It’s a debate that has split opinions for years and no doubt will continue to do so. Should English fans support all English clubs when they participate in Europe?
In the last couple of weeks we have seen a hugely disappointing performance in the Champions’ League from all the home nation sides that has seen the remaining three beaten at the last 16 stage. There are many theories as to why, perhaps the Premier League isn’t quite the quality we think it is, or perhaps teams aren’t quite up to the task of playing a style that suits football on the continent. Either way, there were some left dismayed at the performances of this country’s football power houses, whilst others delighted in their failures.
I read a statement which exclaimed that people should be supporting the home country sides on the basis that they are English, but the counter argument was met with little meaningful explanation. Therefore I propose to put that right with one simple question, which I shall put forward as this, “Why?”
Champions League qualification is determined by a history of success. On the one hand, the success of English sides in the Champions League is only really rivaled by Spain and Germany – both of which already have four entrants into the competition. Whereas, although Italy and France have had relatively successful campaigns over the past few years; only England, Germany and Spain have enjoyed frequently successful and continuous seasons with multiple participants, with the obvious exception of this year.
The argument is that for us to continue to see strong representation in the competition from the English league we need to earn that right, therefore successful Champions League campaigns from all English clubs concerned is a good thing for the league as a whole, right?? The right to enter four sides in the competition comes from a history of success accumulated into a points system that goes to rank the leagues and determine each individual leagues’ allocation. Continued success allows us to continually enter four teams into the tournament and therefore passing the opportunity and advantage to more clubs all vying for that all important final fourth qualification spot, but also it raises the profile of the league making it a more attractive proposition for foreign imports.
It all sounds very positive, but do we really want to see our closest rivals succeed to such a degree that they are at a significant advantage to us? Does it really follow that success for the top four actually benefits all those others propping up the table?
First of all, this belief that the league will be seriously hindered by a poor performance from the nation’s representatives is pure fantasy for those who want to preach doom and gloom on the rest of us. The fact is that we may not have the most effective teams in European competition at present, but we are comfortably in the top three, the Italian league are currently fourth in the rankings with three representatives and considerably way beneath the top three. In short, this season was a minor blip but from a long term perspective we can remain confident that the English league will remain comfortably in the top three performers – if for no other reason than we have one extra team than the likes of Italy or France from which we will accumulate additional points.
Further to that is the query of whether we really want to be worrying about finishing in the top four. Liverpool football club has a proud history of winning trophies, it would be a sad moment when we accept challenging for fourth place in the league as a genuine long term target and measure of success. We want to reestablish a philosophy that targets league titles and cup success, if European competition is achieved as a result of these ambitions that would be great whether that means finishing in the top four or title winners only, but sometimes I fear that we are sometimes shortsighted of what is really important to this club.
It is estimated that qualification for the Champions League is currently worth £30 million to clubs and with the new television contract coming into play next season that figure could double to £60 million. That’s £60 million that Liverpool could spend on a couple of world class players to add to our young, improving squad whilst our closest rivals who have just fallen short will have to do without. Likewise, progress through the knockout rounds would have added additional funds to the already bulging bank balances of Chelsea and Man City, making it even harder for the rest of us to compete at a domestic level. How can sides like Liverpool be jubilant in the knowledge that their closest rivals now have a significant pecuniary advantage over them in readiness for the next season?
There are commentators who would suggest that without competition in Europe the league would disintegrate, therefore by competing at the top of European football those sides involved will indirectly impact on the rest of the league and thus raising the overall standards of football in this country. But this thought process is upside down. Having a small number of successful clubs in one league creates a gulf that can become insurmountable – Spain, Scotland, Germany are prime examples where only a handful of sides have any realistic hopes of winning the league, is that what we want? In actual fact, much like the herd principle, if we want the Premier League to improve in quality and competitiveness we should be reducing the gap between top and bottom not increasing it. But that argument starts to bypass the point.
The fact is that continual success in the Champions’ League for the top few creates fewer opportunities for other sides to break into that exclusive club, that is fine for Liverpool, but I hardly want to celebrate another side’s success in maintaining their place amongst that elite few. Especially if clubs follow the precedent set by Chelsea of signing players that rival clubs have been in negotiations over but unable to provide the money or Champions League football offered by the big spending blues.
It is the most common argument of patriotism that I find hardest to swallow. Personally I can not accept the notion that we have an obligation to support the other English sides, especially when this is made on a purely patriotic basis. International football provides all Englishmen and women with a chance to be patriotic should that be their want, but domestic football far outreaches national borders. It is a family you are graced with, a bond that becomes synonymous with passion. Your place of birth and abode are irrelevant when, as a youngster, you begin that turbulent journey of becoming a supporter; and you are welcomed with open arms by your new adopted family. When a new player joins your club, you accept them into your family regardless of nationality as long as they show a level of pride and commitment to their newly adopted family.
Europe has its place, but I fail to see anything that stands up to winning a domestic league season. 38 grueling matches all across the country with close rivals and dear friends, long coach journeys and quick trips on the train. Supporters dedicate so much of their lives to supporting their team against the rest of England, how can they suddenly change allegiance to support a club for whom they have such disdain for merely because they are apparently representing the English league? When we play in Europe, we are representing Liverpool football club, that is enough for me, I have no expectations of other teams to feel pride in our achievements and neither do I feel proud of theirs.
The fact is that when it comes to club football, even nationalism takes a back seat, because in my view it is more important than that. We cheer for our team and jeer for those who seek to topple us from our perch, and the closer they are to us geographically only goes to enhance the desire to finish on top. That is not to say you can’t cheer for any one (or even all four) of those clubs representing the Premier League when playing in Europe, you have every right to do so no matter which team you may support, but you do so in isolation and with an acceptance that the argument “because their English” holds no merit.
There is no obligation in football, which is what makes it such a wondrous thing. Should you choose to follow a side or become part of an established supporters’ club, you may do so with as much commitment as you wish to engage; and should you wish to take a breather, the game will continue regardless. But don’t tell me who I should be routing for because when it comes to allegiances only I have that right.
By Ernie Fox