Soccer Arrives at a Fork in the Road

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For a moment, as the squabbling stopped and the conversations started, it felt as if it was possible to discern the faintest flicker of hope. Across the world, soccer had stopped. The sport was facing an unforeseen, unimaginable situation; it felt, even then, like a looming existential crisis. But there was hope.

Aleksander Ceferin, the president of UEFA, which runs the European game, was talking about a renewed sense of unity, about the need for a reset after the coronavirus pandemic. FIFA, the scandal-scarred global governing body, was volunteering the billions of dollars it had acquired with such avarice over the years to help bail out teams and competitions and national associations.

The clubs were no longer trying to claw power away from the leagues. The leagues were no longer at the throats of the bodies that are supposed to manage them. UEFA and FIFA were no longer rivals, but allies. All of the factionalism and the empire-building and the infighting that had served as the background noise to the sport — for how long: a decade, two decades, forever? — had stopped.

For a fleeting moment, it was possible to believe this would be the point when soccer changed, when it saw the error of its ways, when it started to heal its self-inflicted wounds, when it remembered that it is — fairly self-evidently — an interdependent ecosystem, with the health of the individual reliant on the health of the whole.

Where might that road have led, whenever we emerged from all of this? To a more financially sustainable future, perhaps, with stricter cost controls in place to protect clubs for the long term, with ambitions reduced, and with a closing of the gap between rich and poor. To a more politically stable sport, where the elite were no longer agitating, constantly, for more and more from their leagues, their peers and UEFA.

A more trusting one, maybe, too, with FIFA transformed into a beneficent supervisor rather than a rival empire, itching to compete. Ceferin had been right, that soccer needed a reset. The most dire circumstances had sufficiently focused minds to bring it about. Soccer’s cash-soaked golden era, its rampantly uneven golden era, its morally void golden era, its financially fragile golden era, the golden era in which it sold its soul and conquered the world, would be over.

That was the hope.

It lasted barely a few weeks, if it even lasted that long. Now, across Europe, the game burns bright with self-interest. Belgium and Scotland canceled their leagues to protect new television deals. The Netherlands called time on its league after a democratic vote among its clubs, the results of which were ignored completely.

France’s league was canceled by its politicians, almost entirely without warning, and has now had to call on the government to bail out clubs facing financial ruin. Threats of legal challenge rumble on: from Lyon, from AZ Alkmaar and from Rangers in Glasgow.

And then there is the Premier League, alone among Europe’s major competitions in having no sense of direction whatsoever, despite eight weeks of Zoom meetings. France knows its fate; in Spain and Italy, there is slow progress toward a resumption; in Germany, there will be a full slate of matches next week. In England, though, there is only an angry, blinkered stasis. (And to think people say soccer reflects society.)

For years, the global success of the Premier League has come at a very specific cost: For the majority of its teams, the only thing that matters is to be present. They know they cannot hope to win it. They know that even qualifying for European competition is a distant dream, so close to an impossibility as to be indistinguishable from it.

The dogma that the purpose of soccer is not to succeed, but to survive, now has its apotheosis. The six teams at the bottom of the league need to stay in the Premier League so much that it is best, for them, if there is no soccer at all.

Officially, all 20 teams want to find a way to resume play when it is safe — and permitted — to do so, largely to safeguard television rights fees and to stave off financial catastrophe. Unofficially, the gang of six has proved far more adept at identifying hazards than at offering solutions.

They are not prepared to countenance playing at neutral venues, even though that is the only option the government, and the police, will accept. They do not believe it is fair to have to play without fans, even if there may be no scope for fans to return until next year at the earliest. They wonder if relegation should apply, in these unusual circumstances.

The objections have become so frequent — and the lack of alternatives so consistent — that some of their peers wonder if they are deliberately sabotaging the process, trying to run the clock down until May 25, UEFA’s cutoff point for leagues to define their futures. The lack of a resolution would force the Premier League season, alone in Europe, to be voided.

The sense of unity is breaking down, as a simmering, unspoken disagreement turns into a messy, public scrap. At the heart of it all, of course, is self-interest, which in this case is a synonym for money. The bottom six have made a simple calculation: Being in the Premier League next year is worth more than having to pay back broadcast income this season, because that load would be shared among all 20 clubs.

Where does that road lead? It is easy to be distracted by the short term: by the prospect of the season being voided, by the transfer market — largely funded by English money — grinding to a halt, by potential legal challenges against whatever decision is made.

But it is the long term that should be of more concern. In the future, it will be hard for the Premier League’s makeweights to demand the elite act in the collective interest when it comes to broadcast revenues, asking rivals to do as they say, not as they do. There has always been a schism between the league’s Big Six clubs and the rest. It has only hardened in recent weeks.

Those fractures are already showing elsewhere. Paris St.-Germain is so furious at the French government’s intervention that it has vowed to play on in the Champions League, even if its games are held abroad. Seventeen of the 20 clubs in France’s Ligue 1 are thought to have severe liquidity issues. Spain and Germany have both spoken of dire financial consequences, to be disproportionately borne by smaller teams, if the seasons are not completed.

The destination, really, is clear: not toward a more unified future but to a far more fragmented one. We will not come out of this with a more egalitarian game, but with divisions and inequalities yet further entrenched, either by economic realities or by philosophical differences.

The days of fleeting hope seem long past. It felt, back then, as if soccer stood at a fork in the road, but perhaps that was not quite right. Perhaps, instead, it was a choice between turning back and steaming blindly ahead. It was naïve, really, to think it was a choice at all.

While we’re on the subject, it is a shame to see that for all the thought that has been given to what should be done with Europe’s soccer seasons, nobody alighted on the most sensible one. Well, almost nobody: a glorious trinity of me, a reader by the name of Peter Welpton, and Victor Montagliani, the president of Concacaf, all seem to have reached the same conclusion.

The conclusion in question was this: Europe’s leagues should be given the rest of the calendar year to complete this season, with immediate financial shortfalls for smaller teams made up either by FIFA or through solidarity payments from the elite or broadcasters, and offset by wage cuts for the players (they are not, after all, actually playing soccer).

Three international tournaments — the European Championships, yet another Copa América, and the African Nations Cup — would be held in December and January (summertime in South America, but maybe take a sweater to the Euros). A full season would be held from February to November 2021, and another full season from spring to fall 2022.

That, of course, has the benefit of aligning everything for the Qatar World Cup, which will, as we have all known for many years, mess up the global soccer calendar anyway. Once that has finished, soccer has a choice: Either play another spring-fall season in 2023, if it works nicely, or create a one-off tournament — such as the Spring Series played by England’s Women’s Super League in 2017, when it shifted to a winter calendar — to bridge the gap.

That tournament or tournaments — FIFA could use the window for its Club World Cup; UEFA could allow some sort of super league to be held; national associations could hold unique knockout events — could then be offered to broadcasters to make up for the money lost as a result of the pandemic. See? All boxes checked. I am available on a consultancy basis should anyone, other than Victor and Peter, need me.

Today, soccer is, at last, back. Soccer in a morally acceptable form, anyway: They have been playing in Nicaragua and Belarus and Turkmenistan throughout the pandemic, of course, but to have latched on to any of that would have been to make a tacit choice to ignore the political reality of why they were still playing.

Belarus is often described as Europe’s last dictatorship. Turkmenistan is one of the world’s most closed countries. As a Nicaraguan journalist told my colleague James Wagner, these are the places where there is “sufficient authoritarianism to keep exposing their soccer players.”

South Korea, though, is different. The K-League returns on Friday because of the success the country has had in tackling the pandemic. Soccer there is, in a sense, a reward. It is appetizing for the rest of us, too. The K-League is Asia’s longest-established league, and probably still its best, though Japan and even China might protest that. It is, recognizably, elite sports, in a way that — say — Belarusian soccer is not.

The return brings an opportunity for the K-League: It has struck at least 10 international rights deals that would, presumably, not have been available had a full slate of programs been underway. And it gives us a chance not only to watch soccer, once again, but also to take a glimpse at rosters of unfamiliar players, to learn a different set of team names, to expand our horizons, just a little. And who knows: perhaps to develop some new emotional bonds, too.

Like all Australians, Paul Speelman gets straight to the point. “It took you a lot of words to not answer Bob Andrian’s request to list some of the teams you enjoy watching,” he wrote, accurately. “Surely it wasn’t that difficult?”

Like all British people, though, Paul, I spend most of my time equivocating, and am too emotionally repressed to express opinions. But since you ask (and while maintaining that you are entitled to not enjoy watching any of these teams): Borussia Dortmund, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, Marcelo Bielsa’s anything, Ajax, Atlético Madrid, Atalanta, Bayer Leverkusen, Liverpool, Manchester City in games against high-quality opponents, Real Sociedad, RB Leipzig, Red Bull Salzburg.

A great point from Brian Yaney on the discussion of styles of play. “I don’t think you emphasized strongly enough that style comes more from individual players than from a coach’s ideological imposition of strategy,” he wrote. “Tiki-taka could never have been so successful with Xavi and Iniesta. Jill Ellis was smart enough to allow the brilliance of Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe to run wild. Jogo bonito went away because Pelé, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo went away, not because some coach tried to develop a new style for Brazil.”

It is such a great point, in fact, that I will be stealing it and claiming it as my own.

That’s all for this week. Set Piece Menu is here for you, if you’re at a loose end. Thanks for all the correspondence — keep it coming to I’m on Twitter, if you want to shout “null and void” at me. And you can tell everyone you know about how nice it is to get an email every Friday here.

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