Another Bad Football League Reform Proposal

Yesterday the Football League announced its latest proposal to revamp its structure and supposedly benefit the lower leagues and English football *cough* the EPL *cough as it struggles against the juggernaut of European football, the EPL and 24/7 televised football.  Excuse me if I’m feeling a little jaded but reading through the proposals, this seems like another ill thought out attempt to appease the EPL and their captive prisoner the FA. Much like the much derided proposal roughly a year ago to insert EPL B teams directly into the Football League (which the current plan bears all the signs of being a reworked version of) and the plans for adding those same teams to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I can’t see this plan as being positive for the lower league game.

Let’s start with taking a look at the proposal. From a current Football League of three divisions of 24 teams, which has remained largely unchanged since the late 1920s aside from some regional rejigging, the League would expand to incorporate four leagues of 20 teams giving a grand total of 100 teams in the professional league structure, and 80 below the EPL. Details on how the extra 6 teams will be provided are scant at the moment although it has to be assumed they’ll come from the National League unless the Old Firm head south, which is a whole different can of worms, Rhyl FC fancy a return to English football or The New Saints while in a fevered state fancy a crack at English Football.

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Park Hall, the stadium of the New Saints, if you look closely you might be able to see one man and his dog.

The Football League’s argument is that it will reduce the congested fixture list including a large reduction in mid-week games and that the Football League teams will experience no financial loss, season tickets rising as a result. Also intended is to maximise Bank Holiday matches, protect the Play-Off Finals as the last event of the domestic football season, standardise relegation processes across the leagues and other minor stated aims. Rather bafflingly also stated is that reserve football will increase in importance – I fail to see why this is a goal for the Football League, reserve team football is designed to bring players back to fitness, blood youngsters and keep fringe players fit. The importance of the struggles of reserve team EPL teams is an issue for that league and its clubs not for the Football League.

Let’s look at the problems with the proposed league structure to begin with. The first issue that springs to mind is the problem with inserting an extra league into the structure, this will have a negative impact upon forwards thinking clubs and those enjoying their brief moment in the sun. Would a team such as Burton Albion, who have steadily advanced their way through the leagues through savvy management and now facing the enticing prospect of matches against Newcastle United and Aston Villa next season ever have reached such heights if they had to progress through an extra league? The amount of things that could have gone wrong during that extra season are numerous and may well have stolen from Burton’s fans the frankly unique experience they’re going to enjoy next season. Likewise, but perhaps less romantically, the amount of local football fans that invest millions into their local clubs in order for them to have a brief period in the spotlight (Crawley, Fleetwood etc.) will surely drop when they face the prospect of another year’s competition amongst equivalent sized clubs to get to that level of football. While some may argue that the game is better off without these flash in the pan clubs, it’ll certainly be less interesting and the great stories that people tell in thirty years’ time will die away to a degree.

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Not likely to see this very often in the future if the Football League have their way.

Likewise the reduction in league sizes will stratify the leagues to a greater extent. As they currently stand with 24 team leagues there are always a number of teams playing above their level and getting the opportunity to face much larger teams. Burton Albion as previously mentioned, Rochdale in League One, Yeovil in the Championship the season before last.  During recent years when my hometown team Torquay United were in League Two, we played against teams such as Bradford, Huddersfield, Portsmouth, Luton etc. We beat Portsmouth at Fratton Park, less than six years removed from them winning the FA Cup and playing AC Milan in the UEFA Cup. This kind of opportunity will be much reduced under a system of 4 separate leagues, the chances of fallen giants falling down another league is lessened, likewise the chance of being promoted up another league for small teams. Instead what you’ll get is League Three containing the lower end of League Two and upper part of the current National League with major teams finding their way down there few and far between. League Three will become a glorified limbo zone between the old Football League and National League, which may be ripe for the insertion of EPL B teams further down the line as English football culture is further eroded at the hands of TV and commercial logic. If I was feeling particularly cynical I’d suggest that this league is being set up to struggle along, in order to help revive the B teams discussion further down the line.

Another of the League’s stated potential benefits, the standardisation of pro/rel is worrying. I can only assume this will mean 3 up/3 down in each league, scrapping the 4 up/4 down between League One and League Two. The reason this structure exists is to increase the mobility of teams in the lower league structure, mixing it up and giving those teams the odd glamour fixture that sustain their fanbases through 20/30 years of suffering, the new structure will limit this movement. Interestingly it doesn’t mention standardisation of this system with the National League but more of that later…

Moving on to the ideas of fixing the congested fixture list. This smacks of the EPL’s continued search for a solution to their millionaire players complaining about playing too many games and to the FA’s desire to incorporate a winter break into the game to help the underperforming national team (here’s an idea guys – how’s about actually giving youngsters a chance in EPL teams?). The FA’s lack of interest in the lower league game has been blatantly shown again and again in their suggestions to incorporate EPL B teams into the lower leagues and the current plan to bring them into the Football League Trophy (a little less offensive).

One of the things that contributes mosts to the Championship’s legendary unpredictability is its long season.  Most Football League teams cope fine with the calendar as it is, indeed their most precarious time is during the summer where they have no income, and the intensity of the schedule gives young players their opportunity. Teams towards the bottom of the league structure rely upon the money the extra games bring in to keep functioning, is the EPL really willing to increase their solidarity payments enough to cover this loss in revenue? Because season ticket sales aren’t suddenly going to spike at  Morecambe because mid week games are eliminated. Past history and the current morsels on the table suggests not. There is no benefit to this proposal with the possible exception of the reduction in squad size stated by the Football League but then this reduction will be a necessary if you remove four games and the income from that from the calendar. Furthermore it could also have a negative impact on youth players being given their chance in the first team, something that is already in critical health further up the football pyramid.

The reduction in games seems custom made for the EPL bringing in a winter break of some kind but in concert with the entire league structure, so that the Football League doesn’t gain greater exposure during the break and god forbid some of the EPL’s compliant customers actually take a greater interest in their local clubs. The ones they actually have a community link to. The FA have pushed for this on many occasions and it will happen within the next ten years, if the EPL is the only league that incorporates it due to the concentration of England players within that league, then it only stands to reason that the Football League will benefit greatly in this period if it continues playing. The side mention of the potential for a revamp of the Football League Cup’s structure, including the introduction of group stages is laughable, group stages were tried for that competition in the 80s and scrapped because they didn’t work. Football League Cup matches are the worst attended matches during the season, in the early stages of that competition at least, because of the lack of interest in it, adding more matches isn’t going to help. Especially cutting League matches to do so.

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What to do with a problem like the Football League Trophy? Here’s an idea – leave it alone!

As previously mention the one thing that the League’s proposal does not reference is the idea of a third pro/rel spot to the National League indeed even the retention of the two existing slots, while taking great pains to mention the EPL spots. As the plan likely assumes that the absorption of the best 6 teams from the National League, leaving the National League and non-league football weakened, taking most of its professional teams away, it probably believes this is not need. Which calls into doubt the future of promotion from the National League and the potential for developing clubs such as Eastleigh and Maidenhead being locked out of the club as was the case until the 1980s. Furthermore the way the 6 extra teams will be picked is perhaps as worrying. For teams like Tranmere, Wrexham, Torquay or Lincoln, historically much larger than the other teams currently in the National League but sometimes struggling, for the Football League to absorb the top 6 placed teams of the National League in one particular year while leaving them behind despite their greater fanbases could be fatal. A lot of thought will need to go into how to pick those teams, which will be contested bitterly leaving behind a lot of disgruntled fanbases.

There are benefits to the proposal such as the reduced long distance travel for fans but the fans that often make those journeys are the hardcore, the ones who revel in the glories of a Torquay-Carlisle journey and antics in a M6 service station. Would they really want to give up such experiences? Experiences which are in many ways the attraction of being an away fan.

Accrington Stanley and Bradford City have already come out against the proposals and with a need for 65 out of 72 current league teams to vote in favour, it can only be hoped that the proposal is rejected and thrown out forever and the Football League teams move instead towards the real battle of the next 5-10 years. Not reducing their fixture list and kowtowing to the EPL as usual but instead leading the fight to gain much greater solidarity payments from that particular league. The frankly ridiculous amounts of money flowing into the EPL these days, going straight into the pockets of the players, their agents and the foreign club owners must end. While the grassroots of the game, vital for its continued health, need to stop being ignored. Enough is enough, it’s time for the Football League to start looking after itself rather than begging at the EPL table.

The Football League has worked in its present structure since 1958 and it works. It doesn’t need radical change. For the league that needs radical change and to reconnect to its community you need to look up not down.

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Another Bad Football League Reform Proposal

The Problem With FIFA – Democracy

Last week Gianni Infantino was elected the new President of FIFA, almost by default thanks to his own boss’ corruption and the developing world’s inability to stand a candidate who hadn’t identified his own players for torture or been named after a randy Japanese aquatic mammal. It’s not needed to go into the various abuses of FIFA’s position that Blatter and his predecessor the equally corrupt Joao Havelange presided over but they were many and great. The story that broke over last summer laid bare what many football insiders had know for many years and which arguably the mainstream public had known since Qatar was handed the World Cup. FIFA is corrupt.

As we’ve been counting down the days to the election, we’ve had to endure a number of months of Blatter playing the idiot and attacking anyone who criticised him, an utter refusal to engage with any practical reforms by most of the FIFA power brokers and where reform has been proposed it’s been weak and ineffectual. All of which deserves it’s own analysis elsewhere but the core of the matter is that FIFA is institutionally corrupt not only because of the figures involved at the top of the game who have used it to enrich themselves at the cost of the public but because of it’s structure.

The 1 nation/1 vote structure that FIFA employs is supposed to be the ultimate in sporting democracy, a signal that FIFA respects all nations and all races, an important creed for some in the organisation after it’s foot dragging over incorporating Africa and Asia during the Rous era. However this is exactly the structure that left the door ajar for the kind of corruption that Havelange, Blatter and their lieutenants became so adapt at.

The core of the issue is that football is not equally important on a country by country basis, nor are there the institutional structures in many countries to hold their representatives to account. Until very recently it was a minor sport in the United States, seen as played by minorities and the children of soccer moms and confined to those interest groups. In places like Venezuela and Cuba it trails behind baseball in popularity and across swathes of Africa and Asia, engagement with football has come recently and primarily via televised European leagues rather than an engagement with football in their own nation. In many of these countries, the average football fan let alone citizen would be hard pressed to name their FA head and FIFA representatives let alone hold them up to scrutiny.

When a lack of interest in the game, either as a whole or nationally exists it enables those in control of the governance of the game to make it their own personal fiefdom, free from scrutiny and oversight as Chuck Blazer, Jack Warner and Jeffrey Webb did in the Carribbean or Issa Hayatou (still a FIFA ExCom member) has done in Africa. With no public scrutiny of their role, they are free to engage in corruption. The fact that their votes when allocating World Cups or deciding media contracts hold as much weight as the likes of England, Japan etc, countries with well developed developed scrutiny processes and who contribute far more to the global game is what enables and encourages people to bribe them.

Havelange, always a smooth operator, was quick to identify this essential feature of FIFA, indeed he was behind a great deal of it’s development as he evangelised spreading football into Africa and Asia and increasing World Cup participation amongst these nations, culminating in the now standard 32 team World Cup from France ’98 onwards. In exchange for this, he was quick to cultivate a strong network of minor nations who were loyal to him and would support him on any matter, allowing his corruption in exchange for him turning a blind eye to theirs and increasing their representation in the World Cup and on FIFA committees. Blatter continued his approach with particularly strong support from Africa, Asia and the Carribean over the years, even as late as 2015 with the organisation mired in controversy Blatter still maintained strong support amongst these nations, who actually feigned anger and surprise at why people could possibly want him to stand down. Where Havelange and Blatter went, dozens of developing nations reliant upon them for patronage followed.

This bloc of nations would not be a problem if it were not for FIFA’s 1 nation/1 vote rule, where because of this strange commitment to democracy FIFA is an institution where UEFA, a confederation which provides nearly all the major footballing leagues, the majority of the world’s best teams outside of South America and the bulk of popular competitions has only 13 more votes than CONCACAF, a confederation known for it’s endemic corruption, sparsely populated nations and which outside  the USA and Mexico (genuine world football powers) has provided almost nothing to the World game, the odd World Cup run aside. When you combine this with the aforementioned increased propensity for corruption in minor footballing nations, giving confederations such as CONCACAF this power is beyond dangerous to FIFA and yet amongst the latest reform proposals, nowhere is there the suggestion to reform voting rights.

World Rugby does not accord the same voting rights to minor nations as it does to the major nations who provide much of the competition and financing of the game and to it’s benefit. The stakeholders who contribute the most to the game thus have the greatest say over it’s governance. Although the Rugby administrators and nations can be accused of being resistant to change and old fashioned, they are capable of change where it is needed such as accommodating the growth of Argentina and it is noticeable the lack of corruption accusations surrounding World Rugby compared to FIFA and the previous poster boy for sporting corruption the IOC. The world’s two largest sporting events, the Olympics and the Football World Cup have both been subject to highly damaging corruption scandals, the Rugby World Cup has not been. It’s not a coincidence.

Yet it can not be denied that corruption has also found it’s way into the established footballing powers, Michel Platini’s actions over Qatar and his subsequent fall from grace for accepting suspicious payments from Herr Blatter being the obvious example. The German World Cup bid committee for 2006 is under heavy scrutiny currently as is Franz Beckenbauer and even England has been accused of minor infringements in their own bumbling way. This being said FIFA’s attempt to finger the blame at England over the 2018/22 bid scandal in the redacted Garcia Report was one of the most ridiculous actions in a long line of ridiculous actions by Blatter. Especially when the Russian bid team had casually, many would say deliberately, destroyed all their bid documentation and FIFA accepted it with nothing more than a casual shrug of their shoulders…if only we all could just destroy anything with incriminating evidence about us.

The ultimate solution to this problem is not giving women a certain number of positions on the FIFA board, nor limiting Presidential terms to a frankly ridiculous and pointless 12 years (more than the US President!) as voted for in Switzerland last week. It’s in fixing voting rights within FIFA. To do this the following should be applied, taking into account World Rugby’s usage of weighted voting rights.

Every four years directly after a World Cup, an independent outside auditor should use the following criteria to allocate every footballing nation to one of five ranks:

Voting Criteria (in no particular order)

  1. Historical Significance
  2. Current FIFA Ranking after World Cup
  3. Performances in the last World Cup and Confederational Tournament
  4. Contribution to World Game (aid payments, providing coaching, improving admin of developing nations etc)
  5. Corruption index based upon independent audits of the national FA and other stakeholders in the country

Once every nation has been ranked on these criteria, they should then be split into 5 tiers of nations with the following voting powers, 15, 10, 5, 2, 1. This means that the games largest stakeholders (Germany, the United States, Japan etc) will always have a certain weight in FIFA structures but can be penalised for long term poor performance, corruption scandals or lack of engagement with the developing world. Likewise emerging nations such as Belgium, Colombia etc in the last World Cup will reap the reward of their good work and on field performances by moving up the weighting ranks and gaining more influence at FIFA for the next four year cycle.

Only once a new voting structure such as the one laid out in this article has been created, along with a whole other raft of transparency reforms, such as finally moving the HQ out of Switzerland and to a respected audited location such as New York City, Berlin or London, will FIFA ever shed it’s corruption and become truly an organisation for administering football rather than filling the pockets of corrupt ‘administrators’ worldwide.

Without a fundamental reform of voting at FIFA then the organisation will never change. Any reforms will merely be tweaks failing to alter the rotten core of the organisation’s structure. When you can bribe someone like Jack Warner, who held nearly a 5th of all of FIFA’s voting power as his own personal fiefdom, it’s never going to be that hard to corruptly acquire media rights and World Cups. It’s no surprise that Warner’s eventual replacement was Jeffrey Webb, the same Jeffrey Webb who was arrested during those dramatic arrests at Baur au Lac last year and the same Jeffrey Webb that Sepp Blatter was lauding as an agent of change within FIFA just weeks before.

The Problem With FIFA – Democracy