It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. After the dystopian gloom and silence of Covid-19, it was a season of sound and light on the field, but you don’t have to be a doomsayer to see the enveloping darkness off it. There was drama to the very last kick but the same meddlesome greed in the corridors of power. Football — especially the English Premier League (EPL) — has a global audience glued to its irresistible product, but it has to be careful not to kill the golden goose.
Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City are EPL champions for the fourth time in five years after an epic comeback. In a finale for the ages, all but two of the last-day fixtures seethed with nail-biting jeopardy. But City’s dominance is as ominous as Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain’s is in France. Liverpool ran them close but neither hedge fund wizards nor oligarchs can compete with the oil states’ sovereign wealth funds. And Saudi-owned Newcastle United are just fitting their artificial wings.
As the rich get richer, the game as a whole becomes poorer. Not only are historic clubs left behind, but fans are forgotten, referees undermined and grass roots neglected. The EPL haves steadfastly refuse to share the spoils with the have-nots. Century-old institutions — some the commercial hubs of small towns — teeter on the brink of oblivion, while one or two — like lottery winners — are saved by nation states cleansing their human rights record.
The irony of these erstwhile pariahs becoming Santa Claus in their newfound fiefdom only highlights what Scrooges the EPL clubs are. When a recent fan-led review of football governance recommended a 10% levy on transfers to go to the lower leagues, they were up in arms. And they owe grassroots football over £1 billion from the 1999 task force agreement. Of the promised 5% of TV revenues, only a trickle has been paid.
The Uefa Champions League (UCL) is becoming even more of a rich man’s club, morphing into a European Super League by stealth. The fans’ revolt that was supposed to have stopped it brought only a stay of execution: under a new format from 2024, many of the rebels’ wishes will be granted. Even now, only a handful of clubs can win it and half of those are backed by countries whose national teams are not even in the top 50 in the world rankings.
Wherever we look, there is precious little wisdom, but an overdose of foolishness. Like Marie Antoinette, Fifa and Uefa offer only cake — and neither seems to know that less can sometimes be more. The new UCL will squeeze 189 games out of 36 teams, while the bloated 2026 World Cup — up to 48 teams from 32 — will stage 80. As if that wasn’t enough, Fifa wanted a World Cup every two years until Europe and South America refused. The EPL is not alone in milking the game for all it’s worth.
Uefa is even considering scrapping two-leg semi-finals for the UCL, news of which seeped out just after this year’s home and away clashes had provided plot twists to rank among the tournament’s classics. It was done out of necessity during the pandemic and the money men think a “week of football”, into which both semis and final could be crammed, might generate more for the coffers.
Once again, the long-suffering fans are not considered. Not only are many kick-off times set when transport is non-existent, ticket prices are prohibitive and the allocation derisory, meaning that fans could now be robbed of watching their team in its biggest game of the season. And the few that do travel will be asked to fund a week in a foreign capital when prices are at their tourist-fleecing height. Doesn’t Uefa know losing fans don’t hang around?
If it seems untimely to be spotting clouds when we are basking in the glow of a glorious season, it’s the best time to fix the roof: football cannot carry on like this. These tournaments are like runaway horses under jockeys who know only to use the whip. Tinkering with the laws after the premature introduction of the Video Assistant Referee is another bone of contention.
Existential threats range from the retirement of referees — due to verbal and physical abuse — to shrinking attention spans. Already, Gen Z is no longer watching entire games — only highlights — and very few are playing. And if a cabal of super-rich clubs continues to share the spoils like a rotating monarchy, interest will wane further. Costly state-of-the-art homes such as those at Spurs and Real Madrid could become white elephants before the interest on them has been paid.
If it was a spring of hope in a playing sense, despair could come as soon as next winter. A two-month hiatus for a World Cup that was the heist of the century to be played in the middle of the season! And all because it would be too hot to play in Qatar’s furnace-like summer.
A far greater outrage is that it’s still in a tiny state with no football history or culture and where futuristic stadiums are being built by virtual slave labour. Amnesty International says Fifa should pay US$440 million compensation for abuse of those migrant workers. Even that figure doesn’t come near to the sacrifices made. According to The Guardian, 6,500 have died since work on the stadiums and infrastructure began.
Purely from a football point of view, staging it in Qatar in such circumstances is a travesty — especially for the fans. Even with a promised relaxation of mediaeval laws, it is hard to see it being the joyous mingling of mankind that a World Cup is meant to be.
It is all a great pity as the game has never been better. Players are fitter, faster, stronger and better coached. They are looked after by medical teams equipped with algorithms that predict injuries and can fix many on the spot. Dressing rooms have ice baths, saunas and mini clinics. Pitches are billiard-table smooth; rules have tightened to banish the thugs. Football leaves little to chance now.
For fans, it really is a case of enjoying the near future while we can. Before the new UCL format slams the door shut on the Villareals making it to the semi-final as they did this year. The idea of the Portos and the Nottingham Forests actually winning the thing — as they both have twice — has gone forever. And before an overloaded, dumbed-down World Cup lite.
As the eulogies for the 2021/22 season come in, you don’t have to be a cynic to see the coming storm. The current economic climate doesn’t help. As player salaries break the bank, more and more fans depend on food banks. And the more exclusive football becomes, it will go from being a distraction for society’s problems to a target. Even amidst the euphoria of pitch invasions, we have already seen random acts of violence.
To borrow yet again from Charles Dickens, whose immortal intro was about the French revolution, football finds itself in an epoch of hope and despair. Like society, there’s good and evil, wisdom and folly. And like those final-day matches, football itself could go either way.
Bob Holmes is a long-time sportswriter specialising in football