European leaders emphasise meritocracy over plutocracy, with Villareal as timely reminder

By Andrew Warshaw

May 28 – Villarreal’s euphoric upset win over Manchester United in this week’s Europa League final was not only a triumph for the club and its fans, it also cemented the anti-Super League sentiment and justified the narrative that middle and smaller-sized clubs can fulfil their dreams on the biggest stage.

While United may be one of the richest brands in world football, Villarreal, a city of just 50,000 who finished seventh in La Liga but have now acquired a Champions League spot, proved just how far spirit, organisation and tactics can take you on limited resources.

Their victory over United was a refreshing tonic in support of the argument that competing for major titles is not the automatic preserve of the elite and that fans of so-called unfashionable clubs can still aspire to glory.

This was a theme widely debated at Thursday’s European Leagues platform in Madrid attended by over 300 stakeholders including Serie A CEO Luigi Di Siervo who made the point that the Super League protagonists were also the clubs with the biggest debts and that the principle of sporting merit over greed was paramount.

“It has to be the main thing that guides us all,” said de Siervio, who also re-ignited the idea of a salary cap for European football “before the system collapses”.

Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, the general secretary of world players’ union FIFPro, disagreed that a salary cap would bring about more even competition.

“I think there’s very flawed thinking around salary caps being the solution to this problem,” he said. “Normally speaking, the larger, more dominant clubs already have a lower share of wages to revenue than the ones who are trying to compete with them. So it would actually harm competitiveness.”

But the need for sporting merit was a theme backed by a string of delegates at the summit.

Fernando Carro, vice president of Bayer Leverkusen, said this was one explanation why there were no German clubs among the Super League cartel.

“Our clubs are very much aware of what fans expect,” he told the summit. “They don’t expect German clubs to support a closed competition.”

Living the dream, as fans of Villareal certainly did, was an essential ingredient in preserving the current status quo, said Carro.

“Sevilla, with their Europa league record, are a classic example of this and Villarrael managed to do the same. It’s so important for sporting meritocracy.”

Not everything about the UEFA club competition system has unanimous backing, of course, not least the idea of clubs in future “leapfrogging” into the Champions League based on historic performance.

But one of the most interesting interventions came from Patricio Rodriguez, a board member of Granada, an unheralded club who have had a more than creditable season in La Liga and reached the quarterfinals of the Europa League.

“Three years ago we were in the second division which perhaps shows clubs with a similar history and budget to ours can hope that one day they can make history,” Rodriguez said. “Villarreal’s win showed how teams can fulfil their sporting dreams.”

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