This appeared on SB Nation last week, when the examples were still possible. They are out of date now, but the point stands as well as it ever did.
Historically constituted entirely by the words ‘passion’, ‘heart’ and ‘get-it-up-em’, English football’s lexis has expanded in recent years to include some pretty peculiar words. Many of these, like ‘tiki-taka’ and ‘pasta’, are foreign. A large number, such as ‘model of sustainability’ and ‘wages as a percentage of turnover’, are financial. One of them, ‘coefficient’, comes, bizarrely, from physics.
Unlike the foreign and financial examples, to which sufficient thousands of football words are devoted every day to ensure that anyone capable of flicking beyond the Sun‘s third page has a decent working knowledge of Spanish tactical innovation and sound financial practice, the word coefficient has remained oddly obscure.
Everyone knows what a coefficient does: it’s a smart little tool that helps UEFA measure clubs from different leagues (and the leagues themselves) against one another.
What a coefficient is, though, is less well known. It is not even clear that UEFA know. Their website operates a pragmatic understanding of the word:
The club coefficient rankings are based on the results of clubs competing in the five previous seasons of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League. The rankings determine the seeding of each club in all UEFA competition draws.
Defining something through reference to its purpose is often fine; it is more practical, for example, to describe an umbrella as ‘a thing that keeps you dry’, than it would be to define it as ‘a device consisting of a fabric held on a collapsible frame of thin ribs radiating from the top of a carrying stick or handle’.
Occasionally, though, this can be misleading, sometimes deliberately so. ‘Big Society’, for example is described as a benevolent sense of community that pulls us all together; it’s actually just the withdrawal of government support for public services.
UEFA’s coefficient definition is more big society than it is an umbrella.
According to the OED, a coefficient is ‘a multiplier that measures some property of a particular substance, for which it is constant, while differing for different substances’. Gravity is one such coefficient; it is constant on Earth and constant on Mars, but different on each. This is useful as it allows us to calculate the relative weight of things in the world.
UEFA, through their coefficient system, are attempting something similar: to calculate the relative quality of individual sides so as to ensure a fair balance of competition.
This would be fair enough if that were all that they were doing, but it isn’t.
Whereas the scientists are justified by the neutral truth that gravity actually is constant, the football politicians have to try to create a constant – which sounds tricky.
How do they do that?
Well, according to UEFA’s website:
Clubs’ coefficients are determined by the sum of all points won in the previous five years, plus 20% of the association coefficient over the same period (33% before 2009).
This actually works pretty well. The top eight clubs under the coefficient system are Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munchen, Arsenal, FC Porto, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Given that the top four ‘associations’ are (in order) England, Spain, Germany and Italy, it seems that UEFA have succeeded in establishing a constant.
They’ve managed to standardize the apparent chaos of football.
This squaring of the circle, while admirable, though, is a terrible thing for football.
First of all, the peculiar system by which points are awarded mean that Wisla Krakow (2011/2012 UEFA Champions League form: WWWWWL) have accrued half a point from their six UEFA games this season whereas Manchester United have earned 4.712 despite not having played yet. Bolton Wanderers, England’s fourteenth best team last season (with previous finishes of 14th, 13th, 16th and 7th) are ranked 15 places (59th) above German champions Borusia Dortmund (64th) (they’ve also accrued more points this season than Wisla).
The FIFA International rankings were released earlier this week (Holland are top, England are fourth) to the standard cynical disregard. They are essentially ignored, ‘the rankings don’t mean anything’ and ‘Brasil are definitely better than England’. The same is true of these UEFA rankings: Dortmund would tonk Bolton. Except that these don’t not mean anything, which means they do mean something. Especially to Wisla Krakow who, unless they can make serious inroads into the Europa League will have to begin next season’s qualifying rounds in mid-July too and to Borusia Dortmund who could end up in a group with Barcelona, Milan and Manchester City. This would be a tough draw for anyone but, as exceptional as they are, you would expect Dortmund to finish fourth in this group and therefore drop out of Europe completely, thereby accumulating only a handful of coefficient points and finding themselves in an identical predicament next season.
For perennial Champions League qualifiers, however, the reverse is true. Arsenal and Bayern Munich may have had slightly ropey passages into the draw for the Group Stage (finishing in their countries’ last Champions League positions and therefore having to play-off for group stage entry), but they are both in the top pot and can therefore be confident of a reasonably kind draw (Benfica, BATE and Genk, for example) and are thus likely to progress to the knock-out phase and thereby accrue sufficient coefficient points to secure generous seeding next time round.
This patently isn’t fair.
It will be even less so once UEFA introduce their Financial Fair Play regulations. Designed to ensure that clubs can only spend within their means, these laws will ensure that only Champions League clubs will exercise the means to attract Champions league players. The consequence of this, coupled with the entrenching effect of the coefficient ranking system will make it difficult not only for clubs like Borusia Dortmund to win the Champions League (as they did in 1997) but even for them to win their leagues.
This being the case, we may as well add ‘cartel’ to the lexicon as well (I would suggest we add hypocrisy too, but Jose beat me to it). It doesn’t really need a definition, a list of names will do.