Kill The Head, And The Body Dies

It’s been increasingly understood that the balance of power in a league is increasingly top-heavy. The teams on top are more or less expected to stay on top. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United aren’t going anywhere; neither are Real Madrid or FC Barcelona; neither is Bayern Munich.

But it’s far from impossible.We just got done mentioning how Bulgaria’s top club, CSKA Sofia, was forcibly sent to the third tier earlier this summer. Anyone following soccer even slightly seriously will have heard about Rangers being dislodged from their spot in Scotland’s Old Firm and sent to the fourth tier, a drop that at first appeared temporary but looks to start to be sinking its teeth in, their ascent delayed by at least one year after getting stomped 6-1 on aggregate by Motherwell in the promotion/relegation playoffs last season.

It looks like it might be happening again in Peru. Meet Universitario de Deportes. With 26 titles, Universitario leads the trophy count in Peru, four ahead of Alianza Lima and nine up on Sporting Cristal, the other members of the national Big Three. In bankruptcy court since 2012, ‘La U’ stands at risk of liquidation at the hands of two creditors: the Peruvian tax authority, SUNAT; and the company that built their stadium, Gremco Edificaciones. The stadium, Monumental “U”, opened in 2000, seating 80,093 people, making it the largest-capacity stadium in South America (the second-place Maracana seats 78,838). Multiple changes in ownership and transferrings of the $80-million plus in debt the club has racked up, as well as disagreements amongst the creditors on how to secure some kind of collection (and resulting no votes on restructuring plans), have made for an ugly fight over ownership of the stadium, said to be worth about $57 million.

It’s worth $57 million to Universitario, anyway. What it would be worth to anyone that isn’t Universitario is anyone’s guess. That’s the thing about a stadium: it’s only really designed to host sporting events. You can have other things there- political rallies, concerts, push/pull/drag car sales, flea markets- but really, these are all add-ons. It’s most valuable to the sports team that calls it home. It’s built to the specifications of that specific sports team. Even other sports can be a weird fit if held inside the stadium, unless the two sports involved are football and soccer, or basketball and hockey. Anyone else using the space is going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with it on a regular basis, and often, once the team leaves for another stadium or another city, their old stadium can quickly become a white elephant, left to either be torn down for something else, or rot away and be slowly reclaimed by nature.

I won’t speculate on the eventual fate of La U. What I will say is that, should something happen to them, it would not be unique. But what will become of the Peruvian league, the Torneo Descentralizado, if suddenly Universitario wasn’t there?

Well, it wouldn’t be good. A former power in a league falling away is one thing, but as anyone who watches professional wrestling will tell you, it’s better to go out on your back- that is, lose to an up-and-comer on your way out. By losing to a hungry challenger as your exit, you give their new title legitimacy. You create a new fanbase of people who saw their hero beat the unbeatable. They’ll be invested. The team will have a strong following for years to come. If, however, some external factor causes your exit- forcible relegation, perhaps- you break the line of succession. You didn’t go down because you lost to anyone; therefore, nobody else gains by your departure. The excitement doesn’t transfer; it simply goes away, and once it’s gone, it’s much harder to win back.

Excitement can still be maintained, but it requires other major names to still be around to fight it out. In soccer’s case, it requires multiple other names. Peru has two of them, Sporting Cristal and Alianza Lima, along with a fairly healthy churn of challenger clubs underneath them. They should be okay. They won’t like it, but they’ll be okay. But if there’s only one surviving club at the top, the league can quickly devolve into singular dominance as that club racks up title after title after title, as Celtic appears on its way to doing, having won four Scottish leagues in a row with no end realistically in sight.

Even worse would be if there only was one dominant team, and that was the one to go. FBK Kaunas, in the late 2000’s, was that team in the A Lyga, the Lithuanian league, taking seven of eight titles from 2000-2007, losing only in 2005. This was not by mistake. Owner Vladimir Romanov was so deep-pocketed that not only was he stocking his club with the best players in the league, he was stocking teams that weren’t even his. With a compliant banking system, a compliant government, and a second team- FK Atlantas- in his pocket, Romanov set about buying anyone he could even think of maybe using, picking out the best for Kaunas, and loaning the spares out to clubs that agreed not to say anything. His pitch to the rest of the country was, let me dominate the league, and I’ll share the wealth when I get Kaunas qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

However, Romanov’s influence was not infinite: Kaunas only walked off with the 2004 title after an attempt to disqualify challenger FK Ekranas from a de facto title game went awry and the match was ordered played, a match Kaunas won 2-0. In 2008, Kaunas finished ten points adrift of Ekranas (while getting as close as they would ever actually get to a Champions League group stage, going out one round short to Aalborg BK of Denmark), and not only did Romanov attempt to “rectify” the situation, but when he found his money was no longer good, he abruptly self-relegated Kaunas, and Atlantas for good measure, to the third tier.

Ha ha, Lithuania, let’s see you run your precious league now, without your big draw.

This is not to say Lithuanian authorities suddenly had a change of heart. Liutauras Varanavicius, CEO of Lithuania’s biggest private bank, Ukio Bankas- of which Romanov was principal shareholder- was running for a spot on UEFA’s Executive Committee, and Romanov on the loose would be bad for his candidacy. By whatever means, Romanov had to be brought to heel. (Varanavicius got himself onto the committee in the 2009 election; he was voted back out two years later.)

Also, Ukio was beginning to come under fire for irregularities in their books, and infighting amongst the money men was little more than the natural path of things: everyone tried to save themselves. Ukio, for its part, went defunct in 2013. (Romanov also has other chapters in his story, including ownership of Heart of Midlothian and an attempt to run for office in Russia, but that’s for another time, perhaps.)

Kaunas was never the biggest draw in the A Lyga; their presence left a bad taste in the average fan’s mouth. Nonetheless, average attendance has dipped since their downfall. It hasn’t gone off a cliff- you could hardly say that attendances averaging in the triple digits to start with could go off a cliff- but an average of 919 in the 2008 season has dropped to 679 last season. Atlantas has since returned to contention, finishing third last season and second the year before.

Ekranas, meanwhile, proceeded to win five straight titles of their own. They’ve been about as close to the Champions League group stage as Kaunas ever was. That is to say, not especially close.

Universitario, meanwhile, IS the most-watched club in Peru, or at least, they have a tendency to lead the attendance table, and lead it by some distance. Any kind of forced relegation, no matter their current standing in the Torneo Descentralizado, would be liable to decapitate that attendance table…

…well, almost no matter.

In this year’s Torneo Descentralizado, La U sits second from the bottom in the nearly-completed Apertura, and only a bonus point awarded due to winning an annual youth-squad tournament, coupled with penalty points given to two clubs who did the worst in the annual league cup, the Torneo del Inca, keep Universitario out of the relegation zone. The creditors had better hope the Clausura goes better, lest the value of what they’re fighting over really take a hit.

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