The beautiful game, whether you call it soccer or football, holds a deep spot in the hearts of billions of people around the globe. Until very recently in the past decade Americans have truly embraced a new awakening to what the rest of the world has been going crazy over for all these years. Basic cable now holds MLS, EPL, La Liga, and even Bundesliga games regularly on the weekends, and summer tours and tournaments are booked for the next few months that will lead to sold out stadiums and more exposure for the heavy weights in Europe as their brands continue to grow in value. Mostly due to global exposure in emerging soccer markets like Southeast Asia, India, and the USA.
Of course with any growing trend that soars in popularity, the opportunist lurks in the shadows waiting to pounce on any chance to receive a payout. Looking back on the past 15 years, you can see numerous occasions where big business has taken advantage of the emergence of soccer in the US and the ideas are now carrying over to Europe as more and more Americans are investing in European clubs. Recently New Jersey native and former NY Metrostars GM and global soccer businessman Charlie Stillitano spoke out against Leicester City’s potential to be in the Champions League next season. Stillitano spoke on Sirius Radio earlier this month and addressed his concerns over the lesser known Leicester City being included in the cash cow UEFA Champions League next season, with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United set to miss out on the tournament.
Stillitano has recently been in talks with both Manchester sides, Liverpool and Arsenal about restructuring the Champions League to only include members with a global brand capable of drawing large crowds and interest from various emerging global markets. Essentially closing the door to any stories like Leicester City or Tottenham Hotspur who would see no reward for their dominance this season in Stillitano’s suggested system. A closed door policy, somewhat similar to MLS in the fact that their is never a way any MLS club, despite how poorly they perform, will lose their status as a top tier side. A safe way for investors to protect their investments from failing. MLS has drawn investors from around the globe to closed door business model, and I believe it will inevitably happen to European Football as well. The opportunist tends to walk over anyone and anything to ensure money is made. Even at the expense of the paying football fan who essentially holds the power in this scenario.
Stillitano has made his money by bringing European sides like Manchester United to the USA during the summer time for friendlies and tournaments. As an 11 year old I saw Barcelona take on Manchester United at the brand new Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, my first real exposure to European football. With the likes of Ronaldinho and Van Nistelrooy on the pitch that day in 2001, I was blown away at the level I had never really witnessed before. So Stillitano and his ventures have had a huge impact on the development of the sport in the US and around the globe. He is personally responsible for certain brands having the marketing power they currently possess and has launched clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea into the elite stratosphere that very few clubs reach.
So from Stillitano’s point of view I get it. Clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona, and Liverpool are the reason soccer is so popular in the US. These clubs have made millions for Stillitano’s companies and have done wonders for the growth of soccer in this country. So in the eyes of Stillitano, these clubs have made the Champions League what it is today, so why should they not get the benefits of what they have built over the years? Thus why the closed system is so appealing for business minds who seek the millions in revenue that can be made off of high profile brands like Manchester United. If ManU fails to qualify for the Champions League again this season, they will miss out on the massive TV deal that comes with the competition, their image as the world’s elite club will take a massive blow, and they will struggle to continue to grow in markets globally due to their lack of success. Thus why the closed elite European club competition makes perfect sense to Stillitano and most likely to the owners of the clubs he met with. This would guarantee each season, regardless of how good the team is, that there is a large TV deal waiting for their club, solely due to the popularity of the brand globally.
So throw in Leicester City into the mix and you now have a very awkward situation for the soccer opportunist. Before this season Leicester was seen as a run of the mill English squad, interchangeable with the likes of Watford, Everton, Bournemouth, and various others as the role players in a league lead by the 5 elite clubs. Basically a club with no real value to the business world. Before the 2015 season and even after potentially winning the title in 2016, Stillitano would struggle to fill FedEx field for a Leicester v Roma summer friendly in Washington DC. Thus lies the issue Stillitano has with the Foxes surprise success this season, it's really not good for business. Very few people will dish out the $100 for an upper tier ticket to see Jamie Vardy, but they would for Wayne Rooney. With Clubs like ManU and Liverpool failing to attract the superstars these days, the clubs they worked so hard to build as global brands are failing to deliver the results necessary to keep them in the elite competitions these days. With the EPL TV money and investors flowing into smallers sides in the league, it has allowed clubs like Leicester City, West Ham, and many other EPL clubs to pay higher wages for players then they have in the past. There is less of an appeal to play for the Liverpool’s of the world where pressure to succeed is very high and many times unrealistic.
With the lack of results from the likes of Manu and Liverpool, big money investors like Stillitano have moved to eliminate results from the equation completely. Ensure the brands they have invested time and money into are the ones that continue to be successful, with no competitors. Every other English club should be happy to with just being in the same league as the elite, and that once a year they will host them in a league game in a race for a somewhat meaningless league title, as no club will ever be able to dethrone the kings of the league. A perfect gated community for the elite which will allow them to focus on growing the brands. Who really cares about the quality anyway, right?
Claudio Ranieri voiced his opinion recently, calling the idea for a restructuring of the Champions League an assault on the culture of Soccer. As much as I see where Stillitano is coming from and I will never discourage anyone from trying to earn a living, Ranieri’s statement resonates with me. As stated in just about every article I’ve written previously, soccer is the people’s game. The easiest game to play, the hardest to play well. My issue lies with the opportunist who seeks to adjust the principles of the game, the unpredictability and challenge involved in each and every match, in order to ensure their personal greed is satisfied. There is nothing wrong with making money off of soccer, but rigging the system to ensure success of the major european clubs is allowing greed to conquer the real reason we love the sport.
Soccer is the most amazing sport on the planet because of the ups and downs, the emotional roller coaster the club you support will take you on through your relationship. It makes you feel alive, it brings absolute joy to your life, and spoon feeds you sorrow and misery. A century into my support of Tottenham Hotspur I have learned to take the hard times on the chin, as they make the successes of the club that much better. I will never forget the misery of the 2008/2009 season under Juande Ramos, prior to the Redknapp era. That season’s Spurs made me dread the weekends, ruined FIFA 09 for me, and made me hopeful for better days to come as soon as possible. I can still remember the Peter Crouch goal against Manchester City in the final game of the year in 2010 to secure Champions League football for my favored side the next season and the celebration that followed. The joy I had as I sang the Champions League song and drank nothing but Heineken mini kegs the last few days of my college semester is somewhat undescribable. I could not imagine how dull and uneventful being a Spurs supporter would be if the light of the Champions League was not possible.It would very honestly drop Tottenham into the flatland I view the Philadelphia Union in. Its great to see them do well, but, if they lose they lose, it’s not like anything will happen. The dull life of MLS supporters would be globalized, all in interest of the elite.
So with Stillitano’s ideas comes the elimination of success based on the results on the pitch. In his eyes the match was played years ago and he and his business partners who were able to expose the US to these European clubs have won. Now they should receive the benefits of their hard work. Unfortunately there is no way to eliminate the aspect of relegation and promotion from European football, as they positively embrace the thought of positive results driving you forward, and the punishment of not delivering. The lack of control the opportunists have over the results of the matches their invested clubs participate in drives them insane. Thus why there is such pressure on players at clubs like Liverpool and ManU to succeed, not only from the fans, but from the higher ups. They know whats at stake, and their relative inexperience with the game as most Americans may have, is what drives these ideas of eliminating the need to finish in the top four in order to participate in the Champions League. Sooner or later they may get their way if the supporters fail to stand up to these ideas and support the success stories of Leicester City who have every right to play in the elite competitions if they deliver on the pitch. The recent fan walk out at Liverpool a few weeks back has sparked my belief that the supporters of the game in Europe have enough of a backbone to not stand for the foreign opportunists who are attempting to rig the system in their favor.
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