Changing the food chain
With unprecedented levels of inequality in football, a clear hierarchy of both clubs and leagues has been established. While between 1986 and 1988 clubs from Romania, Sweden, Scotland and Belgium were represented in European finals alongside clubs from the continent’s bigger countries, between 2016 and 2018 pretty much all spots have been reserved for teams from Europe’s strongest leagues.
Some leagues have adapted better to this new reality than others. Take the Serbian SuperLiga and Hungarian Nemzeti Bajnokság I. Our World Super League model – which ranks all teams (and by extension leagues) globally in one ‘league table’ – rates these two leagues as having similar-quality teams on average. However, the Serbian leagues has been much better at exporting to better leagues, having sold nearly three times as many players up the football ‘food chain’ as their neighbours.
For clubs and leagues down the pecking order, there are opportunities to learn from these case studies about stepping-stone leagues. The Serbian SuperLiga is perhaps now in a position to use the transfer fees and good reputation accrued to move up the food chain and further raise the level of football domestically.
For those nearer the top, this type of analysis presents an opportunity to cut out the middlemen and go straight to source. While players direct from the Serbian SuperLiga might be a risk for English Premier League clubs, for example, that risk is perhaps mitigated by the fact that the players are cheaper than they would cost coming via a ‘gateway’ country like Portugal, or the Netherlands. Equally, it’s important to understand why some leagues like the Hungarian NB 1 have not exported as much talent as Serbia – are they undervalued or simply not good enough?
Football’s food chain isn’t perfectly correlated with quality or money. In other words, football’s new hierarchy – for all its flaws – has inefficiencies that smart clubs can exploit.