Dominant domestically, crushed on the continent: Why the Atlantic League is back on the agenda for clubs like Celtic

 
Joe Hall
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Celtic Champions League
Never again? Celtic were the first British team to win the European Cup but those days increasingly look consigned to history (Source: Getty)

If you're ever going to win the European Cup, then this is the day and this is the place.” Those were Jock Stein’s parting words to his Celtic side in 1967 before they became the first British club to become kings of Europe with a 2-1 victory over Inter Milan.

More likely intended as a rallying cry, Stein’s words nevertheless turned out to be a prescient forecast of the future difficulties for Scottish clubs in Europe’s premier club competition.

Clubs from Scotland and similar sized countries — Sweden, Holland, Belgium — can no longer challenge the far better-resourced giants from Europe’s top five leagues, and that disparity, which is reinforced by the structure of current European competitions, has instigated discussions that could even see them give up on the Champions League altogether.

The prospect of forming an “Atlantic League”, a new cross-border breakaway competition featuring the best teams from Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and potentially even Portugal, is once again being weighed up by frustrated club executives.

Read more: Could a European super league actually happen? Three experts discuss the likelihood

Discussions have taken place in recent months between representatives of teams from those countries, rekindling an idea first floated at the turn of the century.

Financial chasm

Seemingly dismayed at the speed with which the 1995 Champions League-winning side was dissembled by wealthier competitors, in the late 90s Ajax chief executive Frank Kales argued that clubs from smaller divisions should get together to create their own league, with a television market as big as any of Europe’s major players.

The idea was that this would allow clubs such as Anderlecht, Celtic, Ajax, Benfica and Malmo to re-emerge as contenders for European glory.

Kales’s fears were well-founded. In the 21 years since Louis van Gaal’s young Ajax side beat AC Milan 1-0 in Vienna, the Champions League has only once been won by a team outside of Italy, Spain, England or Germany — when Jose Mourinho introduced himself to the world with Porto in 2004.

This season, no team from Scotland, Scandinavia, Holland or Belgium has survived the increasingly predictable group stage of the Champions League.

Team Champions League performance (16/17)
Copenhagen (DEN) Group stage (3rd)
PSV Eindhoven (NED) Group stage (4th)
Club Brugge (BLG) Group stage (4th)
Celtic (SCO) Group stage (4th)
Ajax (NED) Play-off round
Rosenborg (NOR) Third qualifying round
Anderlecht (BLG) Third qualifying round
IFK Norrkoping (SWE) Second qualifying round

A financial chasm has opened up between teams. In the 2014-15 season, for example, Arsenal alone generated over £100m in revenue more than the entire Belgian Pro League combined.

David Low, a financial consultant who advised on the purchase and sale of Celtic by Fergus McCann in the 1990s, was privy to early discussions to form a breakaway league.

“It was a problem then and it’s a problem now,” he told City A.M.

“I think it’s pretty intractable. An unnamed Celtic director told me that there’s not a day that they don’t wake up and think ‘How can we get out of this bloody league?’

“The creation of the English Premier League was all about creating a bigger TV cake and cutting it into fewer slices. The Champions League has been doing the same and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is trying to maintain the situation where you get into the Champions League if you’re big, not if you’re good.”

Breakaway

Bayern chief executive Rummenigge is chairman of the European Club Association, the influential lobby group of Europe’s biggest clubs whose angling for a bigger slice of TV revenues from Uefa competitions has set clubs from “smaller” and “bigger” leagues at war with one another.

Read more: European leagues threaten to rebel against Uefa over "totally crazy" changes to European club competition

Representatives from member clubs let it be known that they were discussing a possible breakaway division — a “European Super League” — while others, such as Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, called for “wild card” Champions League entries to be granted to historically illustrious teams who failed to qualify.

Uefa’s compromise has been to guarantee four Champions League spots to the four top leagues in its coefficient ranking, currently the German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga, the Premier League and Italian Serie A.

The difference between the Atlantic League as it was originally proposed and the current format under consideration is that, while initial plans would have created a division to replace domestic competition, it is now considered an alternative to a Champions League seen as an increasingly unwelcoming place for smaller clubs.


Celtic conceded 16 goals in six Champions League group games this season (Source: Getty)

Lars-Christer Olsson, the current chairman of the European Professional Football Leagues — the representative body for all of Europe’s 24 leagues — says the Atlantic League has re-emerged as a revolt against Uefa’s perceived protection of richer clubs.

“The reason clubs are bringing this up now is to a large extent their disappointment at the new proposals for the Champions League,” Olsson, who also served as Uefa’s chief executive between 2004 and 2007, told City A.M.

“What they are seeing — and they are not entirely wrong in my opinion — is that there are a limited number of big clubs trying to prepare for a private league at the top of Uefa competitions. The future of European club competition is a totally open question and this [an Atlantic League] is only part of that discussion. Our leagues are free to investigate to see what can come out of it.”

Disbanded

Whether or not clubs actually follow through with the breakaway rests with what Uefa does next, Olsson believes. “I think Uefa will change their opinion, because that is the only logical development,” he says.

Yet even if that change is not forthcoming, there is little guarantee fans of Celtic, Brondby and others would follow their teams into the new division.

Experiments with a cross-border league on a smaller scale have struggled to win fan support, while domestic broadcasters may not be convinced there is a large audience in their market for competitions featuring just one or two clubs from their country.

Olsson, chairman of the Swedish football league, cites the Scandinavian experiment with the “Royal League”, an annual competition between teams from Sweden, Norway and Denmark that ran for three years between 2004 and 2007 but was never bestowed much prestige by fans and eventually disbanded after failing to sell TV rights.

“The fans didn’t embrace it as a proper tournament,” he added. “I think there will of course be some TV money coming in [for an Atlantic League] but the reality of creating a market is not exactly the same if you’re creating cross-border competitions as if you’re creating a domestic competition.”

Yet if the likes of Celtic feel they are increasingly cut a smaller and smaller slice of the Champions League pie, the potential pitfalls may be regarded as risks worth taking.

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