The name that strikes fear in the hearts of Europe's elite clubs: Bolton

By Martin Samuel, The Times : 16 Mar 2006

Editor's note: We include this article because of how it pertains to Everton's position in the modern game vis-a-via the G14 and it's stranglehold on the Champions League, etc.

It is not greed that motivates the G14 clubs. It is fear. Fear that they are not good enough, writes Martin Samuel, Sports Writer of the Year

IT IS not greed that motivates the G14 clubs. It is fear. Fear that they are not good enough. Fear that their players are overpriced and overrated. Fear that the coach is not as smart as he thinks he is. Fear that the guy with the money isn’t as rich as he needs to be. Fear in the megastore. Fear in the marketing department. Above all, fear in the boardroom, where the petrified men in suits gather, trembling.

They don’t fancy it. Their bottle has gone. They can barely look. It is their very own Blair Witch Project. Oh my God, what was that? There’s something out there. Did you hear it? What’s that noise? Bolton Wanderers? Osasuna? Werder Bremen? Oh, please, Lord, help.

The bogeyman for G14 is the well-run small club. The type that might steal that last Champions League spot then turn them over in the knockout rounds. The G14 elite like to paint themselves as the future when, in fact, they are rooted in the past. They are the industry’s dinosaurs. They have had it their own way for decades and do not want change.

There are 18 clubs in G14, but, like Orwell’s barnyard society, some are more equal than others. Votes are apportioned according to European trophy wins, so Real Madrid get 20 (two points for every European Cup, plus one point for each Uefa Cup) and Arsenal one (for winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994). By G14’s preposterous logic, Real, whose recent history could be collated under the chapter heading “How Not To Run A Football Club”, deserve the greatest say in the direction the game in Europe should take because they were very good 40 years ago.

The second most powerful voice is Liverpool’s, a club dubiously qualified to advise the rest of the Continent on the business of football, having been annihilated financially by Manchester United from a position that should have been unassailable in the early 1990s. It is 16 years since Liverpool won the domestic championship, but failure is no handicap for a G14 club, either. Bayer Leverkusen have never won the Bundesliga, Paris Saint- Germain have claimed Le Championnat once in 20 years, while Inter Milan must rewind to 1989 to find their most recent triumph in Serie A despite buying a Who’s Who of world football.

The G14 clubs are in fact the enemies of excellence because they want the rewards without the hard work. They seek more Champions League matches guaranteed because they are frightened of defeat in the ones they have; they want qualification for Europe on a plate, so finishing fourth or first becomes inconsequential; they want to be paired with the most feeble or naive opponents in case challenging the mighty is too much for them.

Ferran Soriano, the vice- president of Barcelona, wants extra games inserted into the Champions League format, which can only mean a return to the torpor of the second group stage — an idea that came close to killing the competition as a spectacle the last time, and would do so again.

Adriano Galliani, of AC Milan, believes that the knockout stages should be seeded, based on performance over five years, with first playing eighth and so on. In other words, newcomers such as Chelsea or Bremen would be constantly pitted against wealthier, experienced clubs, reducing their chances considerably.

This is the rationale of the gibbering coward. Given every advantage imaginable, Goliath still wants David to fight with an arm tied. Having manipulated the tournament until the cost of reaching the later stages for any newcomer is roughly £250 million — and it looks as if Chelsea need to add another £50-100 million to win the final — they are still not satisfied.

This racket is necessary to shield the inadequacies of the self-appointed elite. Without a freak set of circumstances, Everton would have taken Liverpool’s Champions League place last year and there is still time for Bolton to nip ahead of Arsenal over the next two months. This would be a financial disaster for any big club. So the G14 cartel is not truly about the desire to progress, but the need to thwart that progress in others. The well-run small club must be shut out: in the qualification process, at the draw, by rearranging the format to the benefit of the select few.

Yet the names on the G14 roster are as random as any snapshot taken at a particular moment in football’s history — and one name in particular. G14 was formed in September 2000, when Leverkusen happened to be moderately successful, having finished runners-up in the Bundesliga three times in four seasons. Losing to Real in the 2002 Champions League final, they remained ever the bridesmaids, yet the invitations were out and they were among the second-tier clubs invited to swell G14’s numbers to 18. Why should this be? Leverkusen are elite in neither achievement nor popularity. On February 18 they drew a capacity crowd of 22,500 to a home match with Duisburg, their local rivals. That weekend, Hannover attracted 49,000, Hertha Berlin more than 50,000, Eintracht Frankfurt 47,500 and Borussia Mönchengladbach 54,019. The previous week, SV Hamburg had drawn 52,081, FC Cologne 50,000, Werder Bremen 36,218 and Schalke 04 61,524.

None of these teams is in G14, despite also eclipsing Leverkusen’s success. In total, Leverkusen’s eight rivals lay claim to one European Cup, four Uefa Cups, two Cup Winners’ Cups, 14 Bundesliga titles, 23 German Cups, four West German league championships and 11 German national championships. Still, Leverkusen have two trophies (the 1993 German Cup and the 1988 Uefa Cup) and were quite good five years ago, so they deserve a say in the future of world football. And that is G14’s brains trust in action.

Hamburg were among the three non-G14 clubs who won the old European Cup in its final ten years. In the 13 years it has stood as the G14-approved Champions League, though, it has been a closed shop. So G14 players are best? Not necessarily. On June 14, 2004, the starting date of the last European Championship tournament, G14 took out a full-page advertisement in The Times. “GO FOR IT” the headline read.

Despite working against international football at every opportunity, G14 was clearly not against using national pride to promote its overblown stars. “G14 members are providing a third of all players at Euro 2004,” it boasted. “We are confident G14’s players will help to make this year’s Championship the best yet.” Below was a list of 139 footballers. The advertisement it would have been nice to see would have appeared on July 5. Beneath the headline “GOING, GOING, GONE”, the copy would have read: “G14 members provided one player in the Greece squad that were crowned European champions yesterday. His name was Giorgos Karagounis and he was suspended for the final. Bugger.”

Sadly, G14’s 138 also-rans turned out to be knackered, laughably overestimated or, in the case of the strikers, unable to cope with basic man-for-man marking. Still, that has not stopped their bosses attempting to sign them up for even more football. Provided that it is not in the shirt of the national team.

Among the least palatable aspects of G14 policy-making is its total disdain for the international game. A court in Belgium is considering a claim by Royal Charleroi that injury to Abdelmajid Oulmers, one of their players, while representing Morocco against Burkina Faso, cost them the 2005 domestic championship (even though he was injured in November, making Charleroi the ultimate pipsqueak one-man team).

Naturally, G14 supports Charleroi because the case will further its claim to have player wages paid while on international duty. This would bring football’s World Cup in line with its rugby union equivalent; and make it about as interesting. In Australia in 2003, countries such as Fiji and Samoa, who could have posed a threat to rugby’s big eight, were weakened because they could not afford to buy their best players out of their contracts with professional clubs. The quarter-finals were depressingly predictable as a result.

Now imagine if Ivory Coast had to pay Didier Drogba’s Chelsea wage this summer, plus that of Kolo Touré, of Arsenal, and team-mates dotted at clubs all over Europe. It would be the end of the World Cup as a spectacle, certainly the death of its ability to surprise. Those who indulge G14’s logic probably think that Africa should be grateful for European colonialists plundering the land, rather than the other way around.

“The voice of the clubs,” is G14’s slogan, but it is as false as the claim to superiority. G14 is not the voice of Bolton or Bremen, nor even of Chelsea, kept out by this quivering elite for daring to challenge its monopoly. It is not the voice of the World Cup or of the champions of Europe. It is not the voice of anybody who cares for football or for the level playing field. It is the voice of lawyers, of faceless political manipulators, of shortsightedness and reckless self-interest.

Above all, it is the voice of frightened little men. Frightened that they are not good enough. And on this, for once, they are right.

©2006 Times Newspapers