Inequality: how does women’s football in England compare?

In honour of this weekend’s women’s World Cup final, I thought it would be interesting to do a post looking at how the highest level of women’s football in England, the Women’s Super League, compares with the Premier League in terms of levels of competitive inequality. I’ve calculated the same four measurements used in analysis of the top men’s European leagues (fully outlined and explained in this post), then presented a side-by-side comparison of each measure (for every season it is possible to calculate) since the WSL started in 2011.

A few points to have in mind:

  • Over the period in question, the WSL’s format has gradually evolved, expanding from an eight team league to a league of twelve teams. You are, therefore, dealing with a shorter season than the Premier League.
  • Because of the smaller league size for the WSL, I haven’t gone beyond the top four when looking at the turnover measure.
  • The figures listed here for the WSL for 2017 were for a particularly short interim ‘Spring Series’ competition of just eight games, used to bridge a gap caused by a shift in the overall schedule of the playing season from summer to winter.


For each graph, WSL results are shaded light blue and those for the Premier League are shaded darker.

There are some things that can be clearly see from the results:

  • After a few early years of flux, the WSL has settled into a very similar pattern to that of the men’s game, with high levels of stability (high correlation in finishing positions from season to season, low levels of turnover in top positions) and high levels of dominance by the winners (in terms of points per game and goal difference per game).
  • In fact, the figures point to unequal competition having become more of a factor in the functioning of the women’s game than the men’s.
  • In particular, the top positions of the WSL have been dominated by three teams: Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal. In fact, 2023 marked the first occasion since 2014 that one of these teams finished out of the top three — Man City were fourth, as a result of Man Utd finishing second.
  • The WSL champions consistently achieve better goal difference than those of the Premier League, built upon large numbers of easy wins. The pinnacle of this was the 2017 Spring Series mentioned above: in the eight games they played, champions Chelsea recorded two 7-0 wins, one 6-0 win and two 4-0 wins.

What can we learn from this?

Unequal access to resources is just as much of an issue for the state of competition within women’s football in England as it is in the men’s game, even if the financial standing of the two leagues are very different. Absurd money is not sloshing around the WSL in the manner it does in the Premier League. In fact, women’s teams remain largely dependent upon their affiliated men’s clubs for much of their funding, which means affiliation with a wealthy Premier League men’s side is becoming almost a prerequisite for any sort of success. Indeed, in the 2022-23 season, the only WSL side not backed by a Premier League team was Reading, who finished bottom and were relegated, after which financial constraints have led them to switch from fully professional to part-time status.

What this also helps to show is that the level of effective competition within a league is not a function of the absolute levels of resources it has access to, but rather as a result of how resources are spread within the clubs in the league. The Premier League has not got less competitive in the past couple of decades because of the increased wealth of its clubs, but rather because of the inequality in resources that has created various levels of hierarchy between those at the top and those lower down. Meanwhile, WSL teams have experienced varying levels of success because some clubs have been quicker and more lavish in the investment they have dedicated to their women’s teams.

The good news for the WSL is that its problems seem easier to remedy, as the ongoing development of the women’s game (aided by, at the very least, a World Cup final appearance) is likely to make more Premier League clubs come to see the benefits of investing in a women’s team, meaning that more teams may be given the resources to challenge in future. The scale of the disparities in the men’s game, meanwhile, feel like far more of a daunting obstacle toward the delivery of a healthily competitive Premier League.

What should we do to fight back against sportswashing?

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 3

The massive Saudi investment into football this summer has brought increased urgency to debate about sportswashing. In the previous two parts of this discussion, I first set out why there is reason to be morally concerned about Saudi involvement in the sport (and sport in general, more broadly), then argued that ethically we should be more concerned to think about complicity with a sportswashing exercise, as opposed to just focussing on hypocrisy and whether individuals are totally consistent with their expressed beliefs.

Now I want to put forward some suggestions that follow from this approach as to what fans can do in response to this issue.

Before getting into that, however, I think it is helpful to clarify what the general guiding aims of action should be. To do that, let’s first think about what the aims of sportswashing are: states engage in sportswashing as a means to extend their influence through an incredibly high-profile area of our social and cultural lives; their emphasis is on creating positive reputational impact for their state, while distracting from wrongdoing. In the process, they make participants within sporting institutions (not only players, but also other staff and a wider community of fans) complicit within a cover-up exercise.

The sportswasher, therefore, wants fans to be so enthused by the sporting spectacle that they ignore any wider concerns. Pushing-back against sportswashing requires us as fans to not be compliant with this wish.

What to do if an authoritarian state buys your team

So, let’s suppose the team you support becomes the subject of a takeover by a regime looking to engage in sportswashing. How should you respond?

Firstly, let’s outline something I don’t think you have to do. You do not have to sever all ties in order to be able to have and raise concerns. I put the case in the previous post that absolute purity cannot be demanded as a precondition for criticism: we should not be so concerned about hypocrisy as to say that you cannot voice concern about your club’s ownership while still attending games, or engaging in other forms of support for the team. It is absolutely understandable if some fans come to decide that they find some forms of ongoing association with the club too much to bear, but given just how deep within our identities football affiliation can sit, it seems unreasonable to demand this of any dissatisfied fans.

We do, though, need to retain some sense of perspective. As fans, we can easily become prone to motivated reasoning, to thinking that what is good for our team’s prospects is just good, all things considered. We can easily convince ourselves, therefore, that there is nothing in those latest allegations against our star striker or that supposed breaches of financial regulations by our club are simply an attempt by clubs to bring us down. Or that the people pumping money into our club are decent, reformist modernisers, so any talk of human rights abuses must be overblown.

But, we have a responsibility as fans not to become cheerleaders for our club’s owners. Don’t engage in culturally dubious sartorial tributes; don’t chant the name of your Russian owner during a minute’s applause for Ukraine; don’t jump onto social media or online comment spaces to shout down potential critique of your owners; don’t attend international games of the state that backs your club. The symbols and interests of the state that owns your club are not your symbols and interests — don’t take on the role of a footsoldier for the sportswashing exercise.

Newcastle fan in black and white Saudi themed dress, waves a Saudi flag

The bigger point here is that we never owe loyalty to the owners of our club. While it is often a tribal reflex for football fans to simply defend everything about our club from outside criticism, we have a responsibility to fight against that urge here. It is not disloyal to be open-minded in considering potential charges against the club’s owners — if there are ties to human rights abuse, it is not disloyal to acknowledge them. The club is a separate entity from its legal owners; we can continue to embrace one while honestly conceding deep concerns about the other. (This is, incidentally, something fans rarely have an issue with when it comes to bad owners: Manchester United fans have consistently maintained an antipathy towards the Glazers, in the same way the Newcastle fans were resistant for years towards Mike Ashley.)

How should other fans respond?

But sportswashing is not just a concern for fans of clubs owned by states with dubious records, but poses a challenge to the integrity of the sport as a whole. So how should broader concerns be responded to? I’m going to start by thinking, in particular, about the Saudi Pro League, as that was the main prompt for these posts.

One of the big things I think fans should aim to do is to avoid deepening their involvement or complicity with sportswashing exercises. While this makes cases like the takeover of a beloved club difficult, when it comes to the money being thrown at the Saudi Pro League, I think the response we should take is far easier. You (I presume, at least) have no existing ties to this competition or to clubs within it; don’t start to follow Saudi football. You were not interested in catching the Al-Hilal highlights last season, you didn’t follow Al-Ahli on the socials, you didn’t buy your child an Al-Nassr shirt, so don’t do any of those things now. Don’t watch the matches (which DAZN recently announced they would be showing), don’t care about what is happening there. The Pro League’s success cannot be based solely on players joining its clubs, if fans do not allow the attention to be sufficiently drawn to sustain it. Don’t extend your own involvement with Saudi sportswashing by dipping your toe in the water.

Broadening the above point, we should not allow sportswashers to simply become part of the landscape, a normal feature of football like any other team owner or league operator. They want us talking about the football and not the other stuff, the bad stuff; they want positive associations. So we have a responsibility to try to prevent that from happening. Don’t ever get bored of raising (or even just hearing) the human rights concerns. Players who choose to play in Saudi should be asked awkward questions. As should people connected with Man City and Newcastle United. Pundits and journalists should raise concerns on a regular basis. I have no issue with rival fans using chants, banners or social media to keep issues in the public eye.
I know that fans often look to football as an escape from the more serious concerns of life, so may not want to keep talking about or hearing about factors beyond the game. But, refusing to let our attention shift totally away from these broader factors is a price worth paying for preventing the sport from being entirely colonised by state money and the political concerns it brings.

Banner shown by Crystal Palace fans in 2021, criticising the Premier League for approving the Newcastle takeover

So far, the measures have mostly been about avoiding any further deepening of complicity, but what steps are there to actually reversing the issues we already face? The problem here is that there are few steps that are actually open to fans that are likely to make a real difference. The most important actions that could be taken to control the ability of state funds to shape football are only available to regulators, in the form of football authorities (FIFA, UEFA, individual football leagues and associations) or, in the case of involvement in European leagues, lawmakers in our parliaments.
What fans can do, though, is to make sure their opinions are heard by these regulators. Write to your local MP, sign petitions, support campaigns by human rights organisations, encourage others to do the same. These can feel like fruitless gestures. Most of us will also have little faith in either football’s governing bodies or our political representatives actually doing the right thing — most will be happy to roll the red carpet out to oil wealth so as to avoid scaring away potential investment. But if we are unhappy about the sport we love becoming little more than a PR tool for abusive regimes, changes to rules or new forms of regulation still offer our best hope for resistance.

So, what regulation is needed?

Preventing sportswashing in established European leagues feels far more feasible than stopping the Saudi Pro League from making giant offers to big name players (and, more likely than not, those players accepting those deals). But what sort of regulations should we be calling for?

One possibility would be that nothing new is required, all that is needed is for a more stringent application of existing rules. Leagues have ownership rules and typically retain the ability to block takeovers if they have doubts about prospective owners, which could easily be used as a mechanism to prevent European teams becoming used for sportswashing purposes. Indeed, in March of this year the Premier League added an explicit stipulation that proven involvement in human rights violations is a “disqualifying event” within the fit and proper persons test for owners. They have the power to stop abusers taking control of clubs.

However, there are several reasons why this is unlikely to prove effective as a guard against sportswashing, as the Newcastle takeover might be used to illustrate. The humans rights element was not present within the ownership tests at the point the takeover was concluded, but even if it had been, it seems hard to imagine a scenario where the takeover would have been blocked. The first issue is the difficulty of picking up on concerns about institutional links with a test that is designed to assess individuals. That is, it can be easy for all of the main individuals associated with an ownership bid — such as, in Newcastle United’s case, PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan — to personally be totally free of any evidence of connection to any form of human rights abuse. However PIF, as the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, possesses a direct institutional link between it and the Saudi state (irrespective of the supposed legally-binding assurances to the contrary received by the Premier League), which does therefore create an institutional implication between the money behind the Newcastle takeover and every single state official within Saudi Arabia, which therefore also carries a connection to widespread and well documented human rights abuses.

Yet, even if it were possible to find the evidence to link the specific figures involved to human rights abuse, the next potential pitfall is that acting upon it may be viewed, in political terms, as a potential embarrassment or strategic error. A high profile accusation of human rights abuse or the blocking of a strategically significant investment deal could be something that causes an upset that is felt to be a political or diplomatic problem. This actually appears to have been a worry for the UK Foreign Office during the complicated Newcastle takeover process, as the text of emails uncovered by The Athletic demonstrate:

It’s not for HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) to intervene in buying/selling football clubs. But HMG is not neutral about UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a crucial and valuable relationship with an important partner, regionally and globally. The purchase of Newcastle United by KSA’s sovereign wealth fund would be a valuable boost to the relationship and signal of intent for further Saudi investment in the north east.

Reports also suggest Boris Johnson, possibly at the direct prompting of MBS, was active behind the scenes in pushing for the Newcastle takeover to go ahead.

Once it is a state seeking to purchase a football club, the matter becomes one of geopolitical significance, affecting trade and security relationships, and shaping far wider investment discussions. This makes it harder — although, it must be noted, far from impossible — to make an individual decision to oppose an ownership bid, without this action having much wider consequences.

Here we come to the crux of the matter: states are inherently political entities, so their involvement as football owners makes governance of the sport or enforcement of ethical rules (or, indeed, other rules such as Financial Fair Play that seek to protect a measure of competitive balance) that much harder. As well as turbo-charging the processes of commodification and financialisation that fans already worry are ruining the game, it creates the sort of complicity that these posts have highlighted as the key ethical concern — football becomes implicated within various state-led propaganda projects.

In some respects, with Manchester City and Newcastle already as precedents, we are already too late to stop this. However, I still think that if we want to find the most effective means to push back against sportswashing by keeping it out of European football, the easiest mechanism would be through the implementation of rules or laws that prevent the (either direct or indirect) ownership of football clubs by states or their sovereign wealth funds. This is something the admirable NUFC Against Sportswashing group have campaigned for, with their site providing a useful model letter for any fan who wishes to take action by contacting their political representative.

The other front in resistance to sportswashing in club football would be in striving to keep the Saudi Pro League outside and separate from top-level competitions. There are already whispers of attempts to secure a place for Saudi clubs within the Champions League but, should this be unsuccessful, you could easily imaging attempts to collaborate with disgruntled European giants (Barcelona and Real Madrid being prime candidates) on some form of breakaway rival, akin to the LIV Tour in golf.

Holding fast to a strict division between Saudi-backed competitions and established European leagues is vital for preventing the success of their sportswashing exercise. At present, although European clubs cannot match the spending power of the Saudis, they retain two major advantages in attracting the world’s best players: one is that their leagues are the most historically established, with storied clubs that are regarded as being the place where footballing careers and reputations are made; the second builds on this idea in that, therefore, European leagues are seen to provide the peak of club competition, capturing global attention to its fullest, so moving anywhere else will potentially be a hindrance to a player’s standing or their ability to continue to be selected for international competition. If, however, the divide were to become blurred — if you could take the money offered by Al-Hilal, yet still be seen regularly playing matches at the very highest level in the Champions League — any hope of preventing a Saudi takeover of top-level club football seems immediately diminished.

Do I have confidence that, when the time comes, regulators or legislators will prevent this? When there is a huge pile of investment money at stake in exchange for a place in the Champions League or for backing a new global competition format do I really expect them to hold out? I have doubts that they will but, for fans who wish to prevent the further complicity of our sport with abusive authoritarian regimes, doing whatever we can to hold the football authorities and our political representatives to account, pushing them to do the right thing, remains our best hope.

Premier League kickoff: who is going to be victorious?

To mark the start of the 2023/24 Premier League season, let’s briefly step aside from the sportswashing posts to assess how this season might go:

A few things to note:

  • Bookmakers are a little gun-shy on outsiders since Leicester’s incredible 2016 victory. No club this year is given the 5000-1 odds the Foxes won with that season — Luton are the least favoured team this year at 3000-1.
  • Just seven teams are given greater than a 1% chance of success: the financially mighty six sides who signed up for the European Super League, added to by Newcastle and their Saudi-stocked coffers.
  • Only nine of the twenty teams have better than a 0.15% chance of victory. The seven above plus Brighton and Aston Villa.

Still, best league in the world, isn’t it?

Jordan Henderson and why not to get hung-up on hypocrisy

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 2

Of all the footballers to have made the choice to go to play in the Saudi Pro League, one has attracted way more criticism than any other: former Liverpool and Sunderland midfielder, Jordan Henderson. The reason for receipt of this opprobrium? Because Henderson is judged to be a hypocrite, who has jettisoned principles he had previously endorsed, most notably in his calls for football to show greater support for LGBTQ+ people within the sport, in order to pick up a massive pay packet in a country where sexuality is strictly controlled through the use of criminal law.

In this post, I want to explain why I think the emphasis upon hypocrisy, and in turn the singling-out of Henderson among players moving to Saudi Arabia, is not the best way to respond to the ethical issues raised by the raised Saudi profile within football. In short, I think this lets others off too easily, while discouraging players from taking positive stances in future.

This post is the second of three assessing ethical issues raised by the spending of Saudi Pro League clubs. The first outlined the reasons I think we have for being worried about the source of this money. The third will examine how best we might respond.

Is Henderson a hypocrite, or are those who criticise him hypocrites?

The charge of hypocrisy against Henderson is relatively easy to substantiate. He has, up to this point, been one of football’s more vocal supporters of LGBTQ+ rights, frequently wearing rainbow laces and a rainbow captain’s armband while actively reaching out to fans on social media with messages of inclusion and support. In a set of programme notes in 2021, he made the following statement:

I do believe when you see something that is clearly wrong and makes another human being feel excluded you should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. You also have a responsibility to educate yourself better around the challenges they experience. That’s where my own position on homophobia in football is rooted. Before I’m a footballer, I’m a parent, a husband, a son, a brother and a friend to the people in my life who matter so much to me. The idea that any of them would feel excluded from playing or attending a football match, simply for being and identifying as who they are, blows my mind. The idea they’d have to hide from it to be accepted? But that’s exactly how too many members of the LGBT+ community feel. We know this because they tell us. So we should listen, support them and work to make it better.

These are admirable sentiments. And, hearing them from a footballer — a group often characterised as mercenary, materialistic, shallow or unthinking — offered the hopeful possibility that football might be capable of being viewed as something other than a moral deadweight upon wider culture, that footballers could be seen as people to emulate, not just for their glamorous lifestyles, but also for their ability to inspire change.

His move to Al-Ettifaq, therefore, with all of the heavy-handed exclusions that characterise life in Saudi Arabia, has been widely characterised as a direct contradiction of the noble positions he previously advocated, a hypocritical betrayal of those who once looked to him as an ally.

Condemnation has not been universal, however. In an interview with Talksport last week, England manager Gareth Southgate held back from criticising the move:

It’s not for me to judge any individual whether they’re in football or in any other industry. I don’t think he’s changing his view on what he believes in. So now we’re in a really complex world where, what are we saying, nobody should go to Newcastle? Should nobody work for companies that the Saudis own in London or should nobody buy oil from the Saudis? I think it’s very complicated.

In many ways, this is a politician’s answer — Southgate avoids ever stating his own position, instead relying upon reader to infer it from the intended answer to the rhetorical questions (is it actually totally implausible to answer ‘yes’ to any of them..?). But what is also implied through these questions is a counter-charge of hypocrisy back towards critics of the move: your standing to be critical of Henderson’s inconsistency is made out to be dependent upon also taking a hard-line stance against any involvement with Saudi money. On this view, without insisting on the severing of any possible Saudi ties, critics are themselves being hypocritical.

Another version of this charge is the argument that most, if not all, critics would jump at the chance of an occupational move that came with a trebling (or more) of their income, that complaints over human rights are the preserve of onlookers, armchair pontificators with nothing at stake. As Henderson’s case reveals, this critique goes, although we might like to pretend we are all upstanding and principled, everyone has their price.

Henderson’s hypocrisy

There are problems, though, with any ethical discussion of the situation simply taking place at the level of competing accusations of hypocrisy, which can be seen by taking a closer look at both sides on the argument above.

With regard to Henderson himself, you get the impression that many critics would not have been so vocal if it had not been for his past record of taking progressive political stances. Criticism is not extended to other players choosing to take Saudi offers, nor to other English figures (such as Steven Gerrard) taking Pro League roles. In a comment piece by former West Ham player Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay after his playing career ended, an explicit line is drawn:

I want to differentiate. Riyad Mahrez, Karim Benzema and others have gone to Saudi Arabia this summer. It is a global market and players always think they only have a career of 10-15 years and want to make as much money as possible… It’s their choice and I don’t criticise it because they have not consciously stood up and said: “We support the LGBTQ+ community.”

This is typical of the what we have seen: there is a subtle criticism of other players here, but it is clear that Henderson is being viewed as much worse and a much more worthy target for criticism.

Certainly, the hypocrisy is a problem. But I think a bigger problem is the simple fact that, by participating in what amounts to a large-scale PR campaign on behalf of Saudi Arabia, he is making himself complicit with a state with such a dubious human rights record, irrespective of whether he had expressed a commitment towards inclusive causes. Over-inflating the significance of his inconsistency risks making us lose sight of this wider problem, while potentially leading us to forget that every other player who chose to accept a Saudi offer is likewise making themselves a participant in this propaganda exercise.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we are perfectly entitled to think of Henderson as worse than the others. But it is possible to reframe the way we think about the situation so as to prevent losing sight of the fact that anyone going to play in Saudi is doing something dubious: any player that moves to play in the Pro League should be thought of as committing a wrong for making themselves complicit in human rights abuses; but we have grounds for being more disappointed in Henderson, as he had given previous evidence of being concerned enough to speak out against injustice, which may have led us to expect better of him.

Another problem in making so much depend on what Henderson has previously said is that the likely chilling effect this may have on other players, incentivising them to simply stay quiet in future, rather than ever risking speaking out on political or ethical concerns. If displaying any sort of conscience is simply going to invite further scrutiny or criticism down the line, or to make some future career moves more difficult, maybe other players will take the lesson that it is better to keep shtum and act as an amoral mercenary from the outset.

It feels better, to me at least, for us to focus on criticising the choice of players to make themselves more complicit with the Saudi regime’s efforts to realign its image, rather than just assessing whether this goes against any previous statements they have made.

Are we hypocrites for criticising?

But, here’s where the other side of the hypocrisy equation hits. Who are we to judge the choices of another person? In making a choice like this, they are able to access sums of money that will be life-changing for themselves and their family for many years to come — wouldn’t we all take the same chance if we were in their shoes? Equally, aren’t we all already tied into chains of political and economic interaction with Saudi Arabia (or other similarly dubious states), making us inconsistent hypocrites for focussing so heavily on footballers choosing to play in the Pro League?

Firstly, let’s concede one way in which this response has a point. Almost all of our lives are already inexorably entangled with the functioning of the Saudi state. The source of its funds, the vast oil deposits that lie underneath its territory, is dependent on the vast global demand for oil-based products — irrespective of the fact that the UK imports very little oil directly from the kingdom, our consumption still contributes to its economic significance as a resource. Meanwhile, our government has, for decades, been happy to sign deals supplying arms to the Saudi state. As Southgate points out in his quotes above, beyond Newcastle United, the PIF sovereign wealth has large stakes in many high profile consumer brands: Disney, Boeing, Uber, Microsoft and Starbucks are all reported to have received PIF investment.

I think it is incorrect, though, to think that our standing to comment on Saudi football involvement is dependent upon being absolutely purified of any contact with PIF money. We live in such a globalised, interconnected world that the very idea of drawing a clean line of separation between any of us and any Saudi interests seems nigh on impossible. If purity demands that I have to avoid Microsoft products, this means I have to find a job that does not ever involve consulting an Excel spreadsheet, using a Windows PC, handling Outlook email, taking a Skype call. Even if I manage that, how do I handle the task of ensuring my own purity while shopping for products, unless I can know things like the provenance of the oil from which the plastics within them were derived, or can uncover exactly how the container ships or lorries that carried them to market were fuelled?

Purity, being free from any sort of connection with Saudi interests, is a mirage. Which means any demand that, unless we are totally pure, we are hypocrites for commenting on Henderson (or Steven Gerrard, or Cristiano Ronaldo, or Riyad Mahrez, or Newcastle United) seems utterly implausible and again pushes towards a football scene where fewer people feel able to voice criticism. Southgate was right to note that we live in a really complex world. But that means it is wrongheaded to think that a simplistic picture of the moral situation, such as that you must be totally pure and uncorrupted to have an opinion, will help us to navigate that complexity.

The gist of my argument here is that hypocrisy is not really helpful as the main tool of our evaluation, as we are all, to some extent, unavoidably hypocritical: the modern world forces associations and connections upon us to things like human rights abuse (or, in other contexts, worker exploitation or environmental degradation) that go against our ideas of what we want to stand for. If this is the case, however, that we are all already complicit in some way with the abuses I discussed in the previous post, why have I continued to rely on the idea of complicity as the basis for evaluation of the Pro League?

The claim underlying this analysis is, therefore, that, although all of us are already somewhat complicit with chains of cooperation that assist in furthering the interests of the Saudi state, we should still, wherever it is reasonably possible, avoid choices that further deepen that complicity. And, again wherever we might judge it to be reasonable to do so, we might look to find ways to try to extract ourselves from some of the ways in which we are already complicit (although, acknowledging that total purity is always likely to be beyond us).

Is it unreasonable for us to expect players to turn down Saudi offers?

Does this claim offer another potential defence for players taking up Saudi offers? Which would be to say that, given the career brevity that Hitzlsperger notes, it is simply unreasonable to expect them to turn down a salary of three or four times what they could earn elsewhere. The offers are, as the adjective often used to accompany discussion of them reminds us, ‘life-changing’, in that they are capable of comfortably setting-up these players and their families for the entirety of their post-playing lives.

I think there is a possible case for mitigation here for the likes of Max Power — a solid lower-league pro who, while he has had a good career, is unlikely to be set for life — who signed this summer for Al-Qadsiah. But most of the players signing for Pro League teams have already earned what would be many lifetimes worth of wealth for the average person, making the meaning of ‘life-changing’ a shift from fabulously wealthy to unimaginably wealthy. Equally, almost all of the players concerned would still be able to attract multi-million pound offers from other leagues, were they to have turned down those from the Pro League. While there are, then, costs for any player in not choosing to play in Saudi, it certainly does not strike me as unreasonable to expect them to bear these costs; they would continue to be able to live lives of comfort and luxury in any case.

For any player that chooses to play in the Saudi Pro League, this remains a genuine and avoidable choice, one that deepens their complicity with a sportswashing project that provides cover for a ruthless and oppressive regime. It is a choice that deserves criticism, irrespective of whether they have previously expressed progressive sentiments.

More broadly, though, how can fans avoid likewise becoming further complicit in this type of project? This will be the subject of the final part of this discussion.

Is Saudi investment in football a moral problem?

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 1

This summer’s biggest football story continues to be the vast sums of money being spent by clubs within Saudi Arabia’s Pro League to attract star names to play in Arabia. The previous post discussed this from the perspective of the sport as a whole, thinking about how Saudi money might (or might not) change the football landscape.

There is, however, an entirely different way in which we might approach these developments, which is to consider how ethically problematic they are and how football — fans, players, regulators — should respond. This is what I’ll do over the course of three posts. In this one, I assess the reasons we might have for objecting to Saudi prominence in the sport; part two argues that our evaluations of this issue need to go beyond picking out hypocrisy; part three considers how we should best respond.

What are the issues here?

Money from Middle-Eastern petro-states is, of course, not new in football: Manchester City’s current reign of success has been bankrolled by Abu Dhabi, while Qatar, in addition to hosting last year’s World Cup, has also overseen an ownership period at Paris Saint Germain during which the club has pursued a ‘Football Manager on cheat mode’ transfer policy — bringing, among others, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar to the French capital — yet has failed to bring the Champions League trophy that would have marked the project as a success. Throughout this period, we have seen increased discussion of the concept of sportswashing as a way of capturing the ethical unease caused by links between sporting events or organisations and entities (especially states) whose wider activities raise significant moral questions.

Under the banner of sportswashing, however, there are a range of different concerns that often get bundled together. I think it is worth distinguishing between the different issues caused by state involvement of this kind, though, to be clear as to the different types of response that might be available.

The first level of concern is that state finances, or the sovereign wealth funds through which investment in football usually comes, are generally able to dwarf the wealth of even the richest private individuals, meaning funding of this kind is capable of propelling the clubs it backs straight to the peak of the football transfer market, while in the process bidding-up the transfer fees and wages that top stars are able to command. In short, it turbo-charges the effects of inequality upon levels of competition in the sport. The whole point of this site is to explore how inequality of resources off-the-field impacts what we see on-the-field, so this is certainly an effect that is worth caring about. But, it is not a problem that is uniquely caused by sportswashing, nor is it the most serious moral concern raised by the presence of Gulf money, so I’ll leave this aside for the rest of this post.

Equally, there are a whole set of worries about whether state ownership of clubs is something that takes them away from the fans: over time are we likely to come to view Newcastle United as simply a soft-power extension of the Saudi state, rather than a proud expression of the identity of a particular place and its people? Again, while a very real concern, I think this fits into a broader set of arguments about club ownership and whether it is right that football clubs are freely traded as commodities or brands, so is not just a concern that relates to sportswashing.

What is most distinctively problematic about sportswashing can be seen if we think about what the aims of the exercise are: as Wojtowicz, Fruh and Archer note, sportswashing is reputational in character, “an attempt to distract from, minimize, or normalize wrongdoing through engagement in sport” (if you’re the kind to want to read academic papers, their fuller discussion of the topic is available to read here). But any reputational gains are secured on the back of the players whose wages are funded or the fans cheering those players from the stand or watching at home: football and its participants become complicit in efforts to gloss over serious wrongs.

So how much of a moral problem is complicity within the project of establishing a positive reputation for the Saudi regime? Is it something that football players or football fans should be trying to avoid? And if we do want to avoid becoming complicit, what actions should we take?

Why care about Saudi money?

One response that is sometimes given by those who might want to play down the seriousness of sportswashing is to point towards the money that has already circulated within top level football clubs. Do we have any grounds for saying that Saudi money is worse than Roman Abramovich’s money, or even Mike Ashley’s money? There is a real point here: few of the people who possess the money to own a football club will have acquired it without some reliance upon exploitation, asset-stripping, tax avoidance or other forms of ethically dubious sharp practice. Whoever we support, it is likely that some form of dirty money lies behind them somewhere.

However, there is a difference between acknowledging that the ethical issues in discussion of football money are not blacks and whites, but rather endless shades of grey, and supporting a claim that all money is equally dubious so that no distinguishing lines might be drawn. There are undoubtedly, criticisms that might be made of money that has been made through operating a gambling firm, or a retail operation with poor labour practices towards its staff, but would anyone be willing to argue that there was absolutely no difference at all between money acquired in that manner and, say, an investment right now that came directly from Vladimir Putin? We don’t need to be able to hold up other owners as morally pure to commit to the idea that a line exists somewhere, beyond which funds are sufficiently tainted that we do not want them within the sport as this would create complicity with things we most certainly do not want to be associated with.

The question, then, in trying to assess how we should think about Saudi investment is to ask whether there are any associations of such a high degree of severity to cross this threshold.

The first thing to say is that we are obviously into different territory when we start getting full-blown states (through their sovereign wealth funds) owning football clubs. The opportunity for wrongdoing is just on a different order of magnitude for a state compared to businesses or private individuals: businesses follow (or seek to evade) laws; states make them and enforce them. States have armies, police forces and powers of coercion. This is why, when we talk of human rights abuses, we are generally pointing at state failures, either in improper use of power or failure to use powers well in controlling abuse by others within their boundaries.

And it is typically neglect or abuse of human rights that form the basis for the need to sportswash. The records of Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are frequently highlighted by human rights organisations for infringements of, or failure to secure, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. If a state needs to spend billions on sport in an elaborate reputation management exercise, you can hardly be surprised that what they have to hide is going to be unpleasant.

Yet, even by this standard, there is much to be appalled by when it comes to the Saudi state. As an absolute monarchy, its power basically rests in the figure of the monarch (currently King Salman), with accession decided by court intrigue between different factions among the House of Saud’s princes, such as that which brought the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to his present prime role in the lineage, at the expense of the prior holder, Muhammad bin Nayef. The government is appointed by the monarch (MBS currently sits as the country’s Prime Minister) and serves at the monarch’s discretion, unchecked by any form of institutional scrutiny or popular input.

This is one of the things that makes it easy to be disconcerted by Saudi investment in football. The PIF sovereign wealth fund is basically controlled by the King (despite the Premier League claiming to have “legally binding assurances” to the contrary when authorising the Newcastle takeover), creating a direct link between human rights abuses carried out by the Saudi state and the money being pumped into the game. There is, therefore, a direct connection between the spending by Saudi Pro League clubs and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in every grisly detail we have subsequently found out about it, or in the 148 people who were put to death by the Saudi state last year, with public beheading still a common method of execution. We can also draw direct links between the denial of any legal right for LGBTQ+ people to express their sexuality and the desaturation of Jordan Henderson’s (more on him in the next post) rainbow armband in the video welcoming him to Al-Ettifaq. There is no easy separation between the money, the Saudi state and it’s actions.

But let’s delve a little deeper and tell another grim story (unfortunately, there are many to choose from) to help inform our evaluation of where we stand in assessing Saudi influence, with particular attention to its treatment of women and some of the much-trumpeted social reforms that have been enacted in recent years.

In 2017, a short video clip went viral on Twitter, filmed on a smartphone held at torso level, showing the shoulder and arm of a woman’s jacket. A woman’s voice is heard: “My name is Dina Ali, I’m a Saudi woman who fled Saudi Arabia to Australia to seek asylum. I stopped in the Philippines for transit. They took my passport and lock me for 13 hours just because I am a Saudi woman, with the collaboration of Saudi embassy. If my family come, they will kill me, if I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead.”

Despite the efforts of many Twitter users to draw attention to her predicament or get official assistance, Dina Ali Lasloom was held at Manila airport until several members of her family arrived there. Witnesses later reported seeing her, visibly distressed, being pulled out of a room with her arms and legs bound with duct tape, her mouth taped shut and her body wrapped in a sheet as she was then carried onto a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to Riyadh. The Saudi embassy in the Philippines sought to respond to the circulating social media information, describing it as incorrect, but confirmed that there was a “family matter” that led to a Saudi citizen returning to the Kingdom with her family.

Upon return, Dina was reportedly placed into a Dar al-Re‘aya — a ‘house of care’ tasked with imparting discipline and strengthening religious affiliation. Effectively, these are prisons for disobedient women, many of which operate in a highly abusive way.

Dina’s ultimate whereabouts and fate remain unknown.

The way Dina’s situation was handled is made possible by the guardianship system that operates in the country, which effectively consigns women to control by a male relative (father, husband, uncle, brother, even son), whose permission had to be obtained for many basic acts. So Dina’s choice to travel abroad was deemed improper, as she was doing so without the consent of her guardian.

In the period since 2017, there have been a raft of changes to the formal status of women in Saudi Arabia. Women have been granted access to services such as healthcare and education without the need for a guardian’s permission. Likewise, they may now obtain a passport or make travel plans without prior approval. Strict gender segregation of public spaces has been relaxed in a way that allowed more women access to employment or enabled them to attend sporting events. And, famously, since 2017 Saudi women have been permitted to drive.

This latter restriction had, in many senses, come to be symbolic of Saudi restriction upon women’s lives. Inspired by the Arab Spring, a homegrown movement of women — figures like Manal al-Sharif, Wajeha al-Huwaider, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef — had begun to campaign for the right to drive, bringing the prohibition to wider prominence across the world. The provocative singer MIA chose to incorporate a reference to this, with the video for her 2012 single ‘Bad Girls’ aping the common drifting subculture of fast desert driving, but with women instead of men behind the wheel.

Within the context of the Saudis’ Vision 2030 strategy to move the economy of the kingdom away from a reliance upon oil, it is obvious why wider attention upon restrictions could be seen as an embarrassment. MBS has seen how areas within the Gulf, such as Dubai, have managed to open up to global tourism and financial investment in a way that created a viable economic future beyond oil, and is keen to follow a similar path. But, it is harder to project yourself as a destination or a suitable partner for business collaboration if your society is perceived as one of gender apartheid, with hard-line, or even backward, religious controls over its population. The fact that the apparent loosening of the guardianship system and repeal of the driving ban gained widespread approval from outside has helped to somewhat soften international perceptions, opening up possibilities, such as attracting some of football’s biggest names, that would have previously seemed impossible.

But, scratch the surface a little more and the liberalising narrative starts to look very shaky. Firstly, while there have been genuine changes to the way women are treated, with a loosening some of the guardianship restrictions in a way that promises additional freedoms to women, these are still effectively undercut by the fact that it remains a crime for a woman to disobey her guardian. What this means is that a woman is only able to take advantage of the new freedoms at her guardian’s discretion — if he wants her to remain in the home or to prevent her from travelling, she is still bound by these limits. As characterised by Megan Stack in The New York Times, what this amounts to is that Saudi “government will no longer legally force men to keep the women of their household under heightened control — but it won’t force men to emancipate women, either.” Cases like that of Dina Ali Lasloom, where a woman is going against the will of her family, would not be eased by any of the relaxations.

Beyond the question of whether changes have made a real difference, we should also look at the way that those who have advocated for change have been treated. While women were given the right to drive in 2017, many of those involved in the previous campaign for this entitlement subsequently found themselves subject to a harsh crackdown, with multiple arrests across 2018. In indeterminate periods of incarceration, activists report being subjected to torture in the form of solitary confinement, beatings, electric shocks, threats to life, waterboarding and sexual harassment.

This is part of a pattern in which the Saudi state has increasingly clamped down on any signs of citizen dissent. There is evidence of widespread use of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and extended detention in poor or degrading conditions as punishment for even minor displays of criticism of the ruling regime. Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi PhD student at the University of Leeds who had returned home on holiday, was last summer sentenced to 34 years in prison simply for having a Twitter profile that followed the accounts of other activists and dissidents, and for occasionally retweeting some of their tweets.

We see, then, a double-edged nature to the way the Saudi state currently operates: to the outside world, there is an effort to present a face of being a forward-looking, exciting place that is opening up both to its own citizens and to the rest of the world; at the same time, anyone within the state who questions its rulers or calls for greater reform is ruthlessly brought into line. It leaves the impression that MBS wants it to be clear that the visions for the new Saudi are all bestowed purely as a result of his own magnificence and benevolence, that he is never acting in response to pressure from his subjects, or from outsiders looking in.

Here is where we can bring things back to football. In joining Saudi clubs, footballers are making themselves complicit in this process, essentially allowing themselves to be used as a propaganda tool for a state that still engages in torture, whose legal and judicial processes are opaque and arbitrary in their operation, who have contributed to one of the worst current humanitarian crises in the world due to involvement in conflict in Yemen, whose treatment of migrant workers is just as bad as the more publicised cases of Qatar and the UAE, whose treatment of women, LGBTQ+ people, and religious minorities remains discriminatory and dehumanising.

Drawing a line

I made the case above that it is implausible to claim we should never raise ethical concerns about the source of money within football, but rather it is always more about making a judgement as to when a line had been crossed into impropriety. Now, I am personally of the opinion that much of the existing money already within the game raises uncomfortable moral questions, so perhaps we should have been talking about these concerns for a lot longer than we have. Equally, it is important for us to be even-handed in our assessments and criticisms so as to prevent them from lapsing into simple xenophobia — for instance, we should be prepared to be critical of the fact that the UK has consistently been one of the biggest arms suppliers to the Saudi state, assisting in building its strength and power. But even taking these points into consideration, it seems clear to me that, from a football perspective, our worries should be increased when we are talking about money from state sovereign wealth funds, and that Saudi investment is the most discomfiting of any source of funds entering the sport so far.

Everyone in football, therefore, has reasons to be concerned about Saudi money, not just for its scale and the potential to distort the finances of the game, but also because of its inseparable associations with such a harshly autocratic regime.

The organisation ALQST provides detailed monitoring of human rights issues within Saudi Arabia. Further information and detailed reports about many of the issues discussed in this post can be accessed via their site.

The big disruption – Saudi money in football

The biggest football story of the summer has been the astronomical deals being done by clubs from Saudi Arabia’s Pro League to lure some of the game’s biggest stars. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino and N’Golo Kanté have all accepted mind-boggling sums to join Saudi clubs, with offers also made for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé.

While this site is attentive to the negative impact of money upon football competitions, one of the underlying premises of the analysis provided here (such as in the competitive inequality project) is that its actual effects tend to be gradual, only really revealing themselves fully across a long time period. But that’s because, so far at least, money in club football has played an evolutionary role: yes, competition formats have been subtly reshaped by the influence of the larger clubs, but this has all taken place within the context of existing competitions within Europe’s established domestic leagues and continental cup competitions. And, the only real attempt to break with that evolution – the European Super League – quickly collapsed as it became clear that the money men behind the proposals had pushed beyond anything fans would be prepared to accept.

Here now, though, we see an external influence with the power to disrupt the established footballing order: a determined political actor with deep wells of money and ambitions to cement itself as a prime global player – both in the sporting world and in broader geopolitical terms.

But how should fans react to this? Is this just another futile boom-and-bust attempt to wrestle footballing power away from Europe’s elite leagues? Is it all just an elaborate PR exercise to distract from Saudi Arabia’s grim human rights record? Or is there a genuine potential for this to change club football? In this post, I’ll examine a range of possible scenarios for how things might play out, then in a second post I’ll consider the moral questions raised by the involvement of such a problematic state actor in top level sport (the second post sprawled into a three-parter: part one is here).

Scenario 1: the Saudi Pro League fizzles out

While the response to this Saudi spending spree has almost universally been one of amazement at the sheer scale of the numbers involved, many seem quite relaxed or even dismissive of its ability to have a profound effect upon the footballing landscape, reasoning that the European game is just too dominant to be effectively challenged.

Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence to support this idea would be to highlight that we have been here before in the recent past. In 2016 and 2017, it was Chinese teams who suddenly started throwing huge piles of money at high profile players, attracting the likes of Oscar, Hulk and Carlos Tevez. Pundits highlighted the ambition of China’s president Xi Jinping to turn the country into a footballing powerhouse through investment in youth development and efforts to build a top class domestic league.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, not averse to following the money, had taken the manager’s role at Shanghai SIPG and was effusive on the prospects for the new league arguing that “everyone should be worried” about the emergence of the new league: “The money is here and the football is getting better… This is reality for a long time… China will soon be a world power in football.”

He wasn’t alone, though, in suggesting that the political will and sheer economic might of China made the new league “a grave threat” to the financial dominance of the big European leagues. Arsenal’s then-manager Arsene Wenger warned of a danger that “Chinese offers become the benchmark for Europe. You cannot compete with that.”

The reality, however, turned out to be quite different. Concern quickly grew within China that the outsized spending needed to draw stars from Europe was draining money that could have been invested into homegrown development. As a result spending caps were soon imposed. Equally, the football sector continued to draw the attention of Chinese state anti-corruption efforts while, under tighter economic circumstances, exacerbated by the impact of Covid controls, it became clear that the economic foundation just was not there to support continued extravagant spending. Some corporate financing was withdrawn, clubs folded as it became clear they could not pay their bills.

The Chinese Super League still exists, but the idea it could be a serious challenger to European leagues now looks foolish.

Is what we are currently seeing with the Saudi Pro League just a rerun? A flurry of unrestrained spending, which will burn fast and bright, but will fizzle out in acrimony.

There is certainly evidence to support that perspective. Some of the clubs involved in this summer’s lavish spending have outstanding dispute resolution cases pending with FIFA due to non-payment of player wages, which leave them unable to register star signings until resolved. Equally, frequent reports of Saudi royals failing to settle their bills might give sustenance to the opinion that this spending is not reflective of any sort of long-term shift in the football landscape. Like the Chinese, the Saudis will come to realise just how much of a bedrock is provided by the tradition and infrastructure of European clubs and leagues, the buy-in of both local and global fans, the matchday atmosphere, the structures for scouting and youth development.

In short, it is much easier to transplant a few stars than it is to create something vibrant and attractive enough to be sustainable in the long-term in the cutthroat world of global sport.

Scenario 2: a place in the pecking-order

Ultra-pessimistic predictions for football in Saudi could easily be contested, however. There are some indications that Saudi ambition is based upon a long-haul commitment that means we are not dealing with just another fly-by-night league. There seems to be real impetus from within Saudi (or, at least, from crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – who is the only figure who really matters), as part of its ‘Vision 2030’ strategy, to shape the kingdom to be a key player, both in geopolitical affairs and in the global economy, while shifting beyond a narrow reliance upon oil reserves. Football could easily be seen as a vital component of this shift, a sector that actually remains incredibly good value for money for ambitious states seeking to raise their profile.

Indeed, when seen in the context of some of their other projects, such as the half-trillion sci-fi vision for the entirely new city-region of Neom (featuring a 170km long but just 200m wide cavernous linear city sheltered from the desert sun by giant mirrored skyscraping walls) the sums involved in the current football splurge are comparatively modest. Yet, in terms of grabbing the world’s attention, they have paid off handsomely.

Another indicator that we are dealing with more of a long-haul scheme is the fact that the entire effort is reported to be being closely overseen and coordinated by officials at the league level. It is not, therefore, a free-for-all where the clubs end up competing against each other and bidding prices up, but rather an attempt to drive the league’s development collectively.

But, even if they are serious, where might this realistically get the Saudis?

I think most people would forecast that the ceiling for the Saudi Pro League is actually not much beyond the stature it has already achieved. That is, they would put it in competition with the MLS as the highest profile non-European league, one whose teams would be made up of a mix of locals, a smattering of mid-range players in their prime and some star names in the ‘one last payday’ stage of their careers. Progress from this point would therefore consist in stabilising the current profile of the league into something sustainable over the long-term, as there is little hope of pushing its development any further.

There’s a lot to be said for this being the most plausible aim for Saudi football. But, if you are a country in the business of pushing urban visions at the sci-fi fringes of possibility and you have near limitless funds at your disposal, are you really going to be satisfied with a comfortable seat in the second tier of global football leagues?

Scenario 3: a chance to eclipse the old order

Most of the discussion of the Saudi moves this summer has been subtly dismissive. Not in the sense of ignoring it or playing it down – we’ve all been staggered by the scale of the deals that are being done. But the shock is often accompanied by comments about this bidding up the prices that top Premier League teams, or other major European clubs, will have to pay from now on, always carrying the assumption that these clubs will, of course, keep up and match, or eventually outpace, the Saudi upstart.

But how confident of this can we be? If the Saudis make this level of funding available for not just a single summer of splashes, but for four or five years? If just a handful of top players in their prime (Mbappé?) also decide that the sums available in Arabia are offers that cannot be refused? If TV networks across the globe start to show a new league that features some of the biggest names in football (perhaps Saudi money might even be put towards a buy-out of broadcasters like Sky Sports), can we be sure of what viewing figures would look like? Is it impossible that they establish themselves as a genuine challenger to the major European leagues?

Now, there’s a lot of ifs in that paragraph, so I’m not saying it’s the most likely outcome. But I think it is inevitable that someone among those coordinating the Pro League plans has also asked these questions.

There are also two further things that might open a door for greater ambitions. The first concerns the general economic climate of the West. Beyond the daily struggles of many people to pay ever rising bills, there has also been a straightening of circumstances among the billionaire class. Not so much, at least yet, in terms of their personal circumstances, but rather that the general business climate has changed. An era of cheap credit and easy money, which had lasted solidly since the financial crisis of 2008, is over. Suddenly, willing investors are slightly more scarce and businesses that speculated too rashly or extended themselves too far are worrying about their balance sheets. We’ve already seen some bubbles deflate: crypto is no longer headed “to the moon”; streaming services have been slashing budgets at a similar rate as tech giants have shed workers. Some of the giants of football, many of whom are massively indebted and over-leveraged, also look to be on shaky ground. They are, therefore, not in a great position to mount a defence of their status, particularly when facing off against one of the few actors in the global economy who currently possesses secure access to large funds.

The fact that financial futures of some of football’s giants are insecure has been highlighted as one of the prime motivations for them (especially Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus) to have committed to the European Super League plans. The collapse of those proposals is the other factor that might open a sliver of a chance for the Saudi Pro League. Fans in Europe have made it quite clear that their attachment to existing tournament formats and ideals of open competition are not negotiable; they will not agree to any re-engineering of the sport in order to design the kind of hyper-capitalist, globally marketable product that rich owners or investors might desire. And the opinions of fans have been backed here not just by footballing authorities such as UEFA, but also by governments, with moves such as the UK fan-led review of the game under Conservative MP Tracey Crouch.

Such obstacles simply do not exist in Saudi. The authoritarian Saudi state faces no constitutional requirement to respond to anyone but its ruler, nor is there any hard budget constraint given the continued demand for oil. If an intensely marketable football product, optimised for global consumption, is to emerge, maybe the blank slate offered within Saudi provides a simpler foundation than trying to reshape a European game with rich traditions and histories.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to this scenario is the pulling power of those very traditions. Fan attachment is stickier than any other consumer loyalty. Most watchers of the game, even those whose experience is solely through television, already have their ties to specific shirts, locales and histories. Players want to pull on particular, storied colours. The all white of Real Madrid or the (I’ll confess I had to look this up) yellow and black stripes of Al-Ittihad? It would take a long period of sustained development of the Saudi game for the latter to have any similar pull to it. As the Chinese Super League soon found to its cost, it is not a quick or easy process to build enough of a fanbase for football investment to start truly paying.

So while a slim chance exists, this scenario still feels unlikely. If Mbappé ends up at Al-Hilal, I might reconsider, though…

Scenario 4: a catalyst for change in European football

For anyone looking to understand Saudi strategy here, it is instructive to look at what has happened within golf. Here, initially money from Saudi’s PIF investment fund was used to back a breakaway tour, which managed to recruit some high profile names like Phil Mickelson and Sergio García, but also received fierce resistance from figures such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and met with sanctions for those taking part from the established PGA tour. But, then, earlier this summer, it was announced that the two tours would merge, in a move many have seen as a backdoor Saudi takeover.

Now, this is not to say that the exact same thing is likely to occur in football, but a couple of aspects of the case of golf are worth highlighting. The first is that the Saudis have no issue if their plans upset a deeply established order or if they cause major division and rancour. They will be determined and ruthless in pursuit of their goals. The second is that Saudi investment appears to have an adaptive strategy that can work at multiple levels: they did not simply dig-in on advancing LIV by keeping on trying to entice players to the new tour, but also sought to deal with the sport’s other authorities in order to advance their aims.

In football, we can already see signs of this flexibility in the fact that as well as PIF backing the Pro League, and indeed having ownership of four of its clubs, at the same time they have overall control of Newcastle United, so also have an interest if established leagues maintain their status at the top of the game. (Some worry about the potential for these multiple ownerships creating scope for collusion, for example by potentially assisting Newcastle in evading Financial Fair Play regulations, which is certainly worth keeping an eye on.)

But could this be part of a broader strategy? That the massive spending this summer is, to an extent at least, specifically aimed at playing off options at different levels by first inducing stress or panic among Europe’s established giants?

Why might they want to do this? Well, presenting a rival league with very deep pockets could be the spark that causes Europe’s giants to once again agitate for more radical reform options to head-off the challenge. We could see a return for Super League ideas, or some other significant shake-up of the way European football goes about its business, as a way to resist the perceived threat. This might then open up investment opportunities for a stake in any new competition, or at the very least enable Saudi-controlled clubs, such as Newcastle, to be placed at the heart of any proposals.

Again, this scenario involves some speculation on my part. I think, though, that fans need to be aware that the knock-on effects of current Saudi spending carry varied possible threats with them.

How worried should we be?

I think much of the discussion of the Saudi Pro League has underestimated the disruption it is capable of causing. Yes, there’s a chance of it going the way of the Chinese Super League, but there’s also a chance that football follows golf in descending into acrimony and chaos as the impact of the otherworldly sums of money currently being spent continue to ripple out.

There’s one further obstacle to Saudi aims, however, which is that enough people within football – fans, players, authorities – resist cooperation with their plans on ethical grounds. There are, after all, very real concerns about the fact that what we are dealing with here is an authoritarian religious state that regularly violates basic human rights of its citizens, while aiding the progress of a hideous and prolonged war in neighbouring Yemen. How should we, as sports fans, respond to these factors? That will be the subject of the next post.

It’s not sport if you can’t lose

The brief two day window between the initial announcement of plans for twelve of Europe’s top football clubs to form a new European Super League and the plan’s ignominious collapse was filled by many voices of criticism of the proposal. Many chose to follow Gary Neville’s lead in focussing on the material motivations behind the plans, accusing those involved of a power grab based on “pure greed”, of simply trying to get an even bigger share of football’s pie. But, within the criticisms, there was also a strong thread of appeal to the ideals represented by sport, of a system determined by merit, where any fan could aspire to the idea that their team might rise up to the rarefied heights of success. The main crime of the ESL proposers, then, was their attempt to sever the formal connection between outcomes and performance, granting the founding members access to the new league’s bounty irrespective of where they ended up within existing domestic league structures.

A particularly strong variant of this line of critique was expressed by Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, someone whose default mode in discussion of football seems to be of a pursuit of ideals. Guardiola stressed the idea of wins and losses coming according to a team’s own merits as being at the essence of sport itself, claiming that it is “not a sport where the relation between the effort and the success, the effort and the reward, does not exist. It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed”. Or, summarising the position, “it is not a sport when it doesn’t matter when you lose” (a number of headline writers slightly tightened the syntax to the more pithy version you find me using in this post’s title).

I think there is something important captured within this framing of what sport is, which I will expand upon in a future post.

But for now, let’s just note something about the performance of Manchester City, and more broadly about the teams at the heart of the ESL proposal’s since Guardiola made those comments.

In the subsequent period (the end of one season, followed by two complete seasons), City have lost just 16 games and have picked up six trophies.

The twelve teams involved in the ESL proposals have, meanwhile, since then:

  • Won eight of the nine possible league trophies awarded in their leagues (the only interloper being Napoli’s victory in Serie A last season).
  • Produced all six of the finalists in the Champions League.
  • Produced ten of twelve Champions League semi-finalists.
  • Won seven of the nine possible major domestic cup trophies. (Or ten of twelve if you count the Carabao Cup.)

Trebles compared – Manchester City vs Manchester United

In a comparison, who’s better: Manchester City of 2022-23 or Manchester United of 1998-99?

In the red corner: coming from an era of dominance in the 1990s to claim their fifth Premier League title in seven years (their 12th champion’s crown overall), their tenth FA Cup victory and their second European Cup. A vibrant and tenacious side featuring the graduates of the famed Class of 92 (Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, the Nevilles, Butt), alongside Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam, Peter Schmeichel and Andy Cole, all driven by perhaps the best manager of all time, Alex Ferguson.

In the blue corner: capping their own era of recent dominance with a fifth league title in six years (a ninth overall), lifting the FA Cup for a seventh time and taking a first European Cup victory. Tactically meticulous and finely honed under Pep Guardiola, with technical virtuosity throughout the team in the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan, fronted by the bulldozing goalscoring prowess of Erling Haaland.

So how do you decide..?

One approach you could take would be to consider each side’s best eleven, player-by-player, and through some arbitrarily subjective rating system try to uncover which was superior. That’s the angle taken in this piece in the Telegraph, which declares the United eleven to be better by a quarter of a point (although, if you read the opening blurb, you find these exact line-ups started precisely five games between them across the two seasons). Well, I guess it drives engagement, eh…

But, what can a comparison of the two teams tell us about what it means to be a dominant team in their respective eras? Rather than simply seeing it as a contest, can we use a comparison to better understand the state of English football then and now?

Let’s start with some comparisons of the respective performance of each team in their treble-winning season.

Premier League

Here, there’s a clear edge to City’s performance: they won more games, achieved a higher points tally, scored more goals and were stingier defensively. United, though, proved harder to beat, only losing three games all season.

There are, also, similarities with the way both seasons played out. Neither team won from the front: both were behind the top spot at Christmas, but hit rich spells of form as the season progressed – United’s last defeat was on the 19th December, City won 12 straight games from February until the title was wrapped-up. Both ultimately triumphed over Arsenal to take their title: City won theirs with three games to spare, while United had to record a final day victory at Tottenham to see off the Gunners.

FA Cup

Of course, as victors of a knockout trophy, here neither lost a game. City again, though, show greater dominance in respect to goals scored and conceded over their cup run, while United required replays to overcome Chelsea in the quarter-final and Arsenal in the semi-final (the momentous game in which Keane was sent off, Schmeichel saved a Bergkamp penalty in injury-time, before being settled by Ryan Giggs’s memorable weaving dart through the Arsenal backline and ecstatic hairy-chested, shirt-waving celebration in extra-time).

Although, with any cup run, who you are drawn against can make a big difference, so it is worth looking at the respective cup runs, to see where across the league each of their respective opponents finished.

Here, United probably had the harder path, with four of their six opponents being top half finishers in the Premier League. Interestingly, both City and United had to overcome the teams who finished 2nd and 3rd in the Premier League on their way to the trophy.

Another feature common to both cup runs was facing teams who were having great success in lower divisions: City faced the teams who finished 1st and 2nd in last year’s Championship table, dispatching both of them comfortably; United’s sole lower division challenger was Fulham, at that point on their way to a 101 point season in the third tier under Kevin Keegan, as Mohamed Al-Fayed’s millions began to push them towards the Premier League.

One respect in which both City and United were both lucky was in being given more home than away fixtures: United were drawn at home all the way to the neutrally hosted semi-final (although they still needed to win away once, in a quarter-final replay at Chelsea); City’s only away tie was against Bristol City – the lowliest side they faced.

Champions League

Both teams went through all stages of the competition unbeaten, with City shading things on their overall record. While both sides played thirteen matches in their campaign, for United, this was only due to their need to play a qualifying tie prior to the group stage, beating ŁKS Łódź 2-0 over two legs. The expanded format of the competition required City instead to play four two-leg knockout ties after the group stage, compared to just three for United.

United were a swashbuckling side across the 1998-99 European campaign, frequently involved in high scoring games. Highlights included two 3-3 draws with Barcelona and a 6-2 win over Brøndby in Copenhagen in the group stage, alongside a thrilling 3-2 win over Juventus in Turin (when Roy Keane put in a career-capping performance to drag them back from an early 2-0 deficit) that took them to the final.

City’s Champions League victory was more of a pulverising experience – they simply ground opponents into the dust. This was particularly the case across the knockout phase as RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich then Real Madrid were dispatched 8-1, 4-1 then 5-1 on aggregate.

There is possibly a case that changes in the format of the competition made City’s path through the groups stages easier than that faced by United, as in 1998-99 only two clubs per country gained entry to the tournament. So, while both sides faced groups drawn from exactly the same three leagues (Germany, Spain and Denmark) United’s group contained the eventual German and Spanish league champions in Bayern and Barcelona, whereas City’s opponents ended up finishing second in the Bundesliga (Borussia Dortmund) and twelfth in La Liga (Sevilla).

Even if this was true, though, the ease with which City batted aside the German title winners and the previous Champions League winners in the knockout phase points to a level of dominance over the competition that was never apparent in United’s rollercoaster path to the trophy.

Digging deeper

The above confirms the on-first-sight observations that most fans would have considering the two seasons side-by-side: there was a sense of crushing inevitability about City’s performance last season that wasn’t present in United’s treble of 1998-99. United’s season was thrilling to follow precisely because there were so many high-stakes situations that could have gone in different directions yet, somehow ended up falling the way of Ferguson’s team. With City, instead the impression was of an awesome power that might sometimes briefly be contained, yet was never really at risk of being overcome.

But, does this tell us more about the teams themselves, or about the wider state of competition within the sport?

Context: domestic football

Firstly, we can look at domestic performance in perspective by examining two of the measures of inequality used in the C0mpetitive Inequality Project.

Here first are the charts for points per game and average goal difference per game, with the relevant treble-winning seasons highlighted.

(Bars here represent the individual measure (average points won, average goal difference) per game by the team that finished champions that season. The red line is a five-year rolling average to pick up on trends in the medium term. The dotted line is an overall trendline representing the overall direction of travel for this measure across the results. United’s 1998-99 performance and City’s 2022-23 performance are highlighted. See this post for further discussion of these measurements.)

In terms of points per game, both treble seasons were slightly ‘down years’: performance was lower than many of the surrounding seasons for both teams, while both fell short of the overall dotted trend-line. I guess this shouldn’t be too great a surprise – maintaining a challenge on multiple fronts may require that sometimes league performance dips, due to things like tiredness or squad rotation. (City also had to contend with the disruption caused by a mid-season World Cup.) Goal difference per game figures show this to a slightly lesser extent: United are closer to the trend, while City sit above it, although still below many other recent seasons.

If it is the case that league performance suffers across a season where multiple trophies are won, what would things look like if, rather than comparing the treble winning seasons themselves, we instead look at the peak performance each team achieved (or has achieved so far, in City’s case).

As shown in the darker red here, United followed up their treble with their most impressive league performance under Ferguson, hitting 91 points in 1999-2000. This is above City’s points haul last season and was higher than anything that had come before. However, it has been surpassed on multiple occasions since, including the 2017-18 season (highlighted in sky blue) in which Guardiola’s City reached 100 points to set the current record performance.

Given the overall trend towards higher performance by clubs at the top of the table, it becomes harder to assess teams from different eras, but one thing we can say is that both of these seasons clearly stand out above the dotted trend line (City probably shading things in terms of how far above trend they were), showing that each team at its best was something special.

As with the treble-winning seasons, the goal difference per game measure gives a greater edge to City. Even in United’s best league season (by points won), their goal difference only just sits above the trend, while City’s best season is well clear. This gives us a really clear indication of the level of controlled domination that this current City team is able to exhibit: their ability to hold and use possession in a way that allows them to break opponents down without exposing themselves defensively. It also attests to the growing gap between City and the majority of the Premier League in terms of resources available to build a team that most will struggle to live with.

Context: European football

While the difference between the Premier League of 1999 and that of 2023 is great, the differences in European competition – and particularly in English football’s standing vis-a-vis continental football – are probably much bigger. City’s Champions League win this year was the third by an English club in the last five renewals; seven of the last twelve finalists in the competition have been English teams. This is all a far cry from the late 1990s, when English football was still struggling to reassert its importance following its late 1980s exile from European competition as punishment for the involvement of Liverpool fans in the Heysel Stadium disaster.

There had been some success in the European Cup Winners’ Cup: United themselves claiming the trophy in the first year back after the ban in 1990-91, followed by Arsenal in 1993-94 and Chelsea in 1997-98. But the performance of English teams in Europe’s premier club competition remained short of the swaggering dominance they had exercised in the pre-ban era. After the return, none of the first three English participants – Arsenal, then Leeds, then Manchester United – made it into the tournament’s group stage (although, in the nascent experimentation with a group format, the group phase was then at a relatively later point than it would come to occupy as the format became established).

United’s first post-ban appearance ended in memorable, although ignominious, fashion when they were unable to overcome Galatasaray over two legs. The first leg had seen the Turks come back from an early 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead, before a late Cantona goal left things level leading into the second leg. On arrival in Istanbul, though, it became clear that United were not facing an easy task. The players were met by a mob of fans at the airport, who loudly chanted “No way home” and carried signs bearing intimidatory slogans, such as the infamous “Wellcome to the hell” (sic). Many travelling fans found themselves detained by police on spurious grounds, preventing them from attending the match. The game itself was played in a raucous atmosphere, lit by the constant glow of fan flares, with the home team taking great delight in using all of the tricks of the trade (although the term ‘shithousery’ is relatively recent, the behaviour it captures has a long pedigree) to knock their more illustrious opponents off their game. The game, which ended 0-0 to secure the Turkish side’s progression on away goals, frequently descended into rancour, ending with altercations between Turkish riot police and United’s players and staff. When asked about the experience afterwards, Ferguson pointedly quipped “I’ll no’ be going back” (although he did, when United again drew Galatasaray in the following year’s competition).

The failure of the English champions, who were then already running away with the following year’s title, to overcome a side from a country who England’s national team had twice beaten 8-0 in the previous decade seemed emblematic of the struggles of the English game to hold its place against rival leagues. The fact the tie came just weeks after a 2-0 defeat for England against the Netherlands had all but confirmed that Graham Taylor’s side would not appear at the 1994 World Cup compounded the sense of England’s status as being on the periphery of the European game.

There was, then, something of a feeling of having a point to prove in United’s run to the trophy in 1999. Yes, English football had clearly moved out of its early-1990s doldrums, with fine performance by the national team at Euro 96 and the continued development of the Premier League starting to draw great players in from overseas, but triumph at the top club level in Europe was still missing. So, even for English fans who were typically fervent ABUs (Anyone But United), the fact that they could pull off results like the victory in Turin over a side containing the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Didier Deschamps contained a thrill as a vindication of English football’s resurgence.

Compare that with the current moment, when clubs throughout the Premier League have purchasing power that rivals or surpasses clubs anywhere else on the continent, making England the place where the world’s top players want to be. City, even before their success, were regarded by most as the pre-eminent European club side and were clear betting favourites at the start of last season’s Champions League. There was, then, less of a sense that City were grappling with a challenge that could possibly still be beyond them, less of a feeling after the final that they had overcome the odds to be there. Football in Europe is very different now and English clubs are situated in a position where success is expected, rather than being a dream.

TLDR: who’s better?

It’s quite clear throughout everything I’ve looked at that this City team has the edge in terms of performance: they dominate games more thoroughly, meaning their success always felt more assured and the gap between them and their closest competitors, both domestically and in Europe, felt wider.

But if you were to ask me which season I would rather relive as a fan of one of these teams, or even as a neutral onlooker? United. Every time, no question. The degree of unpredictability that characterised their treble season gave the games a visceral charge that often feels missing from much of the top level of contemporary football. To be clear, this is less a comment on the two teams than the game itself. The underlying financial tectonic plates have shifted over the past 25 years, in a way that enables Premier League clubs to attract eyeballs and funding from across the globe, opening up the potential for previously unimaginable levels of dominance. Don’t get me wrong, this City side is superb and their success is far from inevitable: those involved in the football operations at the club have not simply relied on exercising financial muscle, but have strategically developed an intelligent set-up, capped by superlative coaching. They play attractive football in a devastatingly effective way that can be a pleasure to watch. But ultimately, no matter how finely crafted the details of its construction, there will always be some missing element of true sporting joy when you remind yourself that what you are watching is the world’s most well-resourced football club smash aside all-comers without ever really looking like they have to extend themselves.

Competitive inequality in Europe’s top four football leagues

This post offers an overall analysis of the findings of ITMH’s competitive inequality project, tracking the impact of financial inequality upon football. The introductory post explains the measures that are used in the analysis. Individual commentary posts follow, discussing top flight football in Germany, Italy, Spain and England.

Each of the individual league commentaries has noted trends across the four measures of competition I am tracking. But what can be said about the overall picture? Are there any general messages within the data? For each measure, I’ll include a chart showing the rolling averages for each of the leagues plotted alongside each other (they always look a bit messy, but can give some indications of cross league performance) then an overall average of the measure across all four leagues.

Fig 1: correlation comparison

(Lines here display five-year rolling averages for the correlation value between each season’s finishing positions and those in the preceding season for each of the four leagues discussed. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

As noted in the individual commentaries, the Italian league has typically displayed slightly higher levels of year-to-year consistency, while the German and English leagues have been more prone to periods of real flux. All four leagues currently display correlation levels well above historical averages.

Fig 2: correlation overall average

(The line here displays a five-year rolling average of an average correlation value between each season’s finishing positions and those in the preceding season for each of the four leagues discussed. The dotted line indicates the overall trend in this measure. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

An average across the four countries smooths out some of the variation to show a general rising trend across all leagues, indicating less fluidity of finishing positions. Furthermore, at present, the five year rolling average sits well above the trendline, which indicates that this is a trend that may currently be intensifying.

Fig 3: top four turnover comparison

(Lines here represent five-year rolling averages for each of the four leagues of the top four turnover measure, assessing levels of variation among clubs finishing in the top four of each league. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

The most notable collective trend across the individual results is that each league has seen periods of sharp decline since the mid-1990s. In England, this is followed by something of a rebound (marking the emergence of a financial Big Six, which created greater competition for top four places), in Spain the decline is steady and continuous, in Italy there remains greater scope for variation.

Fig 4: top four turnover overall average

(The line here displays a five-year rolling average of an average of the top four turnover measure, assessing levels of variation among clubs finishing in the top four of each league. The dotted line indicates the overall trend in this measure. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

The overall average confirms the above trend: the overall direction of travel is downwards, but this is more marked from around 2000 onwards. Given that this was the point at which the Champions League was opened up to more teams from the biggest leagues, we can point to a clear effect of format changes at the continental level: the wealth attained through big club participation in Europe’s most prestigious competition allows these clubs to maintain a more stable grasp upon the top positions in their domestic leagues. As with correlation measure, the rolling average here sits below the overall trend, indicating this impact is intensifying. With further reform to the Champions League format, potentially enabling greater rewards for participants, even further decline in this measure is possible.

Fig 5: top six turnover comparison

(Lines here represent five-year rolling averages for each of the four leagues of the top six turnover measure, assessing levels of variation among clubs finishing in the top six of each league. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

Fig 6: top six turnover overall average

(The line here displays a five-year rolling average of an average of the top four turnover measure, assessing levels of variation among clubs finishing in the top six of each league. The dotted line indicates the overall trend in this measure. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

A similar effect is noticeable in the top six turnover measure. Prior to around 1995, there is no real collective trend in the results. Since then, to different degrees, all four leagues have seen decline in this measure. As a result, the decline in the overall average is notable and appears to currently be intensifying.

Fig 7: champions’ points per game comparison

(Lines here represent five-year rolling averages for each league of the points won per game by the team that finished champions. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

In the individual commentaries, I highlighted the way that measures of dominance for championship winners enable some individual teams to be picked out. We can again, for instance, pick out the pinnacles of Real Madrid in the late 1950s/early 1960s and again in the late 1980s. But, beyond this, what is more apparent is that the recent steep rises in performance are consistent across the leagues, rather than being obviously attributable to individual teams. All four leagues have seen peaks of performance in the past fifteen years that surpass anything seen before.

Fig 8: champions’ points per game overall average

(The line here displays a five-year rolling average of an average across the four leagues of points won per game by the team that finished champions. The dotted line indicates the overall trend in this measure. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

When I was young, I remember my Dad trying to instruct me of the value of a hard-earned away draw by saying that a team who won all of their home games and drew all of their away games would win the league. Now, the averages here show that, while a title victory would not be entirely certain across these leagues, a two points per game average would certainly have made a team a contender up until about twenty years ago. Since then, it would leave you trailing some way back. So, alongside winning all home games, a team today would probably also need to win about one-third of those away and draw the rest in order to accumulate enough points to pick up a title.

Now, it is worth noting that the past few seasons display some regression in this measure. Is this a sign that we had reached unsustainable levels of dominance, or is it perhaps due to the financial hit taken by many of the big clubs through the pandemic? This is something to monitor in future years.

Fig 9: champions’ goal difference per game comparison

(Lines here represent five-year rolling averages for each league of the average goal difference per game of the team that finished champions. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

While the overall shape of this chart is similar to that of points per game, with the performance of great teams visible a various different points, followed by a general recent rise, it is notable that the recent performance of Spanish and German champions jumped well clear of the other two leagues before both regressing. It can also be seen that, despite this season being poor by their recent standards, results here would point to Bayern still being the most dominant of the champions of the respective leagues.

Fig 10: champions’ goal difference per game overall average

(The line here displays a five-year rolling average of an average across the four leagues of the average goal difference per game of the team that finished champions. The dotted line indicates the overall trend in this measure. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

As I discussed in the Spanish and Italian commentaries, the period prior to the mid-1960s was one marked by some flamboyant champions. This is something that registers in the overall average here in values that would not be surpassed for another half a century. Recent years have seen champions of the four leagues consistently recording average goal difference of over 1.5 goals per game. The same kind of recent regression seen in respect to average points won is also visible here, so champions are not exerting quite the same level of dominance they managed across the 2010s.


Across all measures here, support can be found for the conclusion that competition within domestic leagues is profoundly influenced by the format of European competitions. The opening up of the Champions League to non-champions in 1997, then the shift to up to four teams qualifying from top leagues in 1999 corresponds to noticeable upswings in the average correlation of finishing positions, lower turnover in top four and top six finishers, alongside more dominant performances by champions.

In other words, dominance over the past 20 years is different to the dominance of Real Madrid in the late 1950s or Bayern Munich in the 1970s: there is a deeper structural foundation to it in terms of the way the Champions League allows for a massive concentration of financial power in the hands of the continent’s elite clubs, which makes it easier for them to defend their status from domestic challengers. And, with the coming expansion of the Champions League format, the structural unfairness visible within these figures has potential to deepen even further.

Competitive inequality in English football

This post analyse the Premier League, as part of ITMH’s competitive inequality project, tracking the impact of financial inequality upon football. The introductory post explains the measures that are used in the analysis. See the other posts in this series for commentary on top flight football in Germany, Italy and Spain, or the overall discussion of trends within Europe’s top leagues.

English football has generally been more competitive than Europe’s other main leagues, with its biggest teams exerting less of a stranglehold than elsewhere. Its most successful league side, Manchester United, have 20 titles, whereas in each of Spain, Italy and Germany, the most prominent team has won more than 30 trophies. Across the periods I am tracking in this exercise, England has had 17 different champions, equating to a new club winning the title on average every 4.53 seasons. In the Bundesliga, the average is for a new champion every 4.62 seasons, in Serie A it is 6.42 seasons and in La Liga, where only eight different clubs have won titles since the end of the Civil War, the average is 10.5 seasons.

(You might at this point be thinking that this difference is largely attributable to the period before the formation of the Premier League. However, even since that point (1992-93 onwards), English football has seen more different champions than other leagues, with seven (Manchester United, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Leicester and Liverpool), compared to six in Germany and Italy, five in Spain.)

Similarly, with Manchester City’s win at the weekend, England now have supplied six different winners of the European Cup/Champions League – double that of the German or Italian leagues, treble that of La Liga. Equally, England supplied more of the clubs involved in the European Super League proposals, with six (the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham).

This greater competitive openness is one key contributor to the global success of the Premier League. Fans from abroad, entirely unconstrained by ties of community or locality, will tend towards following a larger club with a glorious history, and superstar players that ensure it competes regularly for trophies. Yet, the fact that the English league offers multiple such options provides it with greater interest: more crucial clashes with other significant teams, greater scope for banter with other fans, a wider set of different clubs who can entertain hopes of success. At present, therefore, English football commands higher global audiences, bringing greater revenue from television rights, which in turn makes its clubs the most attractive trinkets as billionaire playthings or soft-power vehicles for reputationally compromised petro-states. This cycle (I’ll leave it up to you to make a value judgement over whether it is virtuous or vicious) has given English clubs (and not just those at the very top) spending power that few are able to match elsewhere.

Fig 1: correlation

(Bars here represent the individual correlation value between each season’s finishing positions and those in the preceding season. The red line is a five-year rolling average to pick up on trends in the medium term. The dotted line is an overall trendline representing the overall direction of travel for this measure across the results. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

The easiest way to appreciate the findings of this chart is to begin by focussing on this season’s Premier League standings. Yes, Manchester City claimed the title again (for the fifth time in six years), but otherwise, the table this year felt full of surprises: Arsenal and Newcastle finished in the Champions League places, Liverpool and (more spectacularly) Chelsea did not; Brighton, Villa, Brentford and Fulham all recorded impressively high finishes, Leicester, Everton and West Ham under-performed their recent records. Now look at the correlation figure for this season: a hair shy of 0.6. The only recent year with a lower figure is 2016 (when, amongst other things, Leicester jumped from 14th position to 1st, while Chelsea dropped from 1st to 10th). Yet, trace the 0.6 line further back and you will see that, prior to the start of the 21st century, a year-to-year correlation in finishing positions of 0.6 would actually have indicated a relatively high figure, with finishing positions frequently characterised by much greater volatility. We can see from this that the past 20 years have been a period of significantly greater league stability and predictability than what had come before.

Across the chart, while the rolling average takes a jagged saw-tooth shape, the overall trend is clearly one of a steady increase in correlation, showing that the league has become less open and fluid.

Fig 2: turnover

(Lines here represent five-year rolling averages for the turnover measure, assessing levels of variation among clubs finishing in the top two, top four, top six and top ten (in seasons with a 20+ team league) of the league. NB – since the calculation of this measurement relies upon future finishing positions, the current season’s figure can only be known in three year’s time. The latest figure, therefore, is for the 2019-20 season. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

The turnover chart, if anything offers even more stark evidence of the change in English football in recent decades. From the mid-1990s (shortly after the formation of the Premier League), turnover among the top four, top six and top half of the league steeply drops away. The emergence of Manchester City and (to a lesser extent) Tottenham as challengers at the top is responsible for the rebound in top four turnover from the late 2000s onwards – when it had, for a while, looked as though Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool were taking almost total control of these places. Yet, it remains the case that the upper parts of the Premier League have become dominated by a small group of clubs. We shall have to see whether this season, in which some teams other than the usual suspects were prominent in the Premier League’s upper reaches, was more of a blip or a sign of new long-term challengers (such as Saudi-backed Newcastle United) emerging.

Fig 3: points per game

(Bars here represent the average points won per game by the team that finished champions that season. The red line is a five-year rolling average to pick up on trends in the medium term. The dotted line is an overall trendline representing the overall direction of travel for this measure across the results. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

Fig 4: goal difference per game

(Bars here represent the average goal difference per game recorded by each season’s title winners. The red line is a five-year rolling average to pick up on trends in the medium term. The dotted line is an overall trendline representing the overall direction of travel for this measure across the results. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

The charts for English champions are less of a tale of specific great teams than those of the continent’s other major leagues (although, on both charts, Liverpool’s team of 1978-79 stands out as something out of the ordinary), but instead that of a steadily rising trend in performance, becoming particularly strong from 2000 onwards and peaking (for now, at least) in the season of Pep Guardiola’s first Manchester City title win in 2017-18.


The above results are pretty unsurprising for any English football fan. Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 and the opening up of the Champions League to allow multiple teams from larger leagues from the late 1990s onwards, there have been marked trends for less fluidity in finishing positions, dominance of higher positions by a select group of clubs and higher levels of sustained performance by title winners. All of these are indications that the increasing inequality in English football are harming the levels of competitive openness that have been one of its selling points.