In this golden age for football, the threat of overkill looms ever larger
It’s worth asking before launching into a jeremiad where you would have stood on major disruptions of the past. Have I become the old man who yells at clouds and is simply opposed to everything new? Would I have been against professionalism, the 1925 change in the offside law, the advent of European football, the foundation of the Premier League? Is this just the conservative creep of age? Perhaps. But, equally, it’s hard to look at football and where it may be headed and not feel fearful.
In some ways, football has rarely had it so good. The Premier League this season offers a title race, a battle for fourth and a nine-team relegation scrap; almost every match feels consequential. The World Cup provided a classic variant on one of the greatest narratives of all time, the ageing star triumphing at the last – and Lionel Messi’s consecration came after extraordinary tension against the Netherlands in the quarter-final and France in the final.
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The knockout phase of the Champions League has not quite taken off yet this season, but in recent years has been a reliable source of drama and excellent football. Crowds in England, stretching down the pyramid, have never been so high. As David Goldblatt’s book The Football Age makes clear, the game has never enjoyed such universal appeal.
Yet that appeal is precisely what places it at risk. It is so popular, it has drawn not merely the spivs and the chancers who have always hung around its periphery, but private equity and oligarchs, dictators and the public investment funds of nation states. It is vast and global, essentially unregulated and probably unregulatable. Greed and gain are everywhere.
Look back at the Football Association grandees who withdrew from Fifa in 1928 over broken-time payments or at the secretary of the Football League, Alan Hardaker, fretting about televising games and the impact of the European Cup and it’s easy – and not inaccurate – to see only fussy Little Englanders, agents of reaction determined to oppose change and foreigners.
At least, though, they had some sense they were doing what was right for the game. Even the former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, whose faults were legion, believed at some level he was doing what was best for football as well as himself. Can anybody say the same for Gianni Infantino? For Todd Boehly? For Nasser al-Khelaifi?
Infantino’s power base lies in Africa, Asia and Concacaf. That’s why the Fifa president favoured an expanded World Cup. A bigger World Cup means more slots for Africa, Asia and Concacaf and that means more money for the federations who qualify and, at least in the short term, more money for Fifa. But there was no discussion, no consultancy, no debate at a Fifa congress about whether an expanded World Cup is desirable.
It was presented as a fait accompli, as was clear from the fact that the initial plan was for 16 groups of three teams, as though nobody had thought through the potential for dead rubbers or arranged results. Twelve groups of four is probably a less bad format, but with eight third-place teams going through, there will be a lot of first-round games without much jeopardy. Infantino proudly hailed the Qatar World Cup as the best ever: so why change it?
In 2026, there will be 72 games to eliminate 16 teams. It means a World Cup that will drag on for nearly six weeks. Has anybody considered that interest will wane, as it has in the longer cricket World Cups? Has any research been done? Any of the normal processes of functioning governance?
But gigantism is everywhere in football. The Swiss system the Champions League will adopt in 2024-25 replaces a phase that was dull and predictable with one that is even duller and more predictable – and longer. Infantino’s revamped Club World Cup is a bloated mess that seems designed largely to give Fifa a lucrative club competition that will lend political clout. That fatigue will wear down players and fans may eventually be sated seems to concern nobody.
A global club competition might have been a nice idea if inequality had not been allowed to run rampant for so long. Infantino’s attempt to redress that is the African Super League, another of his policy announcements that lack substance. Initially supposed to feature 20 teams in a closed league, it is still implausibly scheduled to begin in August, although whether with 24 or eight teams, alongside or instead of the African Champions League, in what format and with what TV deal, nobody seems to know.
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The one person who might have stood up against this is Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin. Europe still has the clout that it could place some kind of check on the wilder excesses. Ceferin and the Conmebol president, Alejandro Domínguez, acted together to head off Infantino’s wheeze of a World Cup every two years. But Ceferin, after his initial robustness in fighting the European Super League, is diminished these days, perhaps realising the forces intent on leveraging the game are too rich, too powerful.
Pretty much the only positive thing he has done in almost a year has been to allow the publication of a report that admits just how badly wrong Uefa and the French authorities got the organisation of the Champions League final in Paris last year.
Having yielded to the elite by giving them a longer Champions League group phase, Ceferin now seems to be contemplating relaxing the prohibition on multi-club ownership. It was already bad enough that a club with decades of tradition could be transformed into effectively a nursery for a bigger side, but the idea the same people could own multiple sides in the same competition is a clear assault on sporting integrity.
This is far more profound than generational angst. There are threats on all sides. But who will stop them? Who will stand up against the exploitation of football for financial and political gain? Who will protect the game itself? Who can? And all the while, like the dog in the meme, football squabbles on, arguing about handballs and Harry Maguire, distracted by petty rivalries, insisting all is fine as the fires close in.
The eggs have rarely been so golden; the goose rarely so imperilled.