“Playing in either Champions League or the Europe League (the former UEFA Cup) and doing well could mean some real economic muscle.”
As players from Barcelona celebrated their victory May 28 over Manchester United in the final of the UEFA Champions League, the board of the storied Spanish celebrated the pile of cash it earned from winning the European club competition.
It is something players and directors in Sweden could only imagine.
Barca pulled in an astounding $75 million in combined prize money. Each of the 32 teams that reach the group stage got a share of the more than $1 billion in television rights as well as prize money UEFA itself pays out in what it calls “performance bonuses” for wins and draws. Just reaching the group stage guaranteed a team more than $10 milliion.
For teams such as Barcelona, with its payroll of more than $192 million, the $52 million it pulled in might not sound like much, but football officials said the club could expect to multiply that number by more than 20 in new television rights, sponsorship deals and global merchandise sales in the wake of its victory. The final also opened the United States market as the final, for the first time ever, was broadcast on national television in America. An estimated 70 million people in the U.S. watched the final.
It is the kind of mass-marketing success that makes teams in Sweden salivate.
“There is a lot of money involved,” said Malmö FF sports director Per Ågren. “Playing in either Champions League or the Europe League (the former UEFA Cup) and doing well could mean some real economic muscle.”
Malmö FF is the only Swedish team to reach the Champions League final. That feat came in 1979 when the Champions League was still the Champions Cup. Malmö played English side Nottingham Forest and lost 1-0 on a late goal by England legend Trevor Francis.
Although a good memory, Ågren said he believes the days when smaller sides could win the most prestigious club competition in the world are over.
“That was a completely different time when it was still possible because the financial standings in European clubs were not so different as they are now,” Ågren said. “Today, it would be very hard for us or any team from a smaller country, but I still have to say it’s possible.”
Ågren said the key to Malmö or any Swedish team succeeding in European competitions is consistency.
“If a Swedish team such as Malmö could go to the playoff round in the Champions League, through that we would get the economic muscles to build teams to go even further.”
It’s isn’t just a pipedream. The prize money a team such as Malmö could reap by advancing to the group stage of the Champions League or beyond could not only fund the team for several years, but could allow Swedish teams to compete for higher-level international talent than they can currently afford.
Although Malmö officials would not disclose the team’s payroll, sources close to the club said the reigning Swedish champion’s current payroll is about $5 million. By comparison, Manchester United star forward Wayne Rooney makes more than $12 million a year.
Malmö isn’t the only Swedish team with its eyes on European glory and riches. Kalmar, Helsingborg, Elfsborg and Örebro all spent heavily on new players in the offseason with one eye on claiming the Swedish championship and another on succeeding in Europe.
“Doing well in the Europa League is a big, big goal of ours,” said ÖSK goalkeeper John Alvbåge. “If we play every game at our best, we could make it to the group stage. If teams from Denmark and Norway can do it, there is no reason why we can’t.”
Norwegian side Rosenborg, and more recently Danish team FC Copenhagen, are the role models for Swedish teams looking to use European play to both balance the books and build a consistent winning team.
For more than 15 years, Rosenborg has consistently finished in the top three of the Norwegian league, earning a spot in either the Champions League or the Europa League. The Norwegian team almost always reached the group throughout this run, earning the club enough money to either keep its players or add more talent. Those additions allowed Rosenborg to remain in the top of the domestic league and helped the team succeed in Europe.
“That is very, very important to realize and I think we took a big step toward doing that this winter when we kept all our players,” said Ågren at Malmö. “I think it’s the first time in a long time that a Swedish champion went into the season with the same team that won the championship the year before and this is very important. “
Malmö, by keeping its title-winning squad intact, goes into the Champions League qualifiers this summer with an experienced team that already knows how to win. Teams Malmö could potentially face in the qualifiers may not have the same players as most leagues finish play as the Swedish league opens its season, allowing players from other leagues around Europe to leave one team and join another.
Alvbåge said having an experienced team is yet another reason for Rosenborg’s success.
“It’s an important issue and I think it’s going to be part of whether a Swedish team is successful,” he said. “You need experience when you start playing games abroad. It is difficult to get used to when you use to play in Moldova or Turkey or Kazakhstan. It’s a different game and you have to be able to focus, and having experienced players—that is really something important.”
Like Rosenborg and FC Copenhagn, this winter Malmö played an ambititious series of international matches as it prepared for the 2011 Allsvenskan. Ågren said the club scheduled matches with Romanian, Russian and English Premier League clubs specifically to prepare its players for the rigors of a European campaign.
Key is consistency
No matter how good Malmö or Örebro or Helsingborg are on paper, the teams must win on the field. Many Swedish teams look at the consistency American sports franchises such as the Detroit Red Wings in hockey and the St. Louis Cardinals of baseball have achieved without breaking the bank.
“A lot of it comes down to planning and getting the most out of what you have,” said former AIK manager Stuart Baxter. “I think those are good examples of teams that have some tremendous players but that have also built a solid foundation of developing their own talent. It becomes self-sustaining after a while.”
Baxter led AIK into the group stage of the 1998-99 Champions League and many experts liken AIK’s performance against Barcelona in a 1-0 loss at Råsunda Stadium to Malmö’s exploits in the 1979 final. The Scotsman, however, warned no Swedish team is likely to replicate his run in the Champions League until they achieve some sort of financial stability.
“I really think that is the key to everything,” he said. “In Swedish, when a team needs money, it just sells off it top one or two players. That’s great for the books but it’s disastrous on the field. It’s one of the things that always upset me about Swedish football. You simply can’t build a winning side or develop any sort of consistency when you never know if you’re going to have the team that you want to have.”
As Malmö, Helsingborg and Örebro gear up for the qualifiers in the Champions League and Europa League, Ågren said consistency and patience would be just as important as goals.
“You have to realize that we can’t do it right away,” he said. “We need to build something. We need to build on experience and then you try to find your way. We want to at least go into group stage and get the money so we can do the things right. We can’t compete with the big teams for TV rights or in money, but we can build our own Nordic model and prove that we can be successful in our own way.”
By Chipp Reid