced regarding Champions League qualification. These rule changes will see Champions League qualification change so that the top 4 leagues will have 4 teams automatically qualify for the group stages. These changes, as well as rumours that the big clubs are seeking a ‘closed shop’ Champions League, have spurred clubs from nations that have been left behind by broadcast money to seek alternative routes to keep themselves relevant on the European stage.
One such alternative route is the idea of the “Atlantic League’, a model which is essentially a poor man’s Champions League where the top teams from Scotland, Scandinavia, Holland, and Belgium play against each other and are pulled out of their domestic competitions in order to participate in the Atlantic League.
Why a new model?
Given that the proposed idea of a ‘second champions league’ with these nations is flawed, as the complete lack of prestige surrounding the Europa League demonstrates, other ideas are necessary…one such idea is a ‘Super League’ where clubs like Celtic and Ajax contest a league instead of their own domestic leagues.
The primary concern with this style Atlantic League is that by permanently removing the best few teams from that many countries, several domestic leagues are being completely eviscerated. The clubs leaving would be doing to their own domestic leagues that exact thing they claim is being done to them by the ‘big 4’.
Given how many clubs in these countries in recent years have been living on or close to the breadline, losing the country’s best clubs and the loss of revenue that would surely follow would be too much for many of these clubs. I’m sure having a series of clubs go under is not a desirable outcome for UEFA, FIFA, the countries themselves, or indeed the communities that these clubs are from. This new model, whilst not perfect, seeks to ameliorate many of the concerns that these clubs have whilst simultaneously ensuring that the majority of clubs in the host nations also benefit.
The model being proposed in this article is, instead of pulling a handful of clubs to form a mini ‘super league’, the complete integration of the footballing pyramids of the countries in question. This idea does perhaps initially sound fanciful, strange, or even outright mad; however if you bear with it, it will make much more sense upon contemplation. This would enable clubs from the new league to provide serious, and genuine competition with current European giants from the top 4 leagues.
Ideas are already being discussed, FC Copenhagen’s chairman said “If we do not act now, we will see the biggest clubs grow larger and stronger while it will be increasingly difficult for clubs like us”. “We must therefore look at alternative international opportunities for FCK in the future”. Given that the appetite for change is already there, it just needs an idea that can be grasped.
What does complete integration mean?
Rather than 1 sealed and isolated league made up of these teams, it instead means a footballing pyramid made up of a mix of teams from all 6 countries. The reason this change is necessary is because it keeps intact what we love about football: the battle for promotion, the struggle against relegation, but most of all hope; the hope that with hard work and determination clubs can achieve something better.
The pyramid would have 3-4 leagues of complete integration (much like the English pyramid) before it splits off into regional (read: country based) leagues the lower it goes down to foster sustainability. Whilst it may appear that Aberdeen to Amsterdam may be a long way to travel for a league game, it would not be a unique experience in world sport. Russia has a league which spans the biggest nation on earth, Australia also has several sporting leagues in which teams must traverse the continent on a weekly basis. The extra money that would be pumped into these leagues through increased attendance, advertising..etc would all greatly ameliorate these concerns.
As previously mentioned England represents a fairly sustainable model for a football system, so if we compare some of the overall numbers with England the picture becomes a little bit clearer. The population of the 6 nations combined is roughly 44 million people, the number of top flight teams combined is 92 which is the same number as England has in their “Football League” pyramid (the top 4 tiers).
The population figure is important, as that is what is going to be key factor. Belgium has a population of 11million, the others are all within the region of 4-7. Given that advertising, and in turn, television revenue is such a huge part of football finances these days, an increase in population is what turns this from a nice idea into a potentially viable concept. For an example of the gulf in broadcasting income, Stoke City who regularly finish mid-table within the EPL earned £104m in the 2015/2016 season; Of this £104m, £79.5m (76%) came from broadcasting rights, Ajax on the other hand earned roughly £8m.
Combining the leagues would lift the total population of the league four times in Belgium’s case, and closer to eightfold for the other leagues. The increase in broadcasting and match day advertising figures would be exponential, given the ability to claim a league that boasts cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Oslo, Brussels (Home of the EU) as well as others. The league would also include 4 European Cup winners (Ajax, Celtic, PSV, and Feyenoord) as well as 5 Uefa Cup winners (Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV, Anderlecht, and IFK Göteborg). The increase in broadcasting money that could be leveraged with the expanded league would help the clubs bridge the financial gap that currently holds them back from competing in Europe in any meaningful way.
Obviously this is not a complete how-to guide for the implementation of the pyramid, many steps (some critical) still need to be calculated. This is however, an introduction to an alternative viewpoint to a model being spoken about that can hopefully add to the discussion that is happening in football boardrooms across Europe.
Also, the idea needs a complete name change. For a league that includes 6 nations, none of which have any coastline on the Atlantic sea, “The Atlantic League” is perhaps a misnomer. It is called so presumably because the idea initially involved Portugal (and “The North Sea League” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it).
Clubs like Ajax, Celtic, and Feyenoord have not enjoyed the enforced back-seat role they have taken in European competitions, they will not accept fading into the background further, or as has been suggested, being locked out entirely from the competition. These clubs, amongst others, will seek out a change (Celtic’s complete obliteration of the Scottish League this season may hasten that), what will that change look like? The time is fast approaching for a footballing landscape that looks different to what was imagined in the early 1900’s, as globalization makes the world smaller it could do the same for football.
Whilst this article does not provide a watertight case, nor a structured blueprint for the implementation of the Atlantic League, it will at least provide (hopefully) the basis to start a serious conversation. For a conversation and an idea is where every new change begins.