Celtic's UCL participation serves as Scottish lifeline

Posted by Graham Ruthven

"It's the greatest thing I've ever done in football," Neil Lennon gushed after another euphoric European night at Celtic Park. Yet the Northern Irishman wasn't talking of his guiding of Celtic to the last 16 of last season's Champions League, or the astonishing, barely believable win over Barcelona. He was speaking of his side's qualification win over Shakhter Karagandy of Kazakhstan.

While the 3-2 aggregate win -- in which all Celtic's goals came in the return leg at Parkhead -- was an undoubtedly dramatic and exhilarating way to secure your place in Europe's premier cup competition, Lennon's hyperbolic reaction gives some indication of how prestigious the Champions League has become.

For Celtic, the rewards are obvious. Besides welcoming the elite of European football to the east side of Glasgow, the SPL champions can expect around £16 million in prize money, not to mention additional ticket sales and sponsorship deals.

Had Lennon's side lost to Karagandy and dropped into the Europa League instead, Celtic would have taken a significant financial hit, with teams in UEFA's second-tier competition splitting a total pot of €200 million, a fifth of what Champions League clubs will share.

The financial benefits of Champions League qualification are often exaggerated, but for Scotland it provides a pipeline to the elite.

In terms of pure prize money, wired directly from UEFA, Celtic made around £22 million from their participation in the tournament last year, resulting from their impressive run to the last 16.

For English Premier League clubs, that figure pales in comparison to the £1 billion television jackpot shared among 20 teams every season but, for their Scottish counterparts, whose league broadcast contract amounts to a paltry £16 million per season, the sum is not to be sniffed at.

But Celtic won't be the only Scottish mouth on the Champions League teat when the competition kicks off again this week. The nature of the competition concentrates wealth among Europe's elite, but the drip-down of revenue benefits Scotland's top flight like no other.

Mark Runnacles/Getty ImagesCeltic manager Neil Lennon's reaction to advancing in Champions League play is an indication of the safety net the tournament provides.


"Clearly, on a reputation basis, it helps the entire game," Scottish Professional Football League chief executive Neil Doncaster explains. "It is massive [for the Scottish game] on a number of different levels. Success attracts money, and it attracts profile. Sponsors want to be part of a success story that is getting attention on a world stage. To have a representative in the Champions League, that benefits the entire country."

Gauging the impact of Celtic's qualification on the reputation and general prosperity of Scottish football is somewhat impossible, but clubs will still be able to calculate the benefit in cold, hard cash. Celtic's progression to the group stage of the Champions League means each Scottish Premiership club will benefit to the tune of £100,000. The SPFL has labelled this 'solidarity' money, rewarding member clubs for the success of a counterpart.

Such a payment was made to members of the defunct Scottish Premier League last season. Considering the air of uncertainty that preceded the summer's league reconstruction process, struggling clubs gratefully received that windfall. However, while Scotland's top flight might have a new name and a new brand identity (the fundamental alterations are minimal), its clubs continue to teeter on the brink of financial oblivion.

At a time when Scottish football toils within its own ranks, struggling to overcome the insipid politicking that dogs its hierarchy, this additional income comes as welcome relief for clubs battling to stay afloat (of which there are plenty).

This isn't a footballing Robin Hood tale, though. Celtic isn't pinching from the UEFA purse to feed the poor. There is no noble cause motivating them to make it through the qualifying stages. The biggest beneficiary of Celtic's Champions League qualification is Celtic, with the Champions League embodying the concept of self-perpetuating elite, in which the rich only get richer and richer.

But Scotland is like no other footballing spectrum in Europe. Celtic's complete dominance of the top flight is a unique case across UEFA's jurisdiction (even Rosenborg now face competition at the top of the Norwegian Tippeligaen).

Of course, without Rangers as competitors for the inaugural Scottish Premiership title, Celtic's season will be defined, and judged, by their progress in Europe -- just like it was last term.

Rangers, the other half of the fabled Old Firm rivalry that has been fragmented with the Ibrox club's banishment to the foot of the Scottish football pyramid, must find the prospect of Celtic's sustained involvement in the Champions League truly frightening.

The UEFA cash cow was once shared between the two rivals, but now it's the sole property of Celtic. Rangers have competed in the group stages of the Champions League ten times, while Celtic are preparing for their eighth appearance.

With every successive qualification Celtic draws further away from the rest, including Rangers. Should the Hoops make the Champions League group stages next season (2014-15) and the season after that (2015-16), around £80 million will have washed into the club coffers before Rangers will have even had a chance to face them in the league.

One Scottish Premiership club chairman highlighted the peculiar situation the rest of the league finds itself in with regards to Celtic's Champions League participation, commenting: "It almost doesn't concern us. We're resigned to them always winning the league now and our competition is to finish second. Most clubs are happy for them to get into the group because it means a bit of UEFA money. It's probably very different for Rangers."

At no point in Scottish football history has one team occupied such a strong, unopposed, position of power. Other countries might have plotted a revolution by this point, but in Scotland rebellion is a far-fetched notion.

While Lennon's side continues to strengthen their monopoly, the others are only thankful for the spare change slipping down the side of Celtic's throne.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.