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Is PSG’s model the only way to keep football competitive?

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Neymar and Kylian Mbappé cost more than Bayern Munich’s entire squad. Is buying your way to a first Champions League title bad for football?

Olympique Lyonnais v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Semi Final
Bayern’s squad costs less than PSG’s Neymar and Mbappe
Photo by Miguel A. Lopes/Pool via Getty Images

Once upon a time, a man by the name of Armin Veh led VfB Stuttgart to an improbable Bundesliga title. In fact, had it not been for pesky Nürnberg in the DFB Pokal finale, Stuttgart would have won a Domestic Double in 2007. The Bundesliga, operating under the “50+1 rule,” produced yet another entertaining season in which first and fourth place were separated by ten points. The fourth-placed team, however, at the time, would have to be content with a place in the UEFA Cup: Bayern Munich prepared for a season of Thursday night football.

In the following season, Stuttgart finished bottom of their group in the UEFA Champions League. Werder Bremen finished third and went down to join Bayern in Thursday nights of dread. Schalke somehow managed to get all the way to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, only to lose 2-0 on aggregate (respectably!) to Barcelona.

Schalke was then a second-placed team in a country that boasted, at the time, four-time European Cup winners Bayern and former champions Borussia Dortmund and Hamburger SV: the fact that Schalke was considered an underdog against Porto in the Round of 16 spoke volumes about German football, despite Germany’s fantastic run to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup.

Fast-forward to 2020: FC Bayern are the Bundesliga champions for the eighth time in a row, a full 13 points ahead of second-placed Borussia Dortmund. In fact, in the previous seven seasons, the gap in points between first and second in the league was: 2, 21, 15, 10, 10, 19 and 25. Aside from 2018/19, the league has never really been a contest.

That’s a theme in Ligue 1 as well. The gap between PSG and the second-placed side in the past three seasons was 12 (with one less game played), 16, and 13. Monaco broke the trend in 2016/17, winning by seven points. In the previous four PSG wins, the gap between first and second was: 31, 8, 9 and 12. PSG is not the first team to keep winning the title either in France. Lyon pulled it off seven times between 2002 and 2008.

The fact that nouveau-riche PSG could possibly become the first French winners of the Champions League since Marseille in 1993 raises many questions. Can money buy you a Champions League? Should the 50+1 rule remain standing in the Bundesliga if money can bring results? More importantly, does a 50+1 structure work in Bayern’s favor when it comes to competing internationally? To try to answer these questions, let us see how PSG turned into Champions League finalists in the first place.

PSG: from fan-owned to state-owned

Since 2011, PSG has been owned by Qatar Sports Investments; QSI is owned by the state of Qatar and hence PSG is effectively owned by the ruler of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. PSG is one of two state-owned clubs, the other being Manchester City (owned by the UAE). In fact, PSG is so rich that two of their players alone (Neymar and Kylian Mbappé) cost more than Bayern Munich’s entire squad.

While PSG can buy players at will, they are hardly the first club to benefit from foreign investment. In fact, the last club that managed to buy their way to the Champions League trophy — after a few heartbreaks it must be said — was Chelsea (let us not forget the kindness Bayern bestowed upon them that night, nonetheless).

Borussia Dortmund’s CEO, Hans-Joachim Watzke, in fact, argued that Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich was the exception in the world of foreign investment in the beautiful game when he spoke about the 50+1 rule: Watzke cautioned, “Most clubs won’t get a Roman Abramovich, who in the first place wants to see Chelsea winning. Most of the investors want to earn money. And where do they get it from? The spectators.”

Most Bundesliga CEOs seemed to agree with him. When Hannover’s CEO Martin Kind attempted to overturn the 50+1 rule in 2009, 32 out of the 35 professional clubs voted against it.

Going back to PSG, pre-1973, PSG was a fan owned club, much like Bayern currently (the club Bayern München e.V. owns 75 percent of the soccer division, Bayern München AG). However, it is with the backing of Qatari ownership that PSG has made it to the Champions League final. The French champions are the fifth-richest club in the world in terms of revenue according to Deloitte’s Football Money League, Bayern is the fourth. If you look at the list today, only Porto and AC Milan, outside of the top twenty, have won the Champions League in the past twenty years, and none outside the top 20 in the past decade. The question, one must ask, then, is this: can an underdog still win the Champions League?

Underdogs shunned by star players

For all their evils, RB Leipzig, which has found numerous ways to circumvent the 50+1 rule, still had their best player, Timo Werner, taken away from them by Chelsea this summer. Lyon’s Houssem Aouar is already on many English clubs’ shopping list if transfer rumors are to be believed. Kai Havertz is set to leave Bayer Leverkusen for Chelsea (like Werner) as well. Speaking of Leverkusen, their 2002 Champions League finalists were quickly taken apart too, as Lucio, Michael Ballack, Dimitar Berbatov, and Ze Roberto all departed the club after their run.

It seems that smaller clubs cannot stop bigger clubs from picking up their best players. Borussia Dortmund, the twelfth-richest club in the world, lost Christian Pulisic last winter to Chelsea, and, it seemed, Pulisic could not wait to go to London.

As the best players of smaller clubs leave every season, it is hard to imagine that such a club, in terms of wealth, will win the Champions League any time soon. The best players of last season’s Champions League outlier Amsterdam Ajax have already been scattered to the four winds.

In the Bundesliga, it seems as if either another club will have to rise to the occasion to challenge Bayern or Bayern will have to completely fall apart before a new champion is crowned. Bayern’s nearest rival, Dortmund, lags far behind in terms of revenue. The gap in points is almost a reflection of it. In fact, Bayern could and should have won the title by even more points this season, had not the early slip-ups under Niko Kovac happened.

50+1 or outside investment?

German football has been built on the 50+1 rule — which limits outside investors to minority control over a club — one of the reasons why I love the Bundesliga myself. But would abolishing the rule or allowing more foreign investment in the league by relaxing the 50+1 rule make the Bundesliga more competitive?

The Bundesliga differs from other major Eurpean leagues like the English Premier League because the fans are such a prominent factor in everyday matches and are very socially conscious individuals. Last year, in Bayern’s match against Hoffenheim, the players walked off the pitch on account of fan protests against Hoffenheim’s owner, Dietmar Hopp. The reason? Hoffenheim also does not abide by the 50+1 rule.

In the last few minutes of the match, the two teams passed the ball to each other in a show of solidarity with Hopp. “I think it’s good that the game ended like this,” Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said. “That was a real treat for the fans of Bayern Munich.”

Whatever view one takes on the protests, there is a place for them in German football because the fans have a say in the way their club is run. This makes the atmosphere in the Bundesliga special; it means that clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt do not have to show the logo of RB Leipzig in their home matches against the side.

Is RB Leipzig’s model the answer to Bundesliga competitiveness?

Speaking of RB Leipzig, they hail from the city of Lokomotiv Leipzig, originally founded in 1893 and currently champions of the fourth tier of German football. While RB Leipzig fans have virtually no voice in their team in contrast to fans of other clubs in Germany, they at least can celebrate a team that reached the semifinals of the Champions League and played some dazzling football before the COVID-19 break in the Bundesliga. With better luck, they might have taken the Bundesliga title home this season.

If Leipzig manages to become a serious challenger to Bayern and wins the title down the line, the Bundesliga would become more competitive. In reality, Borussia Dortmund in recent years, despite the two-point gap last year, has been more pretenders than contenders.

It also is important to remember that the only reason Bayern rose to the challenge in 2013 and broke every Bundesliga record (along with giving Barcelona a famous 7-0 beating on the way to winning the treble) is because a strong Dortmund put them to the sword in 2012. That was the year that Bayern was just seven minutes away from becoming the best team in Europe despite being beaten 5-2 by Dortmund in Berlin in the DFB Pokal finale in 2012. A strong Bayern needs a strong Bundesliga to become even stronger.

Rummenigge knows this and suggested that an adjustment to investing rules might be a good idea (Bundesliga.com):

With foreign owners pumping billions into other leagues, some other German clubs also feel that a change is required in order to stay competitive on a global level. In September 2017, even Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said he felt it should be left to each club to decide if they open the door to outside investment.

Speaking of competitiveness, the English Premier League has produced five different champions in the eight years in which the Bundesliga has produced just one. While the Premier League’s spending habits are not exactly a secret, I can attest to the competitiveness of the league as I keep an eye on Arsenal.

Martin Samuel of The Daily Mail wrote about PSG’s prospects and the unique position of the Premier League:

Since the Premier League was formed in 1992/93, only seven countries have produced Champions League finalists. Portugal and Holland have one each — Porto and Ajax.

France will now join Italy and Germany in producing three — Marseille, Monaco and PSG — to go with AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan, and Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen.

Spain have four — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia.

England stands alone, top of the table, five different clubs into the Champions League final — Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. And the most dominant team of the recent decade, Manchester City, are not there yet.

The English have managed to stay competitive in the Champions League while running a competitive league at home. Had it not been for Manchester City breaking every record in sight, Liverpool might not have risen to the challenge last year and won the Champions League. City, to remind you again, is one of two state owned clubs, with PSG.

PSG’s takeover of Ligue 1 in dominant fashion has not been good for the competitive nature of French football. However, they might break the stranglehold that elite clubs have on the Champions League on Sunday and become the first first-time winner since Chelsea in 2012. Chelsea had a rich investor as does PSG.

This leads me to ask the following question: is money the answer to keeping football competitive? Is money the answer to making the Bundesliga more competitive? Borussia Dortmund would vehemently say no: they managed to break Bayern’s hold on the trophy in back-to-back seasons in 2011 and 2012.

If PSG wins on Sunday, will this be a victory for football because it will produce a new Champions League winner? Or will it be a defeat for football considering the financing that led to this final run?

If Bayern win, one would do well to remember, however, that aside from being one of the richest in the world, Bayern is one of the most well-run clubs in the world, which manages to compete with the elite while operating under the 50+1 rule and keeping their fans involved in the day-to-day running of the club.