In the chaotic world of modern day European club football, with dizzying amounts of money defining its summer and winter transfer windows, there has never before been a better time for individual gifted players to achieve rapid promotions. It certainly makes for fantastically exciting news – megabucks for teenagers, methodical scouting operations yielding surprise successes, etc.
The transfer market increasingly takes on the form of a high-stakes game of chess. In such conditions, however, it’s simply inevitable that a hierarchy will form in which peripheral clubs come directly or indirectly defined by the influence of those with the biggest spending power. Each chess game requires pawns – the expendables that remain under the thumb, banking on the minuscule chance of maybe becoming a queen.
Driven by TV money, brand capitalisation and the general mammoth self-perpetuating power of several big clubs who dominate their respective leagues, the landscape of European football appears increasingly weighted in favour of the existing top dogs, with less and less chance of a renegade club making any sort of entry into the upper echelons.
Although it’s fair to say that there are actually a greater number of clubs who possess large budgets, and hence access to the global talent pool, than a decade before, these clubs are disproportionately centred in the Premier League, as well as some national ‘Goliaths’ – namely Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, and to a lesser extent some significant but not as influential clubs like Atletico, Dortmund, and Juventus.
In this sense it seems evident that a league like The Netherlands’ Eredivisie now basically only functions as a feeder league; by which I point to the absolute unlikeliness that a Dutch club will compete with top teams in Europe under the current conditions. Despite consistently producing quality footballers, the Eredivisie has experienced a continual slide down the UEFA coefficient rankings, resting at 10th place currently, with the Belgian Pro League hopping above it.
It’s broadly accepted that The Netherlands are the greatest footballing nation never to have won the World Cup. Even though their recently-concluded Euro 2016 campaign was an almighty shambles, they’re still a serious threat in any big competition, and hardly any national team would relish coming up against them in a major tournament.
Practically every player on the national squad came up through a few select Eredivisie youth academies. Their third-placed 2014 World Cup squad for instance featured nine players who came specifically from Feyenoord’s youth teams. Yet, barely any national team player over the age of 21 plays their football in the Eredivisie; the most notable names being Jasper Cillessen and Joel Veltman from Ajax and Jeffrey Bruma of PSV. These figures are anomalies; far from the most influential players on the team.
In 1995 Ajax won the Champions League and reached the final again a year later. The devastating exodus which ensued was slow by today’s standards. The last European competition won by a Dutch squad was Feyenoord’s UEFA Cup victory in 2002. This time players departed much quicker, with the attacking spine of the team – Van Hooijdonk, Dahl Tomasson and a young prospect by the name of Robin Van Persie swiftly taking the upgrade to established big clubs.
These days just winning the league makes it inevitable that their best players will be picked up by clubs in more powerful leagues; more often than not, Premiership clubs. Success in the Eredivisie increasingly functions as a grooming for an immediate job promotion for players. By now there’s no serious hope that a Dutch team could be in contention for a good run in the knock-out stages of the Champions League. For PSV, last year’s champions, it would represent a shock if they even got to the quarter finals. This is precisely because their best players were duly snapped up in the weeks after winning the title. Whoever wins the Eredivisie next year, it will most likely be the same.
The Netherlands receives targeted scouting from English clubs. Various reasons can explain this: relatively similar cultures, geographical proximity which makes it handy to pop back and forth to view matches, familiarity with the English language among players and staff, almost identical climate conditions, the historical prestige of Dutch players in the league – these all help make it comparatively easy to convince a player to move to England.
Southampton are probably the most skilled in this practice of targeted scouting, proving themselves adept at exploiting the comparatively cheaper players of the Eredivise. Chelsea also have a keen interest in the league, though are characteristically less subtle in how they go about it. Last year the presence of fourteen players from Chelsea’s books loaned out to Vitesse in a short span instigated an investigation by the KNVB. Newcastle’s focus has switched from bolstering ‘Le Toon’ with French players to seeking out Eredivisie stars that top four clubs couldn’t be bothered with. All in all, it paints a picture of ravenous English clubs absorbing the best of the Eredivisie into their structures. Even if there’s some £10m flops along the way, there’s always more TV money on the horizon; more resources to assert dominance.
What can be the top Eredivisie clubs’ best hope? To cultivate academies which continue to develop intelligent players with great technical ability, nurture them to a high standard, be forced to succumb to English money, put those funds back into the academies or perhaps signing players from cheaper markets like the Balkans, solidifies the perpetual food chain of it all either way.
What league will be next to become entirely dominated by a bigger league? Fifteen years ago all seemed dandy for the Eredivisie – its top clubs could contend with the best on the continent, yet now it’s resigned to a second rate power in a massive feeder system. France’s Ligue 1? It’s possibly too big a country to happen soon, and, for the moment anyway, PSG’s flush owners means France has at least one team seriously aiming for European honours. That being said, the gigantism of PSG’s ego possibly masks the reality that the likes of Marseille, Lyon and Lille are realistically minnows in present day continental terms.
The Portuguese league seems vulnerable however. Even though Primera Liga teams are enjoying a rich vein of Europa League form these days, this doesn’t disguise the fact that such success does act as an advertisement for star players and indeed bargaining power for agents looking to flog them off to bigger clubs.
Portugal, more so than the Netherlands and England, has close cultural ties to Spain, and it’s La Liga that looms larger and larger over teams from its smaller neighbour. Plenty of La Liga’s modern legends have been filtered through Portugal; Falcao, Aguero, Coentrão, Di Maria are a few examples of the Portugal-to-Spain career route. Last season’s two best attackers in the league, Enzo Perez and Jackson Martinez, have since made the familiar move.
While many can recall Porto’s stunning Champions League victory in 2004, it’s worth considering that this is going on twelve seasons ago. By 2007, twelve seasons after their Champions League triumph, Ajax were firmly on their way to backwater status. As it stands, Porto remain the sole Portuguese club to get to the last eight of the competition since, with two appearances, losing to Man United in 2009 and Bayern last year.
From Champions League, to its lesser cousin, to obscurity. Such is the apparent path of big clubs in modern Europe’s peripheral leagues.
Evan Musgrave, Pundit Arena.