Juventus and PSG will win their league titles yet again, completing another pair of untroubled romps to trophies that appear to be less and less meaningful by the year and amplifying the divide between Europe's richest clubs and the also-rans.
On Sunday, if Napoli fails to beat Chievo, Juventus will win the Serie A title for the eighth season in a row–although at this point you wonder if anybody is still counting. The eighth? The ninth? The 12th? The 46th? Who really cares?
On the same day, Paris Saint-Germain will claim Ligue 1 for the sixth time in seven years if it wins or draws away at Lille (and barring some implausible 50-goal swing in goal-difference over the final five weeks of the season, a loss will just delay the inevitable). It would already have won the league had it not been for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s extraordinary miss against Strasbourg last week when he contrived to stop a goal-bound shot on the line and divert it against the post.
To have two league titles wrapped up with a month of the season remaining is not healthy. In Spain, Barcelona is nine points clear at the top of the table and on course to make it an eighth league crown in 11 years. Fourteen of the last 15 Spanish titles will have been won by either Barcelona or Real Madrid. In Germany, Bayern Munich leads the table and is on course to make it seven Bundesliga titles in a row, following last weekend's 5-0 thrashing of top challenger Borussia Dortmund.
This is not a coincidence. This is not one unusually gifted team coming along under a brilliant manager and enjoying a generation of success. This is a pattern across the highest level of football. Domestic leagues have largely become nonsense, full of unequal battles. Every week, the bullies beat up a smaller kid in the playground. Records for most goals and most points are smashed, and it all feels thoroughly pointless.
The reason is obvious. The latest Deloitte Money League makes for sobering reading for anybody who isn’t a superclub. In France, PSG’s annual revenue is €541.7 million, 3.3 times more than the next highest, Lyon, on €164.2 million. In Germany, Bayern’s annual revenue is €629.2 million, a little under double the next highest, Dortmund on €317.2 million. In Spain, it’s Real Madrid on €750.9 million followed by Barcelona on €690.4 million, with a huge drop to Atletico Madrid on €304.4 million, then Sevilla on €165.2 million. Juventus’s advantage in Italy is, by comparison, relatively slight, €364.8 million as opposed to Inter on €280.8 million, but even that’s 22% more.
Not that the Premier League is immune from criticism. Leicester may have won the title in the recent past, but the gulf between the Big Six and the rest is enormous (and there are shelves even within that top six). It’s likely to get bigger. Starting next season, overseas broadcast rights will no longer be divided equally, increasing the advantage of the bigger clubs.
But, really, what merit is there in winning a league title when you’re more than three times richer than your nearest rival? That’s like the 16-year-old who’s been held back four years at school winning his class sprint. If he didn’t, you’d wonder what on earth was going wrong.
Mention this on social media, and at least some of the response will be rooted in false consciousness. “There have always been rich clubs,” fans point out. Nobody wants to believe that the structure of teams and leagues in which they’ve invested so much emotion (and in many cases money) is essentially flawed.
And of course there have always been rich teams–that’s the nature of things. It’s just that, at least in a European context, a team would become rich either by having a lot of fans or because a local businessman had decided to invest, and not at the whim of an oligarch or sheikh who realized that a stake in the world’s most popular game might be good for his and/or his country’s reputation. The full absurdity of this was seen last year when significant numbers of Manchester City fans defended Abu Dhabi’s actions after a British academic, Matthew Hedges, was detained for seven months and accused of spying on extremely flimsy evidence, just because their club is owned by Sheikh Mansour.
Rich teams in the past were never this rich in relation to the rest, nor was there a structure in place that ensured wealth was self-perpetuating. Financial Fair Play regulations, for all Man City, PSG and AC Milan have struggled to operate within them, have effectively pulled up the ladder. The superclubs are now an unchallengeable elite.
League titles that were once fought for with every sinew have become, to many clubs, baubles that barely even register. For PSG and Bayern, European failure means this has been a disappointing season despite probable domestic success. If Juventus loses to Ajax, or, given its investment in Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps even the semifinal of the Champions League, it will probably feel similar.
Perhaps that’s what modern fans want. Perhaps they would rather see Neymar performing his tricks and scoring double hat tricks against Breton villages every week than a real contest. Perhaps the idea of sport as a contest is as old-fashioned as that of clubs representing their communities. Perhaps it’s unfashionable to suggest that a financial structure effectively designed to increase the gulf between rich and poor is a bad thing.
Or perhaps the situation is insoluble and we should stop worrying and learn to love the superleague.