BERLIN — Not everything about big-time professional soccer is bad. Among the players, there are still good guys doing decent things. This summer, French left-back Lucas Digne jumped into action to help the injured after the terrorist attack in Barcelona. And Juan Mata of Manchester United decided to permanently give 1% of his salary to an NGO. Mats Hummels, a defensive midfielder for Bayern München, joined the initiative too.
And yet, the past few months have put many fans and bigwigs of European soccer ill-at-ease, with the word "madness" running in an endless loop. The problems aren't new: Some of the transfer fees were already monstrous; the financial backers dubious; the players egotistical. But just as the world seems to turn on its head at times in this era of globalization and technological revolution, so too has soccer seemed to gone berserk.
For starters, the latest round of over-the-top transfer price-tags. Before this year, there had only been one transfer for more than 100 million euros: Pogba, in 2016, for 105 million plus 5 million in possible bonuses from Juventus to Manchester United. Then came Brazilian superstar Neymar's move this summer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at a price-tag of 222 million euros — double the previous record! But there are others: Kylian Mbappe, whom PSG is only borrowing for the season in accordance with Financial Fair Play Regulations, the Paris club will be wiring 180 million euros to Monaco next summer. Ousmane Dembele is switching from Dortmund to Barcelona for 105 million plus 43 million in bonuses. And finally, Barca offered to pay Liverpool 150 million for Philippe Coutinho.
All this reshuffling was triggered by money from Qatar. And it was supported by players who openly (Dembele), covertly (Coutinho), or on instruction (Mbappe) left their previous slots. "A player should always be able to leave a club if he thinks it's the right time," Neymar said at his introduction in Paris.
The big stars, it seems, no longer bother giving what even fair weather fans appreciate: a modicum of loyalty and predictability, something viewers can identify with. Club soccer, in brief, is making a killing, but at the cost of its moral wellbeing. The result is a crisis. This kind of crises always comes with two answers: To look ahead or peer into the past.
Option No. 1 is to bemoan everything, to get out that vintage jersey you bought online (for way too much money) and long for a lost paradise that never existed and, quite frankly, will never return. The other choice — and the only truly reasonable one —is to seek contemporary solutions, because the world, like soccer, has changed, and nostalgia is a remedy that simply won't work.
The food chain today is as clear as it was in high school biology class. PSG is helping itself to Barcelona; Barcelona feeds on Dortmund; Dortmund takes what it wants from Gladbach; Gladbach draws from Switzerland, and then Austria, and so on, until only the plankton remain. And that's jut thew way it is. Cosi fan tutte —everyone does it. The problem is, in a word, systemic.
In U.S. sports, winning isn't just a matter of buying up the best players.
For a solution, professional soccer needs more than just individual rules. It needs a vision. And for that, it's worth looking across the ocean to... the United States. The country may be a mess politically, but when it comes to pro sports, it definitely has a thing or two to teach the Old World. Take the National Football League, NFL, for example. With just 16 game days, plus a couple of playoff games per team — compared to between 34 and 38 game days for European soccer teams — the NFL nevertheless manages to make about as much money as Europe's four top leagues (England, Germany, Spain and Italy) combined.
Even more interesting is why the NFL has succeeded so spectacularly: socialism. That's right, professional sports in capitalist America, of all places, thrives on real socialism. Salary caps, financial compensation, and transfer preferential rights for weak teams level the playing field. These are handicaps one could only dream about in Europe's top soccer league. As a result, the NFL has had eight different championship teams in the past 10 years. [Editor's note: Polemics over the anti-racism protest of African-American players is more about politics than economics, or on-the-field performance]
In similarly structured Major League Baseball, there were seven different champions in the same period. In the major U.S. sports, winning isn't just a matter of buying up the best players. It requires strategy, executive planning, training and talent development.
Salary caps should also be considered in soccer. But due to the reservations of the European Union, and different tax rates and legal practices, this appears to be realistic only if taken one step further: Subjecting all the clubs to the regulations of a common league. Hence, a Euro League, the biggest bogeyman of all.
Hardcore soccer fans are outraged by the very mention of such an idea. They feel about a Europe-wide league the way they do about child abuse and illegal arms deals. But what exactly makes it so bad? Because in reality, the scenario is actually quite fascinating: The best soccer players up against each other week after week, and not just five times a year, when the Champions League quarterfinals finals kick off.
PSG superstar Neymar Jr. — Photo: SOPA/ZUMA
The obvious and reasonable question people ask is what would happen to the national leagues. But here's a counter question: What about them? They are monopolies, a procession of unilateral parties in which everyone already knows the winners beforehand. In Germany, Bayern has won half of the past 10 championships. In Italy, Juventus snatched the last seven. In France, PSG has clinched the top trophy in four of the last five years. And in Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have claimed nine of the last 10 titles.
There's also the fact that these teams, when playing in their respective countries, put in half the effort they do when vying for the Champions League. And they don't have to, because their benches are filled with players who are better than the guys their opponents put on the field. So why doesn't Bayern, for example, send some of that excess talent to Mainz? Because then it wouldn't be as competitive internationally. It's a vicious circle.
The Euro league idea is a bitter pill for fans of tradition and custom. Understandably. But it's also an opportunity to return to exhilarating competition. Again, it's worth taking a look at the NFL. The bulk of NFL games are played on Sundays, freeing Saturdays up for competition between university teams, which are also wildly popular, even without the superstars. People love the amateur league. Some fans even prefer it.
More money could be generated with fewer games.
A European league, following a similar model, could actually have positive side effects. More money could be generated with fewer games, and the top teams wouldn't be so overloaded with star players. That, in turn, would benefit all those talented but embittered players riding the bench. A Europe-wide league with a fair distribution model could also bring respected but — because of their small domestic markets — globally unimportant clubs bring back into play. Think Celtic, Benfica, Ajax, etc.
Lastly, a united European soccer league would create possibilities for stricter (and universal) transfer controls. All teams would have to follow the same calendar, meaning the "window of opportunity" for buying up talent would close before the start of the season. The irksome uncertainty of the preseason would cease to exist. Other rules, like the prohibition on speaking to players without the knowledge of the club, could be enforced. What's so hard about all that? The U.S. leagues make it seem easy.
A Euro league, in other words, wouldn't be the end of soccer. It would be a chance for a fresh start, and one that would actually protect many traditions. Everything should be up for discussion. It's easy to demonize modern soccer. But unless we actually do something about it, nothing will change — and the obscene signings and other unsavory aspects of the current crisis will only multiply in the future.