Belgium’s 25 biggest clubs have voted unanimously in favor of an “agreement in principle” over forming a combined soccer league with the Netherlands, dubbed the BeNeLiga.
The league has many hurdles to overcome before becoming a reality, not least getting the backing of the Eredivisie, the top soccer league in the Netherlands. But should it happen, it would make the new league arguably the sixth strongest in Europe, and allow Dutch and Belgian teams to be more competitive against Europe’s bigger leagues.
Part of the reason for this is financial; Deloitte says the merger could generate marketing and TV rights deals of up to $476 million a year. That won’t bring them up to the same level as the big five leagues, but it will help close the gap a bit.
As well as the extra revenue, it would mean the top clubs in Belgium and the Netherlands would play stronger opponents, helping the top players in the two countries develop, which could also benefit their national teams.
But despite this, the proposed league has many opponents, from those who see it as destroying tradition, to smaller clubs who would be relegated to the second tier of the new Dutch-Belgian soccer pyramid. Those smaller clubs rely on the money that comes from playing the larger teams in their country, and without that revenue, they would have to make major cutbacks.
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Fans groups are also unhappy about the loss of history and tradition, and the increased travel times for away games.
In part, the need for a BeNeLiga comes from the current leagues’ inability to compete with Europe’s larger leagues. This isn’t just a problem for the Netherlands and Belgium, but for smaller leagues across the continent, from Scotland to Serbia.
Europe’s big five leagues: the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 dominate UEFA competitions. Since Porto’s Champions League triumph in 2004, every single Champions League finalist has come from these leagues.
Last season, no club from outside the big five leagues even made the knockout stages. Only Porto made it that far this season, and only Porto and Ajax got through the group stages in 2019. The number of clubs from smaller leagues that have reached the latter stages of the Champions League has been slowly decreasing each year.
The Europa League is a bit more diverse, but even there, Ajax have been the only club from outside the big five leagues to reach the final in the past five seasons, and you have to go back to Porto’s triumph in 2011 to find a winner.
It wasn’t always this way, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, clubs from the Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia and Romania all reached the final of the European Cup or Champions League, and in the early 2000s, the UEFA Cup finals were full of teams from around Europe.
But with year-on-year of UEFA competitions designed to favor a few small clubs, and more TV money from around the world pouring into a few leagues, the gap has widened to a point where teams like PSV Eindhoven, Club Brugge and Anderlecht can only dream of achieving the European success they had in the past.
The BeNeLiga might go some way towards remedying this, giving clubs from Belgium and the Netherlands a better chance of at least reaching the Champions League knockout stages rather than being seen as feeder leagues for the Premier League or Bundesliga.
This might take some time to come to fruition though, and in the clubs from the two nations would likely see their total number of European slots decrease as a result of the merger. Last season, each league had two Champions League and three Europa League slots, but a new BeNeLiga might only get a maximum of seven slots to share between the teams.
If successful, the merger might also lead to similar creations around Europe. While nationalism would probably prevent countries in the Balkans forming a league together any time soon, there could be more of an appetite for a central European league or Scandinavian league, or an increase in calls for Scottish sides Rangers and Celtic to be allowed to join the English league system.
With the biggest clubs in Europe constantly pushing for breakaway leagues and more Champions League fixtures, strengthening these smaller leagues might go against tradition, but it might also give the top teams in these leagues a bit more power to argue for their interests too.