Just as was the case 12 months ago, soccer exists amid mankind’s fight against an enemy few could imagine would ever become real. But there is hope…
Most are a little better off than at this time last year and, if there is some light to have come out of the darkness, it is that maybe we realized how much we have in common and what we can achieve when we band together and trust in each other.
It is a lesson that can — hopefully — be transferred to football, which, at the very top of the game, stands divided and uncertain. And that is where my 30 wishes for 2022 begin.
1. That the powers that be — whether FIFA, the confederations, clubs, leagues, players, broadcasters or agents — realize the stakes and find a way forward together. “United we stand, divided we fall” is not just a cliché; it’s the reality of what will happen if no effective deal is found before the international match calendar resets in 2024. Everyone wants to shape football’s future, which is great. Realistically, though, everyone needs to sacrifice something to make it happen.
2. That, speaking of the international match calendar, we’ll be open-minded. For example, keeping the existing number of games, while reducing the number of windows (and therefore both travel for players and disruptions to club football), strikes me as a common-sense solution. Being against it just because the “other side” has promoted it or because it’s “against tradition” is silly and irresponsible.
3. That folks understand FIFA’s mission and don’t just make the usual puerile cracks about money and corruption. The world governing body exists to develop the game, which costs money — money for the men’s and women’s game, as well as federations, pitches, youth development and more. Many member associations receive the bulk of their funding from FIFA, so it should not surprise us if such federations back anything that brings them more money, such as a biennial men’s World Cup.
4. That FIFA continues to be transparent about how money is allocated but also reviews the system to make it fairer. Progress has been made in holding federations to account for what they receive, but more needs to be done regarding where money goes. A portion of FIFA funds is allocated for specific projects, and another goes, in equal parts, to every federation. Regarding that latter part, it’s simply unfair that tiny countries such as, say, Montserrat or Liechtenstein get the same amount as Pakistan or Nigeria. It might be unpopular — because it might cost votes — but it’s the right thing to do.
5. That the Qatar World Cup takes place successfully and runs as smoothly as possible. Every four years, around this time, we hear about problems with host nations, citing unfinished stadiums, infrastructure, crime and more, but this edition is a 32-team tournament essentially taking place in one city of 2.2 million people. Nothing so big has ever been attempted in a place so small.
6. That, if the powers that be realize Qatar 2022 will struggle logistically, they have the courage to find a solution while there is time. Michel Platini back in the day and Gianni Infantino a few years ago floated the idea of Qatar sharing the World Cup with some of its Gulf neighbours. It was rebuffed, mainly because relationships between Qatar and the likes of United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were terrible to the point that they were blockading the country. That’s over now, so if turning the tournament into a regional event by shifting games to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Jeddah or Manama helps alleviate the logistical pressure — from hotel rooms to training facilities — it should be seriously considered.
7. That whatever improvements to human rights — regarding migrant workers and local residents — have come to Qatar as a result of hosting the World Cup don’t simply disappear once the circus rolls out of town. And, on the contrary, that they become entrenched and accepted, not just there but throughout the entire region.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss the likelihood of a biennial World Cup being approved by FIFA.
8. That the game comes up with a coherent solution to the issue of player workload and fixture congestion, one that recognises there is no one-size-fits-all outcome. Elite players play too many games and would like to play fewer. Most of those at lower levels would love to play more. There’s a way to rebalance this, so find it.
9. That those who run clubs realize simply playing more games isn’t the best way to increase revenue. That’s why the Champions League expanded and why clubs don’t want to see the size of their top flight reduced. But you get diminishing marginal gains when simply adding fixtures and, sometimes, sometimes, less is more. At the top end, having fewer matches — but making each a bigger deal — would be beneficial and possibly just as lucrative, if not more so.
10. That when UEFA reintroduces financial fair play rules, they have the right balance, plus teeth and transparency. FFP was suspended due to COVID-19, and that was reasonable, but its return must come with realisation that the landscape isn’t that of 10 years ago. You need a system that looks forward and encourages investment and growth, while at the same time making it sustainable. You need a better enforcement mechanism, and you need buy-in from the public, which means making all the figures transparent and open to all. Money is the main tool for competition, so there is no reason to shroud it in secrecy.
11. That FIFA’s new transfer regulations on agents involve full transparency so clubs, as well as individuals, can be held to account. They likely won’t, because FIFA says European privacy laws don’t allow it. Fine, challenge them: Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and many agents want openness too.
12. That the opportunity is taken to ban sovereign wealth funds from buying clubs. Such a fund’s job is to look after the money of a country’s citizens, who, unlike with a private equity fund, don’t get to choose where their money is invested. And unlike a private equity fund, governments can be toppled or voted out. That’s a recipe for neither fairness nor stability. I’m not picking on Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain or Newcastle; they can be given an exemption or be made to sell over time. But there’s no valid reason for this to continue. Clubs should be owned by members, who freely choose to take a stake, or by private companies, whose shareholders make that choice with their own money.
13. That leagues regulate partnerships between clubs and providers of cryptocurrencies and nonfungible tokens (NFTs). I have nothing against either — in fact, I own some cryptocurrency myself — but some of what is going on looks like little more than pump-and-dump operations using club brands for legitimacy and club loyalty to sucker in fans. Caveat emptor and buyer beware? Sure, but legitimate cryptos and NFT providers also get fleeced.
14. That the European Super League and its proponents go away and have a long, hard think. I know they retreated with their noses bloodied, and some are still fighting, but if their only solution for making the game better is trying to impose their will on others, that’s no solution.
15. That we realize that although a superleague was wrong for Europe — especially in how it came about — that does not necessarily apply elsewhere. I use the term loosely, but if you take it to mean some sort of open pan-continental competition — without permanent places that, for some, might replace domestic competition — it might not necessarily be a bad thing for some parts of the world.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens meet FIFA vice president Victor Montagliani to discuss the prospect of future cross-league competitions.
16. That at some point we answer the basic question of what we want football to be, whether purely a part of the entertainment business or some sort of communal social trust. The European Court of Justice might end up answering it on behalf of all of us, but I’d rather the game got there first. If it’s purely a branch of the entertainment business, then we don’t really need FIFA, confederations and national associations. Clubs can band together to write their own rules and create and run their own competitions, without any oversight or accountability to anyone, other than their customers (sorry, fans…). If it’s a communal social trust, like public education or law enforcement or national parks, then the system has to be open to all, with solidarity and with elected leaders who make decisions for the entire pyramid. The best outcome, as I see it, isn’t at either end of the continuum; it’s somewhere in between. But we need clarity.
17. That match officials explain decisions, including admitting errors, so that fans can better understand. The key word here is explain, which is different from justify. From VAR to on-pitch referees, too often we don’t know why or how a decision was taken. When Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi make mistakes, we accept them as such. If referees were allowed to speak more openly, we might accept errors more readily.
18. That the last bastion of protectionism in the game — referees — be removed. The best leagues in the world attract talent from all over, from players and coaches to sporting directors, owners, physios and so on. But, with very few exceptions, refereeing remains a de facto closed shop. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to be Italian to referee in Serie A or English to referee in the Premier League, but you do have to be part of those countries’ refereeing associations. In practice, that rules out most foreigners unless they want to start near the bottom of the pyramid. Leagues should be free to hire the best they can find.
19. That the battle against racism, sexism, anti-gay behaviour and other bigotry continue to attract more and more support. There are many ways to fight the fight, so let’s not get bogged down on what might be performative or lip service. Instead, let’s do more to be inclusive; the world is changing for the better, and the game needs to keep up.
20. That women’s football be given a chance to grow on its own, marking its own path, rather than simply copying the men’s game. It went under the radar somewhat, but FIFA took a big step last month when it split out the commercial operation of its male and female competitions. There is no valid reason the strategy for growth among women — where, in real terms, the elite game is a few decades old — should be dictated by those who had a century-long head start.
21. That we get a biennial Women’s World Cup. Club football drives the men’s game, but we know international football drives it for the women; you only need to look at attendances and viewership of elite women’s leagues versus World Cups and continental championships to understand this. A biennial World Cup, plus a strong Nations League in each confederation, is the way forward, at least in the short term.
22. That we learn the lesson of the Chinese bubble. Remember the sport’s boom and president Xi Jinping’s 2016 ambition to win the World Cup in the next 15 years and become a world superpower by 2050? That looks unlikely to happen, given the team that won the Super League in 2020 was dissolved a few months later. There’s a lesson to be learned about growth being organic, sustainable and, above all, not top down.
23. That Christine Sinclair sticks around a few more years, making it tougher for Cristiano Ronaldo to break her international scoring record. OK, I jest. It’s apples and oranges, obviously. Ronaldo broke the men’s record in 2021 and is now at 115 goals for Portugal. Sinclair has 188 for Canada and, since I want Ronaldo to keep playing and breaking records for a long time, I like to think that reaching Sinclair’s mark — whatever it might be — should keep him going for many years.
24. That we one day we find out the truth about why Lionel Messi is no longer a Barcelona player. It might take forensic accounting. It might take truth serum. But I’d love to know what happened, because I simply don’t buy the explanation we got. Messi was in tears at leaving and later said he was never asked to play for free, while Barca president Joan Laporta said the club did everything to keep him. Maybe I’m wrong, but it just doesn’t add up.
25. That somebody explains to me whether Karim Benzema got really good all of a sudden or whether all the wise, highly paid football folk at Real Madrid over the past 13 years didn’t see what they had on their hands. Benzema was 21 when he arrived at the Bernabeu. For the first four years, he was in and out of the line-up. For the five after that, he played third fiddle in the BBC, doing the groundwork for fellow front men Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. For the past three years, Benzema has been one of the best centre-forwards in the world and, finally, has gotten credit. How does that work?
26. That however well Manchester United do under interim boss Ralf Rangnick, they wait until the end of the season to choose whether he should be made permanent manager. They made that mistake before when, for absolutely no reason, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got the full-time job three months before a decision was needed. Once bitten, twice shy, you’d think, but with this club you just don’t know. You’ve got a plan, stick to it. Take all the time you have to decide whether Rangnick should stay on the bench, whether he should take some kind of technical director role or whether you want to say “auf wiedersehen.”
27. That Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Mueller either stay or go out together. They’ve defined the past decade at Bayern Munich, are 33 and 32 respectively, and will both be out of contract in June 2023. Devising the right exit strategy for superstars isn’t easy. If they’re not going to stay, as a fan of both players, I’d rather Bayern just ripped off the Band-Aid.
28. That Juventus‘ majority shareholders, the Exor company, hold the folks running the club to account, not just for events on the pitch but for the negative publicity received. When you’re the biggest and most successful club, many folks will be jealous and dislike you, but over the past few seasons — from the Super League debacle to Luis Suarez‘s Italian language exam and a false accounting investigation — this club has received too much avoidable negative publicity.
29. That Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland continue to do what is best for them. Some argue that having family members influence your career can be detrimental, and in some cases that’s true. But with these two, it feels as if every step has been carefully designed with a long-term view. Haaland could have moved directly from Salzburg to a mega-club and made much more money. Mbappe could have moved to Real Madrid when he left Monaco. Instead, both took their time. And both face a major decision in 2022: Mbappe is a free agent, while Haaland might as well be, since he has a release clause far lower than his market value.
30. That kids who fall in love with the sport be given the chance, first and foremost, to support their local club before jumping on the big-club bandwagon simply because that is what is pumped relentlessly onto screens. Yes, this is copied-and-pasted from previous years, but it’s worth repeating. And it’s the one wish over which we have the most control.