Throughout the season, the Premier League has a significant impact on the title race. That first encounter told Alex Muzio everything. Muzio met the club’s coach soon after he and his business partner, Tony Bloom, acquired Royale Union Saint-Gilloise. He wanted to talk about recruiting.
Muzio had never played soccer. He was no scout. He spent his career with Bloom’s Starlizard consultancy, widely regarded as Britain’s largest betting syndicate.
Starlizard’s business approach is data-driven. It includes data on tens of thousands of gamers worldwide. Its algorithms are programmed to look for openings first, then talent. Starlizard intended to accomplish the same.
Bloom already owned a team in England: his money and techniques made Brighton a the Premier League staple. But he and Muzio wanted to test their “I.P.limits. ”’s “We wanted a title,” Muzio stated.
When Bloom bought Union in May 2018, Muzio couldn’t wait to get started. The club had last won a trophy in the interwar years and was then in the Belgian second division. It was mostly run by volunteers. Its training facility in Brussels’ outskirts lacked showers. Muzio is still unsure if there was a toilet.
He didn’t want it that way. For Muzio, the first aim was to get his team promoted to the Belgian top level within three years. He sent the club’s veteran manager, Marc Grosjean, a list of possible additions, all chosen and evaluated by Starlizard.
Grosjean wasn’t amused. He described Muzio’s ideas with an obscenity before offering his own. “He stated he would rather sign Belgian players he knew,” Muzio added. It didn’t take long to see how Starlizard rated them. Grosjean left the club at the end of the month, citing “a difference of opinion on the club’s sporting development.”
“We have ideas,” Muzio remarked. Refusal would simply hinder progress.
Three years later, his ideas hold up. Union was elevated last summer. It will spend Christmas six points ahead of Club Brugge in the Jupiler Pro League. With a typical league schedule and an end-of-season playoff, a first Belgian title since 1935 is still a long shot. But it is possible.
That wouldn’t have been feasible without Muzio, Union’s chairman, and Bloom, who isn’t involved in the club’s day-to-day operations.
Their appearance at Union was not entirely accidental. the perfect club at the right price at the right spot. The Brussels area, where Union has been situated since 1897, has over a million residents and just one significant team, Anderlecht. It wasn’t pure chance.
Muzio, Bloom, and Starlizard scoured several leagues. Others may have had different priorities, needs, or views. Union, a husk of a club, was transformed when they met their criteria.
This is a scenario that has become increasingly common in Europe in recent years: clubs mired in mediocrity or struggling to survive are suddenly resurrected by an external power. On the surface, the clubs are unrelated. A single thread, originating in England, binds them all.
The Premier League influence on European soccer over the last decade is undeniable. The affluence of England’s elite has long influenced the rest of Europe. English teams are the most reliable market for players, driving increasing transfer fees and compensation. Players are bought around Europe with an eye to future sales to England, frequently with money from the Premier League seemingly pandemic-proof TV contract.
But in recent years, the influence has shifted. As a result, English clubs have invested directly in abroad teams, giving them unfettered influence on championships around Europe and the world.
The causes differ. Two of Union’s Jupiler Pro League adversaries are owned by Thai companies: O.H. Leuven and Ostend are controlled by Pacific Media Group, which also owns Nancy in France, F.C. Den Bosch in the Netherlands, and Barnsley in England.
While Pacific Media Group thinks this model helps enhance performance and save costs throughout its network of clubs, Leuven has at times acted as a farm team for young players seeking experience. According to the group’s founder, Paul Conway, “we don’t need to duplicate all workers in all markets.”
Ostend, Nancy, Barnsley, and the others share information. Recruitment departments at Conway’s clubs “have a deeper knowledge base than others.” That prevents “leakage,” he said. “You spend a lot of money on a guy and then he goes away,” he remarked. “We can spend our lives with these people because we all play the same way.” If a player is not needed by one team, he can be found elsewhere.
A similar method has helped Estoril, a long-time underdog in Portugal’s top league, compete for a Europa League spot after joining a group of teams sponsored by David Blitzer, the Blackstone executive who owns the Premier League Crystal Palace.
Midtjylland, the Danish champion, has a similar owner — another gambling mogul, Matthew Benham, a former Bloom associate — and a similar attitude.
And although Lommel in Belgium remains stuck in the second tier despite having more money than most of its rivals, Girona in Spain was relegated from La Liga in 2019 and has yet to return. Troyes, the French team that City’s owners acquired last year, got promoted but is now facing relegation.
Union’s connection with Brighton is more fluid. “They’re hard for other clubs to do,” Muzio claimed of Starlizard’s strategies, but he denied that Union is a feeder, sister, or partner club.
Tony is the primary owner, but he is totally uninvolved at Union,” he continued before alluding to Bloom. He stays out. We are free to do things our way.”
Both Brighton and Union use Starlizard’s technique, he says, but they don’t share anything else. It has so far been enough to return Union to the peak of Belgian soccer with a skill set perfected in England.