What does it take to make a great football club?
June 8, 2012 3:04 PM   Subscribe

Please help me settle an argument about sports, specifically soccer (football).

I am not an expert on soccer or sports in general and I am having an argument with someone who is kind of an armchair expert on soccer (along with a myriad of other sports). For the purposes of my argument, I am going to refer to soccer as FOOTBALL here. I am also talking about club teams and not national teams.

I may be in over my head here, but my argument is that if a country outside of the countries with the top clubs (England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany) wanted to develop a football team (club) that would rival the big ones, they could do so, provided they had 1) the money and 2) the national support. The other person is saying that another country will never develop a club that rivals the likes of Man U, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. No matter how much money or time they are given.

My argument is based on the success of Great Britain in the 2008 Olympics. It is my understanding that the reason for the success is because GB invested a significant amount of money into developing their athletes by building state of the art sports facilities etc. and "there [was] a consensus that public investment...made a pivotal difference". I think that if a country had a populace that was as passionate about football as the big countries and had the money to invest into developing a good team, they could rival the big clubs given a few years.

The other person is saying that the world's best players won't play for inferior teams unless they are already past their peak (David Beckham, Thierry Henry). I say that the talented players would probably go if the money offered was good enough and even if they didn't, a country could take 5 or 10 years to develop good homegrown talent, which might then attract some top players from other countries. I think that if a country doesn't have some great clubs they either haven't had the money to dedicate to building a team (Eastern European countries?) or they haven't had enough national passion to support a great team (America).

I know that an example to disprove my argument would be when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and was unable to put together a top team, despite all the money he threw at players (until Jose Mourinho came on board? I might be wrong here).

So, my argument is that if a country has sufficient support from the general population along with tons of money that they are willing to invest in the sport, that they can build a world class football club. The person I am arguing against says that no country will ever develop club teams that will rival the big ones (under any circumstances?). I would love to hear your thoughts on this and if you have any articles that discuss this that you'd like to link, even better. This is a subject that I have a lot of interest in but not nearly enough knowledge about. Thank you!!
posted by triggerfinger to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total)
Well, the club in the mythical country needs to play against someone to improve, so it's not a matter of just making a club in a country, but making a league. You need to have several quality teams to make one excellent one. You might be able to squeak by with two great teams as major rivals (Barca vs Real Madrid), but then you risk the fate of the Scottish Premier League (Celtics vs Rangers, but now Rangers is having huge problems) where if one crumbles, there won't be anyone left to really test them.

But it's not enough to just gin up a Premier League! You need financial incentives for playing well (promotion and relegation, Champions League), so now you need to have lower leagues that clubs can rise up to and fall down through. Otherwise, you'll end up like MLS whose skill level has settled down to a mid-Championship (2nd tier English) level with no incentive to get any better.

So while a country making a world class club in a new country is in theory possible, the logistics and roadblocks make it almost impossible. Just supporting player development isn't enough. Don't forget that if you succeed in developing a bunch of awesome youth talent, the Bayerns and Uniteds and Chelskies of the world will be lurking to lure them away.

The big teams of today are international brands. Telecommunications is such that a fan can watch games wherever they are, so even your local fanbase might not be interested in their local team. I've watched all of 45 minutes of the New England Revolution this season, but saw at least 30 Liverpool games. That international cash (I type this wearing a Liverpool shirt) helps the team grow - the cash I spent means an extra bucket of chicken wings for Andy Carroll this weekend.

Roman Abramovich was able to spend Chelsea into champions because the infrastructure was already there: competitive league, talented players to draw from, and a thriving fan base. Once Financial Fair Play kicks in, Chelsea will continue to do well as they have established themselves as an international brand, which will supplement the bottom line after the tap of James Bond villain cash dries up.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:29 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

To have a team as great as the best teams in the world you have to have one of the best leagues. These teams are so great because they have to be. There is no incentive to play that well if there is no competition, no matter how talented the players are, they will never live up to their full potential. You'd have to build an entire league and hope it turns out to be one of the best leagues in the world.
posted by Requiax at 3:32 PM on June 8, 2012

Your argument is somewhat incoherent, because clubs are private business operations, and this has nothing to do with national investment. America (for example) might invest heavily in its national soccer team, but what you're arguing for is a massive public subsidy into private club teams and there's no reason or incentive to spend public money on that.

If instead you suppose the money is coming from billionaire owners -- again I agree with your friend that it is very unlikely someone can grow a world-class team from anything but the existing top-flight leagues. Because if your club is already king of North America, you would get no return on any further investment, nor would your club be challenged enough by its opponents in league play to compete at the highest level. You need the baseline level of play in the league to be high enough to *require* the best players -- and you need revenues high enough to *pay for* the best players -- before such investments start making sense. I think your friend is correct in that there are very few places in which the level of skill and the value of the brand is high enough for this to happen. Not that it will stay this way forever, but change will come very gradually.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:33 PM on June 8, 2012

Or what robocop is bleeding said much better than I did...
posted by Requiax at 3:33 PM on June 8, 2012

Although, if you assume Total Compliance with The Plan and want to skip the whole "build a world class league" step, you could have a country invest a lot in youth development (and possibly a breeding program - a suitcase of blow and a press junket by Diego Maradona will get you up and running in 18 years or so) and then somehow lure the Big Clubs into signing your lads. Then, when they all turn 26, they all return to their homeland and form a team. Yay! You have a powerhouse made up of players blooded in the best leagues in the world!

You just don't have any way to prove it, as they won't have anyone to play against and wouldn't be eligible for the Champions League.

Still, you'd clean up at the World Cup.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:53 PM on June 8, 2012

Okay. That makes sense. But say, a bunch of the Russian billionaires get together and decide they want to make the Russian League a world-class league (I know nothing about the Russian League). So they decide they want to invest in the clubs and overpay a bunch of the top global players to get them to come and play for Russian clubs. Assuming that Russians have the same kind of passion for football that England does, can't some of the Russian clubs then become contenders within a few years? Is it really unrealistic to think that a couple of patriotic billionaires would want to build up a top league in their own country? Assuming the infrastructure is already in place, i.e. several layers of leagues, I would think that if they were able to recruit some top players, the world would take some interest, which would raise revenues, and if the teams turned out to be as good as expected, it wouldn't take much to build up a steady and strong revenue stream pretty quickly, would it?

I just find it so hard to believe that given enough money and dedication, a viable league couldn't be built up to rival the existing best ones.

Sorry if these are dumb questions....I'm still learning! Thanks for your patient answers!
posted by triggerfinger at 3:54 PM on June 8, 2012

robocop is bleeding typed much faster than me and said what I was trying to say. I do want to disagree with one thing though.

So while a country making a world class club in a new country is in theory possible, the logistics and roadblocks make it almost impossible. Just supporting player development isn't enough.

There's obviously a big issue of how you define world class club, but the Cypriot teams have managed not to get laughed out of the Champions League the last few years and I don't think anyone thinks much of Cypriot football. So it's clearly possible for a passably competitive club to emerge out of nowhere in Europe. And then you have the Hoffenheims or AFC Wimbledons of the world, trekking upwards through the bigger leagues.

I also suspect it would be possible to resurrect some of the older big clubs. Presumably, it'd be easier to rebuild the stature of Dynamo Kyiv than starting from scratch.

It's much harder to do outside of Europe because not only will there be little league competition, the international club competitions aren't as strong. The CONCACAF Champions League isn't exactly anything to write home about. Mexican clubs play in the Copa Libertadores as well, though I don't think they've had much success.
posted by hoyland at 3:55 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

It'll be interesting to see what happens with Anzhi Makhachkala over the next few years - a Russian team that was recently bought by a billionaire and are now attempting to get big names to sign for them.

So they have a lot of money, but I don't know how well supported they are - the wikipedia page suggests that their support is increasing, but from quite a low base I imagine.
posted by shiny shoes at 3:57 PM on June 8, 2012

But say, a bunch of the Russian billionaires get together and decide they want to make the Russian League a world-class league

Now we're into 'in theory' not 'would likely happen' territory. Also, the goalposts have been moved since your initial question, as now we're down to a collusion of billionaires and not a national zeitgeist for excellence in football. Sure, with infinite money all things are possible.

But the same Russian billionaires could all get into competitive eating or miniature giraffe racing or something.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:59 PM on June 8, 2012

I'm going to lose this argument, aren't I.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:37 PM on June 8, 2012

Nah. Just put a fiver down that a Russian team will win the Champions League in the next 5 years. It'll divert attention and who knows, a billionaire may come to your aid!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:50 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think this could happen in the U.S., in the hugely hypothetical event of the end of American football. More than 1.1 million boys play high school football, compared to the 400k who play soccer. Imagine the amount of pro-level talent that might gradually emerge if even half of them switched to soccer, or if soccer suddenly received all of football's funding and attention. Given a massive increase in the number of would-be pro soccer players and a simultaneous decline in the NFL, Major League Soccer would be the clear beneficiary.
posted by acidic at 8:55 PM on June 8, 2012

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