Column: Europe's club football finals - thoroughly (un)English affairs

28 May 2019

Arsenal v Chelsea
Photo: Getty Images A billboard for the UEFA Europa League Final 2019 between Chelsea and Arsenal in Baku. Columnist Simon Chadwick and Paul Widdop calls the all-English European finals an un-English affair.

Professor Simon Chadwick and Dr Paul Widdop look in this column at the upcoming all-English European finals.

The most un-English of English matches: “The finals will be played in English name only,” they write.

Professor Simon Chadwick and Dr Paul Widdop contact@offthepitch.com

When Tottenham Hotspur’s Lucas Moura slotted in a last-minute winning goal against Ajax in his club’s recent UEFA Champions League semi-final, it was the second time in the competition that a miraculous comeback had been achieved. Twenty four hours earlier, Liverpool had beaten Barcelona in the other semi-final to set up the prospect of an all-English final.

The next day, Arsenal comfortably defeated Valencia, and Chelsea contributed to the week’s dramatic narrative by beating Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties in their two UEFA Europa League semi-finals. 

This sealed an unprecedented outcome; for the first time ever, the finals of European club football’s biggest tournaments (in Madrid and Baku) will be contested by teams from the same country.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s opportunistic comparisons

Amid a time of political uncertainty, with Brexit clogging up the bandwidth in England, this outcome could hardly have come at a more opportune time. 

It took people’s minds off their hamstrung domestic political situation, whilst at the same time satisfying many English football fans, no matter how laboured their clichés that the Premier League is the best in the world and that the country is the home of football. 

Yet the upcoming two matches seem more like something from the entertainment industry

Even Prime Minister Theresa May couldn’t help herself from making opportunistic comparisons with Liverpool. A triumph of England over Europe was championed by the most vocal of Brexiteers.

However, despite English triumphalism and nationalism, as the Champions League and Europa Finals loom it seems so obvious how un-English the two finals will actually be. If anything, England merely serves as a location at which the creation of a global product takes place. 

A cynical viewpoint

Many English fans will no doubt counter that football is a manifestation of community and identity. Yet the upcoming two matches seem more like something from the entertainment industry, funded by multinational businesses and delivered by productive assets sourced globally.

Although some people might see this as being a cynical viewpoint, they should nevertheless be unsurprised. Over the last forty years (following the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979), England has opened its arms to neo-liberalism to become a country governed with minimal state intervention and driven by commercial interests. 

Englishman Francis had just become the first £1 million player in English football history

Inward overseas investment and asset acquisition has been welcomed rather than curtailed, and the pursuit of financial gain has been strongly encouraged.

Add in the effects of globalisation, changes in broadcasting, the EU’s Bosman ruling and the creation of the Premier League, and one can begin to understand how English football has secured its upcoming unparalleled European football achievement.

Forest vs Malmö FF

1979 is an appropriate place to start an examination of what is now happening. When that season’s European Cup final took place, Thatcher had only been in office for three weeks. 

In the match, England’s Nottingham Forest took on Sweden’s Malmö FF. Forest won the game 1-0, the goal being scored by Trevor Francis. Back then, Forest was English owned; in European competition the team had no shirt sponsor though Englishman Francis had just become the first £1 million player in English football history. Without him knowing it, Francis’ move was somehow prophetic.

Fast forward to 2019 and the two finals are being played by four ‘English’ clubs, none of which have English owners; they all have multiple shirt sponsors and commercial partners; and together they have repeatedly broken transfer records in signing players, most of whom are not English (or, for that matter, even British). 

It will be something of a surprise if any English players score in either final; indeed, it wouldn’t be a total surprise if no English players appear in any of the starting elevens.

Large swathes of the globe

In this context, we mapped the geographic origins of players in each team’s official squad. 

Unsurprisingly, we found them to be cosmopolitan and multinational in nature. Some of the players are English (for example, Jordan Henderson at Liverpool and Harry Kane at Tottenham), though a significant majority is not. 

What is immediately clear though is that the finals, from a human resource perspective, will be played in English name only. If anything, what is striking about our visualisation, is the geographic concentration of player origins – unsurprisingly, large swathes of the globe will not be represented in Madrid and Baku.

 

England’s supposed finest are no less cosmopolitan off the field as they are on it. After all, many people will already know that Chelsea’s owner is Russian (Roman Abramovich), at Liverpool he’s American (John Henry), while Arsenal too is owned by an American (Stan Kroenke). 

Tottenham Hotspur apparently stand out as an exception - Englishman Joe Lewis is the owner, albeit from afar as he resides offshore in the Bahamas. 

Hower shareholdings and board membership in each club have a geographic diversity that goes way beyond the nationality of their majority shareholders and key executives.

Not unlike America’s Hollywood

In 1979, Trevor Francis’ Forest shirt was blank (apart from Adidas’ stripes and logo); nowadays, brand names on team shirts are ubiquitous with some leagues even permitting multiple shirt sponsors. 

In European competitions, this is not allowed hence the main shirt sponsor is the sole logo that appears (alongside the sportswear supplier’s name and brand, and UEFA branding). 

English fans and the English will no doubt claim the forthcoming finals as ‘theirs’

As football has commercialised, so too has a recognition of the properties and rights that football clubs own. 

Stadiums sometimes carry the name of a company or brand, and there are all manner of official deals – from gambling partners to airlines and alcohol. 

British companies and brands are, however, significantly outnumbered by foreign rivals, the visualisation below illustrating the imbalance of such deals among the four clubs.

 

All of which rather implies that England and its Premier League is not unlike America’s Hollywood and its movie industry.

Just as global blockbuster movies are typically multinational affairs, funded and made by diverse groups of people and businesses, the same is also true of the Premier League. 

...ironically a very un-English affair

Similarly, just as Hollywood’s outputs enthral and entertain, the Premier League is equally adept at producing cliffhangers that sell worldwide. 

English fans and the English will no doubt claim the forthcoming finals as ‘theirs’. However, the realities of 21st century football are such that England’s Champions and Europa League finalists will instead be the epitome of global entertainment productions shot on location that appeal to a global mass market. 

In other words, they’ll be English - but only in name; ironically a very un-English affair.

 

Professor Simon Chadwick is a researcher, writer, consultant and academic with interests in the business and management of football, particularly across Eurasia. He tweets via @Prof_Chadwick

Dr Paul Widdop is an academic researcher and writer in sport business. His writings focus on the economic geography of sport. He tweets via @Fire_and_Skill