By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (June 26, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Prior to the start of Euro 2012, an Italian politician one-upped National Team coach Cesare Prandelli. As the latest Italian betting scandal unfolded, Prandelli said that not going to the European Championships 'wouldn't be a problem.' Italy's prime minister Mario Monti trumped that remark. While stressing this was his personal opinion, Monti said: "I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to suspend the game for two or three years."
Obviously, shutting down for a fundamental rethink on what having a professional league means for a country isn't feasible. Players trust that the system that's in place would still be there. Even though a European Union citizen can play anywhere in the EU, there aren't enough open opportunities for every professional player in Italy. It's not a practical proposition, but the theory behind it is worth discussing.
The concept that what's really needed is time doesn't work well with the overlapping calendars of world soccer. At domestic level, the offseason is short and usually filled with international duty. The result is the game consistently being on. That creates a forward momentum that doesn't really lend itself to studying recent history.
Why would it? With the European game moving from strength to strength on the back of increasing broadcast and sponsorship revenue for clubs and countries, all involved have the proof that a system works. Even UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations are more of an austerity hedge than a rethink of how clubs do business.
On the surface, it might not seem that way. Yet consider what UEFA's role of economic reformer leaves out. The transfer system remains in place. There's no template for how television rights are distributed domestically. There's no caps on salary, revenue sharing, or the other financial controls that are in place in the North American pro sports. All UEFA really has is the threat of not allowing clubs to play in Europe, and that becomes the motivation for toeing the line on a limited set of financial regulations. That they're mainly concerned with revenue is no surprise. Clubs can still spend, it's just a tweak on the level and it's relative to all the giants of Europe. By necessity, the scale changes with whatever those clubs do.
So what would happen if a league had the luxury of time to think about what they should be doing in the contemporary era of pro soccer? Obviously, Italy is a tricky example. The call for time is because of a gambling scandal. That's a basic credibility issue for any competition, one that flavors the entire discussion of what it means to have a league. Italy has been here before, and we already know their standard response. Since it keeps happening, we also know its limits as a prohibitive measure. Thus the prime minister publicly wondering if it's worth putting time on their side.
While not dismissing the motivation in Italy's particular case, here are a few things any league should consider. UEFA is right, how money is made and spent is at the top of the list. We know the flaws of the current models, everything from benefactors to supporters trusts. There simply aren't enough controls in either direction, making it far too easy to reset the spending of entire leagues and expose the financial frailties of clubs.
Something has to be done about that, and there are several options. The cap model in use in some North American sports, single-entity, revisiting the transfer system, and other over-arching structures that limit what clubs can do. It's worth noting that single-entity doesn't necessarily mean Major League Soccer's version. MLS single-entity is about player cost control and a hedge against North American style free agency. That model is good for owners, but there's the risk of alienating the viewing public when the opportunities aren't as good as they are in other leagues around the world. Remember, we're talking about an elite European league here.
Next would be revisiting what traditional league structures take for granted. That's been a recent development in Mexico, where they're streamlining their league. They've already changed their domestic calendar, dropping the regular season groups and replacing that with a standard league table. The next steps are in the works and reportedly include reconfiguring their relegation system as well as how players change clubs between seasons. Again, we're talking about identifying functional problems and offering a practical solution.
For any European league, that should include looking at the amount of games on the calendar. How many games are enough to decide a champion? How is fixture congestion best avoided? What really matters to the fans paying to watch your product? This can quickly become an appeal against history and tradition, but we're in this conversation due to problems in a league's recent history and a tradition that few want to see continue. That's Italy's big picture problem. They won't have the luxury of time, but that shouldn't mean leaving the possibility for real change completely off the table.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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