Alexej Behnisch

The Great Reduction

Football has a history of great expansion, but the coronavirus pandemic might now lead to a great reduction in the number of professional clubs.

In April 2020, during the lockdown, I wrote an essay speculating about the future of the game. I began by looking at the past: despite two world wars football grew and grew, increasing the number of professional teams. The present crisis poses a different kind of challenge, however, and might reverse the trend.

Here is a longer quote from my text:

❝The uniqueness of today’s situation also demonstrates how durable football has been over the years. Whatever happened in the world, soccer experienced a rise and rise in the number of its games, competitions, spectators, sponsors, everything really, including the number of clubs operating as a professional business. 92 teams in England, another 12 top division sides in Scotland, plus many ‘semi-professional’ clubs, which are in fact run quite professionally. Over 100 pro teams is a lot, even for a country like Britain with 67 million people. In more than 130 years, very few clubs have died altogether. Granted, some once mighty teams are struggling today in the lower leagues. The pyramid system as a whole, however, has never shrunk.

The football industry has coped surprisingly well with recent economic crises. The crash of 2008 took its casualties and dented the growth curve for a while, yet, the game’s main structure stayed intact. Other outside influences, such as the arrival of sheikhs and oligarchs, proved perhaps a greater destabilising force.

Covid will pose a much greater challenge. Crucially, it will pose a different kind of challenge. Economic recessions in the past were scale problems, not fundamental dangers. Television money might have been reduced, but television as such did not disappear. In the same way, the Great Expansion was helped by economic booms, but the key element that elevated football to new dimensions was social change: first nationalisation, later globalisation. The current crisis will alter the fundamentals again.

Like wars, pandemics tend to cause very sudden, dramatic social upheavals. What brought football to an abrupt halt was not an economic problem, which will still come later, but a sudden change in social norms: the necessity of physical distancing and lockdowns. Football is a crowd event. In a world where crowds carry death, the ‘beautiful game’ faces an existential crisis. This is why the coronavirus crisis is different to any other the sport has encountered since 1945.❞

I go on to think through some of the consequences of social distancing for soccer. (I also discuss climate change as another factor, which will impact on how football operates in the future.) Finally, I consider different scenarios of how this “Great Reduction” might take place.

In any case, a reduction in league sizes might be good for football both on and off the pitch.

❝Football’s rise has focused on quantity over quality. Smaller leagues could signal a return to competitive balance and higher standards. Arsène Wenger once observed that the strength of the Italian Serie A as the world’s strongest league in the 1980s and 1990s did not rest wholly on money: the Serie A was fiercely competitive from top to bottom, with just 16 teams between 1967 and 1988, four of which were relegated at times. Germany, despite a large population, limits its first and second division to only 18 sides. One reason, in addition to better governance, why German clubs are on a more secure financial footing.❞

The 3,400-word piece is the opening chapter of my essay collection which I am publishing as an e-book in progress on the Leanpub platform.

The second essay asks, “Do Tactics Matter?”

Cover image of the book Rethinking Football, an essay collection by Alexej Behnisch, 2020