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Follow the money to find the winner, just as they did in ancient Greece and Rome

More words of betting wisdom

Real Madrid's European success is no surprise given their big budget
1 of 1

The Olympics began in Greece almost three thousand years ago. “Professional athletes travelled the circuit in pursuit of prizes paid for by the city they would represent (forget laurel wreaths, money and payments in kind were the norm)” and “cities would bribe top athletes to switch allegiance.”

The Colosseum in Rome opened almost two thousand years ago. “Gladiators… were traded in the market at prices that resemble those of a top baseball or soccer star today, and inscriptions survive bemoaning the inflation in prices for the top performers.”

Those quotes come from Playbooks and Checkbooks by Stefan Szymanski. Almost everyone else seems to think that sport was purer in days gone by. Almost everyone else is wrong. Rich people have always paid the best athletes to represent them.

The Champions League round of 16 starts on Tuesday. Twenty-seven of the last 28 finalists came from Spain, England, Italy, Germany or France. According to Champions League organisers Uefa those are the five countries in which footballers are highest paid. We should not be surprised that they are nearly always the best.

The latest Uefa Club Licensing Benchmark Report gives the average payroll of top division clubs in 54 European countries for season 2015-16, the most recent for which all accounts have been published.


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I compared that list with another: the Uefa country coefficients for 2015-16. This second list was compiled from the results of clubs in Uefa competitions, the Champions League and Europa League.

There was a strong correlation between them, even stronger than I had anticipated given that they cover only one season.

The top six countries ranked by average payroll were England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Russia. The top six countries ranked by Uefa coefficient were Spain, Germany, England, Italy, Russia and France. The same names, if not in the same order.

Uefa have now published average payrolls for three seasons – from 2015-16 back to 2013-14. In each season the top six places were filled by the same countries. The only positional change was that in the first two seasons Italy was in third place ahead of Spain in fourth.

In fact the top 12 countries were always the same. The second half-dozen were Turkey, Holland, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium and Austria. The only positional change there was that in one season Belgium swapped places with Portugal.

The first game in the Europa League round of 32 is also on Tuesday. Seventeen of the last 28 Europa League finalists came from Spain, England, Germany or France. There were none from Italy.

So a broader range of countries were represented in the final of the Europa League, a lower level competition than the Champions League. But most of the other finalists came from the countries with the next highest average payrolls.

There were five from Portugal, two each from Russia and Ukraine, one each from Holland and Scotland. On the list of average payrolls Russia is sixth, Holland eighth, Portugal tenth, Ukraine 13th and Scotland 14th.

Premier League leaders Manchester City celebrate their win over Newcastle

Six of the best who can claim Champions League glory

In each of the last 12 seasons the Champions League was won by a club with one of the six highest payrolls.

Accounts for this season will not be published until it is over. In each of the last three seasons for which Uefa have full data, the European clubs with the six highest payrolls were Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG, though not always in that order.

The Global Sports Salaries Survey, compiled by Sporting Intelligence, estimates average pay for first-team players this season. It has five of those clubs in its top half dozen but includes Bayern Munich at the expense of Chelsea.

Average pay per player is not the same as total wage bill, and a list based on one might differ anyway from a list based on the other.

It is unlikely, however, that any other club have a payroll this season as high as the clubs already mentioned. The top six almost certainly come from that seven.

In 14 of the last 17 seasons the Champions League was won by a team from the top six of the Deloitte Football Money League, which ranks clubs by revenue.

Expenditure on wages usually moves in line with revenue, though not always, which is why I believe wages are an even better indicator of how good a team should be. In most places, however, lists by revenue are similar to lists by wages.

Deloitte have only just published the Money League for last season. Having looked at the Money League for the past few seasons I think it is likely that the top six this season will be Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and PSG, though perhaps not in exactly that order.

Wherever you look you see mostly the same names.


Try, try and try again to score a goal

In Champions League group games this season one goal was scored for every 122 attempts. I do not mean there was one goal for every 122 shots or headers. I mean there was one goal for every 122 times that a team gained possession.

Every time a team get the ball they have an opportunity to score, and on average teams failed 121 times for every once that they succeeded.

Uefa counted what they call instances of possession. Teams averaged 122 instances of possession per goal and 195 per match. As there are two teams in every match the average total for possessions was 390.

I sometimes count possessions in Premier League games and I get lower figures, though I have seen research that gives higher figures. I would be surprised if there are many more turnovers in the Champions League than in the Premier League.

I suspect the differences come from different interpretations of a possession. If the player with the ball is fouled I do not count the free kick as the start of a new possession. I count it as another phase in the old possession. The same goes for throw-ins and corners – even for when a defender touches the ball but does not control it and it goes to another attacker.

However they define a possession everyone should agree on one thing: football is a game of low returns.

Uefa’s stats say that teams who finished bottom of their group averaged a whopping 379 possessions per goal, but teams who finished top of their groups still averaged as many as 77 possessions per goal.

Snort next time you hear someone say that defending is as hard as attacking.


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