At the dawning of a new decade – fortunately one which has a decent name instead of ‘the tens’ – 2020 is one of those impossibly futuristic dates which felt like it could never actually occur outside of science-fiction. Arrive, however, it has.
Now heading into the (roaring?) twenties, what state is our beloved game in and what can be done to ensure further decades of skill, spectacle and passion to enthral fans worldwide?
Well, a spurious and patchy list of new year’s resolutions should sort that. So, in no particular order, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of ‘must-dos’ for football’s fans, participants and preening overlords…
1. Cure all society’s ills
Football, for the most part, is a force for good in society. The spectre of prejudice has, however, never strayed too far from the foreground.
Racism is an endemic problem globally, which results as a consequence of generations of prejudice, flawed education, dog-whistle xenophobic political leadership and the essential human fear of ‘the other’, etc. In football stadia, racism is generally used as a means of verbal abuse to intimidate and affect an opponent; sometimes as an expression of a darker, fascist ideology. Neither are welcome.
Sufficient punishment as a deterrent is the only way to combat a growing disease, as football can’t be solely responible for the cure. For instance, cash-rich clubs could employ specific staff to monitor and enforce tighter controls on abusive fans – only such a zero-tolerance policy can militate against players facing racism in their place of work.
For too many of those with their hands on the levers of power, sport is nothing more than a ‘product’. Instead, it is an important facilitator in our society – something in which we invest our hopes, dreams and, to some extent, self-expression. As such, it must be open to all – without fear of harassment or persecution.
Football has the means to lead, not follow. Let’s dispose of meaningless banners and t-shirt campaigns and crack down ruthlessly on the reprehensible bigots who blight the beautiful game.
2. Give defenders their due
World Soccer‘s Jim Holden recently noted that just 13 out of the 189 top-three annual Ballon D’Or contenders in history have been defenders (less than 7%). Only the imperious play of Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk has somehow countered the prevailing logic: goals win matches, therefore forwards are more worthy of acclaim. Perhaps true, but blocks, covering runs and goalkeepers’ saves change games too.
Some instead argue that those who dictate play from the centre of the pitch are most valuable. Luka Modric, Andrea Pirlo, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were among those treasured as the ‘playmaker’, trequartista or enganche, since the turn of the century. Yet, the modern-day maker of play can often be found thundering up and down the touchline; offering a creative outlet amid densely-packed midfields and congested penalty areas. That’s right – if you somehow missed it – full-backs have become the new conduits for ‘sexy football’.
Van Dijk’s club team-mates, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold can arguably be said to have contributed more to their current worldwide supremacy survey than much-hyped but misfiring Mohammed Salah. While the admittedly gifted forward is running down blind alleys and selfishly shooting when others are better placed, his full-back friends are covering every blade of grass, providing precise crosses, linking play seamlessly – and even offering a goal threat.
The definition and role of the ‘defender’ has liquified of late, but surely it is time to give our back-four brothers a break by finally handing over some hard-earned individual awards.
3. Learn to stop worrying and love VAR
OK, this is a tough one, given the predominantly loathsome impact the Video Assistant Referee has so far had upon the professional game. Charge sheet: alienating supporters in the stadium with an information vacuum (fans’ favourite chant of 2019: “F**k VAR!”), muddling apparently straightforward calls and soaking up approximately 73.8% of all post-match analysis time. Admittedly, this figure is based on pure prejudice and guesswork.
However, the incontrovertible truth is that VAR is here to stay – and more often than not, the remote referees reach the right decision, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. In fact, the major problem has been the lamentable new rules which have complemented the technology. One more goal-of-the-season candidate ruled out by the dreaded dotted line of doom should herald a fans’ strike and a merciless march upon the offices of IFAB.
Nonetheless, many potential injustices have been righted by the system – only its speed and application must be refined in order to bring ultimate acceptance.
4. Sort out the offside/hand-ball fiasco
Another one for the shady untouchables at IFAB. Lukas Brud, the rule-making body’s chief, must be aware of the current absurdity of forwards being penalised for having half an eyelash in an offside position.
Any such decisions which are simply too tight to call – even with innumerable camera angles and interminable delays for scrutiny – could be awarded the way of the attacking team. Are we really gaining anything from chalking off goals – the game’s most precious commodity – for barely perceptible breaches of a rule which was principally conceived to stop ‘goal-hanging’?
Additionally, the new hand-ball rules may have brought some clarity but are, again, too punitive for the attacking team. Accidental flick off an elbow in the build-up? No goal. If on-pitch refs use the pitchside monitors for anything, to establish whether there is ‘intent’ in this situation would be it. Although the recent media fetishisation of these ‘magical’ monitors is another sore topic…
How is an adrenaline-filled official with one little telly to look at (while thousands of baying fans attempt to influence him/her) better equipped to decide than a specialist remote refereeing team which can benefit from viewing infinite angles and speeds? Let the VAR earn their keep, regardless of the false perception that the match ref will therefore be ‘undermined’.
5. Prioritise player welfare
Perhaps this is finally the year when governing bodies and TV-contract negotiators finally heed the deafening cacophony of coaches and players decrying an often hectic and illogical playing schedule? Obviously not – particularly with a mid-season World Cup (to played in oppressive heat) and expanded World Club Cup looming on the distant horizon – but surely something has to give?
Playing three times in a week or twice in 72 hours defies what modern sports science tells us is healthy for elite professionals. Yes, once upon a time Jimmy Greaves, et al probably did play 80-odd games a season without a peep of complaint. However, the intensity of the 21st century game is far greater.
If, particularly with us armchair fans hungry for ever-more ‘content’, the player workload point is arguable, then football’s inexcusable approach to head injuries is not. It must change now.
Five to ten minute concussion assessment substitutes could be introduced immediately, offering the injured party an opportunity to be rigorously assessed before a decision is made about whether they are fit to return to the field. While the “it works in rugby” gambit is frustratingly overused in discussions about football’s future, in this instance the egg-chasers have it completely right. In the light of overwhelming research findings, to protect the future health of its participants, football must follow suit.
Which other resolutions should football make for the year ahead? Please let us know in the space below or on Twitter. Happy New Year to all and here’s to a fantastic football-filled 2020!