Has European football become too big for Uefa to control?

As well as bidding farewell to some beloved characters, the end of Game of Thrones means we can also say goodbye to the drawing of tenuous links between sport and the goings-on in Westeros.

So, now our watch has ended, no longer will live matches open with a goal montage featuring medieval script and brooding cello music; gone too are comparisons between Cersei Lannister and various power-hungry managers; also out are lazy metaphors about how the battle for [insert name of trophy here] is like the struggle for the Iron Throne. Or at least they soon will be.

For what is next week’s Europa League final but the climax of a long-running saga in which explosive action in exotic locations makes us forget about the boring, ploddy bits earlier on?

The hit series took almost a decade to resolve itself in a hail of dragonfire; the Europa League doesn’t take quite as long, even though it feels like the early rounds happened back in the time of swords and sorcery.

The makers of Game of Thrones have been heavily criticised for how the series ended, with (SPOILER ALERT) Bran Stark crowned ruler of Westeros. Some fans were annoyed the honour was bestowed on a character who, having spent a long time on the injury list, did absolutely nothing to help the team during the crucial battles. Essentially this was like Mesut Ozil being awarded the Ballon D’Or.

Uefa might have sympathy for the makers of GOT, given the rotten tomatoes dished out to their own attempts to bring the Europa League to a satisfactory conclusion. Henrikh Mhiktaryan’s decision not to travel to Baku for next week’s final due to fears for his safety only compounded unhappiness at the inability of the city to handle fan demand for the match and the general unsuitability of a remote venue with a highly questionable human rights record.

As plot twists go, Uefa’s decision to award the final to Baku might seem dumb, but it sums up how football’s governing body, like the beleaguered GOT showrunners, struggles to control the forces unleashed by its own creation.

While Uefa claim awarding the final to Baku “boosts the promotion of football in an entire region,” it’s difficult to imagine Azerbaijan’s ongoing use of petroleum wealth to bolster its geopolitical influence did not help.

Azerbaijan is only following a path well-trodden by the likes of Qatar and Abu Dhabi, who have promoted themselves by buying into the global prestige offered by European football. Uefa and the superclubs who have both shaped the Champions League era, in the interests of maximising revenue, have gladly welcomed the new money in.

But as is the case with Baku and with the ongoing investigations into whether Manchester City breached Uefa financial regulations, these transactions have brought complications for the game’s traditional powerbase.

The difficulties around next week’s final have drawn anger from Arsenal and Chelsea, but it is a row that pales in comparison with what may be in store. The Manchester City case feels like a pivotal moment, because it will test Uefa’s ability to regulate and control the disruption that new money has caused within football’s eco-system. On one side you have the traditional powers, represented in the words of La Liga president Javier Tebas.

“This is no longer sport,” he said this week in reference to City and Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain. “It becomes more like a toy, the plaything of a state. And when it’s a plaything, kids start playing with other kids. You end up ruining the entire system.”

On the other you have City, who have responded forcibly to any suggestion of Financial Fair Play wrongdoing, and whose position, as summed up in last year’s Football Leaks revelations, was that their Abu Dhabi owners “would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years” than accept any Uefa punishment. In this battle, it feels like City have the dragons.

Conflict also looms between European football’s great houses on the subject of Champions League restructure. Representatives of European leagues have responded angrily to proposals to increase the number of games in the Champions League and reduce access to the lucrative competition to a cabal of powerful clubs. They say the proposals would render domestic leagues an irrelevance, while smaller leagues fear being sidelined by lack of access to CL revenues.

The plans are the result of discussions between Uefa and the powerful European Club Association, chaired by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli. The fact that Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin is godfather to Agnelli’s daughter has led some to wonder whether the relationship between the governing body and one of its most powerful members is as arms-length as it should be.

But the real problem for Uefa is — as was the case with the initial founding of the Champions League in the early 1990s — if it doesn’t give the big clubs what they want, then they may just break away and do what they want anyway.

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short , has a podcast called ‘Against the Rules’, in which he argues that the weakness of ‘referees’ in American society has led to many of their current problems. Lewis talks about how previously neutral institutions like the judiciary, stock market regulators or state bodies tasked with policing financial services have been compromised by big business, and that the lack of proper ‘referees’ led to the widespread feelings of unfairness which were harnessed by the Trump campaign in 2016.

It may be, on one hand, that football has got too big and too entangled in the machinations of statecraft and global capitalism for a supposedly neutral referee like Uefa to control anymore, and on the other that the widespread sense of unfairness among those left behind will lead to some sort of fracture and conflict that could indeed see the entire system in smoking ruins. Cue the brooding cello music.

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