A start-up women’s soccer league featuring teams from the Netherlands and Belgium may lead to similar cross-border men’s competitions in Europe.
UEFA, the region’s soccer governing body, approved the 16-team BeNe League for a three-year trial. If successful, the merger could be followed in senior men’s divisions, allowing clubs from smaller leagues to increase revenue and compete with wealthier English, Spanish and German teams.
“We are having discussions with the associations on supra national leagues,” UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino said in an interview. “It’s those who are more geographically aligned like the Nordics, Balkans. We have to wait for this test to be finished.”
Soccer clubs from countries with smaller populations have been the losers as success has increasingly been determined by the size of domestic television markets. Teams such as Amsterdam-based Ajax, which won the last of its four European Cup titles in 1995, can’t match the salaries on offer in richer leagues and has to regularly sell players. An Ajax women’s team will be one of eight from the Netherlands in the BeNe League.
Since Ajax’s victory against AC Milan 17 years ago, there has only been one winner of Europe’s elite club competition to come from a country other than England, Germany, Italy or Spain. Porto of Portugal lost manager Jose Mourinho and several players to bigger teams after its surprise 2004 victory.
The implementation of a trans-national league has been discussed before, including a concept called the Atlantic League which would have included teams from Scotland, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands. The plan collapsed in 2001 following opposition from UEFA, which said teams in the breakaway league wouldn’t be able to play in its tournaments.
The main issue for such a proposal would be deciding how clubs qualify for UEFA’s competitions, which currently occurs on a country-by-country basis, Infantino said.
While the top teams from the second-tier leagues have struggled in the Champions League, they dominate their domestic rivals. In Scotland, Glasgow rivals Rangers and Celtic have won every championship since 1985. Rangers were penalized earlier this year for financial irregularities and demoted to the last tier, leaving Celtic as the 1-66 favorite to win the title according to U.K. bookmaker William Hill. Celtic’s 52.6 million pounds ($83.6 million) in 2011 revenue was six times less than record 19-time English champion Manchester United.
Sean Hamil, co-director of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre at the University of London, welcomed the trial.
“UEFA is acknowledging there are problems in the second-and third-tier leagues in terms of how sustainable and how competitive they are,” Hamil said in an interview. “They’re right to go gingerly. To rush head long in it would be wrong. They’re only going to get one go at it.”
In the BeNe League, the Belgian and Dutch teams will first play rivals from their own countries before the top four from each meet in the New Year. There also will be games between the four lowest-placed clubs.
“As two little countries together we will be more powerful,” BeNe League spokeswoman Ingrid Vanherle said in an interview. “All eyes are on us to see if it’s successful.”