Would Celtic & Rangers both be good for Scotland in the Champions League?

Celtic captain Scott Brown (right) tackles PSG's Edinson Cavani
Celtic will play in the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since 2017 next season

The famous Champions League anthem could see both Celtic Park and Ibrox ring out next season for the first time since 2008.

Celtic are back at the top of European football and Rangers could join them if they win the Europa League on Wednesday.

It’s a place where both clubs feel a sense of belonging and with that comes money, a chance to play against the best in the world and prestige for Scottish football.

However, with Celtic and Rangers already operating on a different financial planet to the country’s other clubs, this huge cash windfall poses challenges to the competitive balance of the domestic competition.

Here, BBC Scotland examines whether having two clubs in the group stage will really help the Scottish game as a whole.

An ever widening gap

The gap between the old company and the rest in terms of income is obvious, but it’s worth sketching. For 2020-21 – the latest results available for the full year – Celtic spent just over £50m of their £60m income on wages, with Rangers not far behind at £47m in staff costs.

The third-biggest payroll in the country last year was Aberdeen’s, which at £9million was more than five times smaller, which in turn is more than double that of Livingston or Ross County.

The earnings from the Champions League – which include participation payments, coefficient money and TV money – will only enhance the old company’s income.

“You have close to £20m to £25m before a ball is kicked,” says football finance expert Kieran Maguire of Liverpool University.

“And that ignores the impact on gate fees, sponsorship and bonuses, so it’s very lucrative. When Celtic were in the Champions League in 2018 their total earnings exceeded £100m for the first time.

“Not being there for a few subsequent years had a noticeable impact on their finances.”

In football, higher wage spending generally correlates with success and when Celtic returned to the Champions League in 2016/17 under Brendan Rodgers after a three-year absence and backed them the next season, it gave them a platform to take four domestic titles up on the highs Rotation.

Only through director loanees, a fantastic consistency in the Europa League and Celtic’s failure to reach Europe’s elite competition since 2018 have Rangers managed to bridge the revenue and pay gap that ultimately helped secure their league title last season get season.

It shows what Champions League money can do to affect competition between Glasgow rivals, let alone the rest of clubs with a fraction of their resources.

Not all bad for the rest

Celtic and Rangers reach the Champions League and have a longer run in the Europa League, which isn’t all bad news for the pursuers.

The better Scotland’s coefficient rankings, the more places it opens up for other teams to play in European competition and the less likely they are to have to go through multiple qualifying rounds.

Hearts, for example, are guaranteed to be at least in the group stage of the Europa Conference League and will advance to the Europa League due to Scotland’s rising score in the play-off round.

“Last time we were in Europe we had to win four ties in a row to try and get into the Europa League,” Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson said after Rangers reached the Europa League final.

“From our point of view, getting European football is attractive and it also brings up the stock of Scottish football.

“Rangers coefficient goes so far, all other teams get a payout.”

The bonuses Neilson is referring to are Uefa’s so-called “solidarity payments” that go to Premiership sides that don’t make it to Europe. These are set to increase to around £15m and be split between the other top clubs over four years from 2024.

It’s much-needed and welcome money, but it would do very little to offset the wealth Celtic and Rangers are making of the Champions League.

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands or at best a million or two million in solidarity payments,” Maguire explains.

“Compared to the at least £30m Celtic and Rangers could get from participating in the Champions League.

“These clubs already have a significant financial advantage over the rest of the Scottish Premiership, so there are significant financial gaps that are compounded by being in the Champions League.”

So will it benefit Scottish football?

It depends on what you want from the game. If the essence of Scottish football is to have a competitive domestic league that could be won by more than two sides (Aberdeen were the last non-old firm club to win the league in 1985) then one of the great sides from Glasgow in the Champions League is another bad news.

If you accept the reality of modern football and the financial differences that already exist, but still want at least a title race, then it’s better for both Celtic and Rangers to get involved so that one isn’t too financially ahead of the other.

And apart from finances, there are other benefits. Some young Scottish players will – if given a chance – play at the highest level, which should help the national team and boost Scotland’s image.

With that and more European pitches, fans of other clubs can enjoy more continental football and potentially attract some better players and get more money for their own talent.

These advantages are not insignificant and could improve the quality of the league, if not its competitiveness at the top.

But the reality is that consistent Champions League qualification for Rangers and Celtic will make underdog performances like St Johnstone’s double cup win last season less likely.

Especially given that the gap is arguably bigger than ever.

Both Old Firm sides have gone unbeaten league campaigns over the last six seasons, a feat not achieved in Scotland since 1899, when a season lasted just 18 games.

Dundee United are the only side, along with Celtic, to have beaten Rangers in two terms in the Premier League.

So while a rising tide can lift all ships, it makes little difference if two of those ships are already miles ahead.

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