Innovation/Global Risk

Team Sports: No, It’s NOT Always the Money!

By Shlomo  Maital


 Hans Weisweiler (young and old)

If you’re a sports fan, like me, and if you are old enough to remember the ‘50s and ‘60s, you may long for  the age when baseball, basketball, American football and soccer stars got tiny salaries, and when “major market” TV contracts did not enable teams to buy trophies. 

    Blissfully, and perhaps accidentally, that era has returned, in Britain, Germany and Israel, this year.

   In Israel, the premier soccer league is led by a team from the farthest periphery of Israel, Kiryat Shmoneh, with a total budget of NIS 17 m. ($4.4 m. or 3.4 m. euros). This budget is less than one-fifth the budget of top-spending Maccabi Tel Aviv, against whom Kiryat Shmoneh plays tomorrow.  Yet with brilliant coaching and team spirit, Kiryat Shmoneh leads the league with 51 points, after 22 games, while Maccabi Tel Aviv languishes in seventh place, with only 33 points. Kiryat Shmoneh has already won the League Cup, for the second year in a row. 

    In Britain, four teams from small-spending periphery clubs are in the top 10 of the Premier League:  Newcastle (#6), Stoke City (#8), Norwitch City (#9) and Sunderland (#10), while Fulham and Swansea follow in #12 and #13 positions.  Norwitch has risen through three divisions in three seasons.  Norwitch’s captain Grant Holt cost his team 1/125 (yes, that is less than one per cent) than Fernando Torres, star Spanish striker, cost Chelsea – yet Holt regularly outplays Torres.

   In Germany Munchengladbach, and Schalke, small budget teams, are tied for first with deep-pocketed Bayern, while Dortmund trails the leaders by only a single point.  Munchengladbach, in its heyday, was coached by Hans (Hennes) Weisweiler, in the 1960s and 1970s.  Weisweiler ran a dozen youth sides (the “Bokelberg Colts”), building such incredible players as Gunter Netzer, Rainer Bonhof, Berti Vogts, Uli Stielike, and Jupp Heynckes.  You cannot tell me that fan loyalty is as strong for players from, say, Ghana and Algeria, as it is for local players who grew up in town and played for youth teams.  Weisweiler, notes Rob Huges, Global New York Times’ wonderful soccer writer, had a simple secret:  He taught, with simplicity and repetition, attacking football and technical skill.  These are both things fans love to watch. 

   Before I wax too euphoric, let’s recall what Deloitte’s annual Money League statistics show:  “Money League clubs (those with the top 20 budgets) [in big-league soccer] have won 43 of 50 domestic league titles available in the big five countries (England, spain, Italy, Germany, France) over the past five years.”  In the past 10 years, only one club outside the Big 20, Porto (Portugal) has won the Champions League.

   So, yes, money does buy the best players, and the best players tend to win games, cups and championships.  But here and there, a well-coached team with young ambitious players and no money can embarrass the big spenders.  (Ever heard of  baseball’s New York Yankees?)  And happily, this is happening in my country, as well as in England and in Germany, this year.