As well as being one of the largest car companies in the USA, General Motors has a small claim to fame in the linguistic world because in the 1970s (so the story goes) they were the first to coin the phrase ‘downsizing’.
At the time, downsizing meant to build smaller vehicles that were still effective, although later the phrase has come to have negative connotations with companies laying off workers. After watching Celtic against Legia Warsaw in Poland, it’s fitting that downsizing has a Scottish origin.
Shortly after the game, three separate, entirely unconnected friends, sent me texts where they describe how Celtic have been ‘downsized’ (using that specific word) in recent years, both in terms of playing staff and overall ambitions.
There are numerous reasons put forward why this is. Some blame an overall lack of quality in Scotland, others the gulf in TV money between smaller European leagues and the ‘big boys’ whilst some even point to the absence of Rangers in the Scottish top flight.
Regardless of what the reason is, the general decline of the club’s ambitions in the past decade is undeniable. Ten years ago was the season that would end with ‘Black Sunday’ at Motherwell, however the squad still included players such as Stilian Petrov, Chris Sutton, Paul Lambert, Alan Thompson, Joos Valgaeren, John Hartson and Craig Bellamy. We could even afford the luxury of signing an underperforming World Cup winner, Juninho.
Fast forward to the present day and the contrast in squads is resounding. Even allowing for injuries, last week’s starting XI with players such as Ambrose, Mulgrew, Berget and Pukki simply does not compare to the past choices.
Therefore if we accept that the squad and ambitions have declined – whatever the reasons for this – it really leads to one of two conclusions for the future; an acceptance of where we are or a complete upheaval involving where and how Celtic play football.
Before deciding which option is best, or even attainable, it is worth considering where we are, in terms of football finance and European football. The accountancy firm Deloitte produce a regular report examining money in football.
The latest report, covering 2012-2013 shows that when it comes to reported revenue, Celtic don’t even come close to the top 40 in the world (39 of which are in Europe). Real Madrid are top, with £519 million, and even the ‘bottom’ team in the top 40, Marseille earned just over £104 million.
Compare this to Celtic’s most recent financial results. On February 2014 it was announced that the club’s income for 2013 was £45 million, down from £50 million the previous year. Or to put it another way, in 2013 Celtic made less money than Chelsea did simply for selling David Luiz.
In all the top 39 teams financially in Europe are found in England (8), Italy (6), Germany (5), Spain (4), France and Turkey (2) and one each from the Netherlands and Portugal. To some extent the recent success of Spain and Germany at Champions League level proves that money isn’t everything, but it clearly goes a long way to help.
These financial figures play out when looking at European success. The past ten Champions League titles have gone to Spain (4), England (3), Italy (2) and Germany (1). Even the Europa League shows that money talks: the last ten winners are from Spain (5), Russia (2) and one each from England, Ukraine and Portugal. The only difference here compared with the top 40 rich list is the Russian and Ukrainian teams, and the massive external investment there has been well documented.
It’s not just winning the competitions where the gulf shows. In the past three seasons combined the only countries that have had more than one appearance in the last 16 of the Champions League are Spain (9), Germany (9), England (8), Italy (6), France (4), Russia (3) and Turkey and Portugal (both 2). Again a glance at the Financial Top 40 suggest a reason for this.
So, what way forward, and those future options? In terms of competing at a top level, it’s hard to see how it will happen without a substantial change in European football or a major investment in the club, which is hugely unlikely.
Financially the club is nowhere near winning the Champions League. Even the last 16 would be something of a miracle this season. However a glance at the Europa League (which we’re not even guaranteed to qualify for) is not much better.
As long as Celtic are playing in Scotland (with or without Rangers, their presence in the top flight would make only a marginal financial difference), little is likely to change from where we currently are. The club should continue to dominate the league at least, but not a huge amount else. If simple acceptance of the status quo is the choice, then all well and good. But clearly this is not what most people want to happen.
In this regard, the truly radical action would be to work on a different distribution of funds or competition structure within Scottish football. If Celtic are not going to significantly challenge in Europe, then perhaps the only way to generate competition is to do so at home. Of course this possibly further reduces the chances of then catching up in Europe (although some would argue it could enhance it if the Scottish game as a whole became more attractive).
Alternatively, it takes us back to the idea of one day leaving Scottish football, or somehow being part of a larger European set up. This is the only way Celtic might attract sufficient extra funding as to be able to offer a greater challenge to those at football’s financial top table. But this is unlikely too.
Quite simply, we are not needed, any more than other historically important clubs such as Ajax. The Champions League – and crucially the top domestic leagues – continue to attract more and more revenue from TV and advertisers, meaning UEFA have no reason to make changes. The same goes for moving to England.
Of course, none of this excuses last week’s performance, or the general underinvestment in the team in recent years. If the board are waiting for massive European changes or Financial Fair Play to have a resounding effect, they either know a very tightly held secret, or are miles from reality. That, or they believe Ronny Deila is going to have an incredible impact.
This is obviously not the most upbeat message, but then the facts don’t allow that. The victory against Barcelona two seasons ago was a resounding example of what can be achieved. But it was also a stark reminder of where the club and fans’ ambitions lie; beating a team in a one-off game, miles from actual overall success.
David Dunbar Buick, for all his early success, ultimately ended in disappointment and near poverty. After his death it was noted that he had “sipped from the cup of greatness, and then spilled what it had.” The danger for Celtic is that, in Europe at least, the same can increasingly be said for us.
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