Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for The Blizzard which reflected on those countries that have for one reason or another chosen or been forced to compete outside the geographical zone in which they are based. The article concentrated on Kazakhstan’s decision to switch to UEFA in time for the 2006 World Cup but a more famous recent example would be Australia’s abandonment of Oceania for Asia, while Israel has been part of Asia, Oceania and Europe at various points in its footballing history.
In the Israeli case in particular, these peregrinations have been due to political expediency – the refusal of other Middle East nations to recognise the country have forced the national eleven to seek competition elsewhere. Yet in more recent times, cultural, commercial and pure sporting reasons have provided an excuse – Australia had tired of the turkey shoots on offer against the likes of American Samoa and Vanuatu, choosing to stiffen up their resolve by taking on Japan and Saudi Arabia.
But what of the club game? Will relentless globalisation lead to attempts from certain teams to seek new horizons beyond national borders?
Michel Platini’s recent announcement that the Europa League might give way to a new meta-tournament involving 64 entrants – an effective expansion of the Champions League into the European Super League we all expect to happen in some form or another – is one potentiality, but aside from that, there are already numerous examples of clubs playing outside their home countries.
Great Britain is a recognisable political entity of course but Wales has an English Premier League participant in Swansea City while Cardiff City knock on the door. In Major League Soccer, Canada is represented by Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps, Australia’s A League plays host to Wellington Phoenix and, perhaps most curiously of all, the S League in Singapore has featured a host of guest entrants - Étoile FC, a team formed entirely of European players won the title in 2010 and Albirex Niigata, Harimau Muda and DPMM FC hail from Japan, Malaysia and Brunei respectively.
The excitement of taking on traditional rivals will see many fans baulk at the suggestion of future possibilities but with the average Manchester United fan unquestionably more excited about facing Barcelona than Reading, owners who do not share that level of commitment to tradition can be excused for casting a glance elsewhere.
On a recent trip to Ukraine, I was lucky enough to be present as Dynamo Kyiv romped to victory in the city derby against Arsenal at the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex. As a Reading fan, I have quickly become used to one sided encounters, but this took things to another level. Dynamo were camped in the Arsenal half for practically the entire game but more telling was the low key atmosphere, two tiny pockets of rowdy ultras aside.
20,000 or so were in attendance in a stadium that can hold four times that and the history of the Ukrainian Premier League since independence has seen either Dynamo or Shakhtar Donetsk emerge victorious every single year; save the very first instance when the Crimeans of Tavriya Simferopol clinched a famous success.
With fans seemingly unbothered that they were twenty minutes late for the game and scarcely a murmur offered to acknowledge Dynamo’s four goals, it’s clear that there is a pining for the bitter competition of USSR days when the big Moscow clubs and other traditional powers such as the Georgians of Dinamo Tbilisi would come to Ukraine for encounters stoked with national rivalry and high quality football.
So would Dynamo consider breaking away? And could this be the signal for a resumption of an east European super league – a modern twist on the old Soviet model that might see the two Ukrainian powerhouses, the currently underperforming Tbilisi, the Belarussians of BATE Borisov, Pyunik of Armenia and others club together with the best of Russia?
Despite Goodbye Lenin style nostalgia, it’s unlikely in truth. The political backcloth in Ukraine is incendiary with Orange revolution figurehead Yulia Tymoshenko currently jailed and that movement’s instigator Viktor Yushchenko still enjoying major support in Kyiv and the western part of the country. Ukrainian nationalists would be keen to avoid any diminishing of their attempts to foster an identity, a process that was given a hearty boost by Euro 2012.
But in the east of the country, the story is quite different. Cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv are overwhelmingly Russian speaking, as is the more westerly Black Sea port of Odessa. Rinat Akhmetov’s millions have transformed Shakhtar into regular diners at European football’s top table and Metalist have also done well –chalking up a win over the Bundesliga’s Bayer Leverkusen just a few weeks ago.
Given the lack of competition in Ukraine, Shakhtar must be tempted to secede, for while the UPL provides them with a guaranteed route into European competition on an annual basis, the prospect of doing battle with what Moscow and St. Petersburg (not to mention Makhachkala and Kazan) has to offer must be an enticing one – nor would they be likely to struggle – the miners would surely be installed as one of the favourites should any such regrouping come about. With the Russian League struggling for gates and beset by controversy, the former colonisers would likely be only too pleased to welcome Shakhtar and Metalist’s polyglot squads back into the fold, especially given the cultural affinity with the Donbass region and the inevitable increase in attendances.
Those historic ties cannot be understated and elsewhere in Europe, there are areas where shared commercial and cultural interests might dovetail. Could Belgium’s Club Bruges be tempted into the Eredivisie and the possibilities of annual battles with the Dutch giants of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven, sharers of a common language? Would MŠK Žilina and Slovan Bratislava fancy a resumption of hostilities with the premier Czech forces? – or even involvement in a pan-central European affair that would encompass Austria and Hungary? Has the dark side of history faded enough for Viennese teams to approach the Bundesliga?
Indeed, we could be approaching a situation where world football consists of a dozen or so utterly dominant leagues, with these behemoths throwing open their doors to the best clubs from smaller countries outside their borders. Hence, Mexico’s Liga MX might attract the best that Costa Rica and Honduras has to offer while clubs from South Africa’s Premier League Soccer could entice teams from Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Which leaves the most oft discussed example – the likelihood of the Auld Firm parachuting into the Premier League, Championship or elsewhere in the Football League – a long term dream of these islands’ money men.
Thankfully, the bulk of public opinion surrounding the recent FA Cup tie between Milton Keynes Dons and AFC Wimbledon shows what the English think when teams don’t do it ‘the hard way’ even if Rangers are experiencing this currently to an extent. A key difference between the British and Ukrainian context is that the latter league has only been in operation for twenty years or so and any secession by Shakhtar or Metalist would actually constitute a reinstatement of tradition. Scotland, on the other hand, has always been independent of England in footballing terms and although the temptation would be to say good riddance for good to the self-regarding Glaswegians, there’s little question that soccer north of the border would be poorer for their absence.
The Brazilians of Shakhtar and Argentinians of Metalist show how the concept of nationhood is becoming ever porous and in this increasingly globalised world, we can expect the international super league concept to be around the corner rather than a distant possibility. What we may see in the first instance, however, is the slow, incremental demolition of traditional barriers and a more flexible notion of which teams we can expect to be watching.
As you know, Rob is one half of the excellent Two Unfortunates, a website we can't recommend highly enough.