I could try and christen this blog with a systematically familiar introduction (even though you could hopefully argue I don’t do dull remakes). Personally, however, I don’t feel 2016, in this round-up of the year, in all of its performance-enhanced brilliance and misery, deserves a blasé headline, nor an exuberant slapdash of a summary, seeing as its 366 days have drastically distorted the way we will view, and partake in the running of a politically divisive and morally questionable world, moving forwards. Sure, any year, in the concepts that the Gregorian calendar define it, can do that, but in the eyes of the wider public, there is certainly a heavy sentiment that 2016, through its unrelenting, record-breaking, concept-smashing, meme-spawning oddity, bitterness and commotion, has become the daddy of all 12 months in recent times, an era-flipping, rather than defining, period of absolute unpredictability.
One of the regions in which this has been exemplified, to no small extent, is the ever-changing, yet always dependable, mega-microcosm of football, a sub-culture’s sub-culture in that it leads the field in the extremities of its evils, yet endless profitability and appeal, possibly in world sport, certainly in British sport. Seeing as we are focusing our spotlight on football here then, let’s encapsulate the year into chapters, in which we will take a glance at, and dissect, the events, theories and quirks of the past 12 months, in what I hope to be bitesize morsels, for your very entertainment and pleasure on what may be the very last day of the year if you’re hitting the site early doors, New Year’s Day if you’re that way inclined, or perhaps later into the distant future and curious of the past. (How is it to be in a different year then guys?)
Who’d be a Pundit?
Considering the big-hitting headlines, the chief action which unfolded in front of our eyes this year, there is surely no better place to start than with the numerous shocks we witnessed on the pitch throughout. Obviously, there was the unrivalled, likely unconquerable, miracle of Leicester City and the Premier League, the largely unforeseen success of Portugal in the European Championship, which came in tandem with the unprecedented accomplishments of previous minnows Iceland and Wales, and the less publicised consecutive Copa America-winning exploits of Chile, which lighted our year each in their own way. And you know what each of them had? It was heart, teamwork and an unrelenting desire to achieve the impossible which eventually took each to their unthinkable goals. They proved each of these cheesy Facebook quotes, ludicrously overused by non-league football coaches, right; teamwork makes the dream work.
Every team has teamwork to a certain degree though; the difference was that while other teams, foolishly, if understandably, overhyped by large sections of the media, the pundits and the fans present, had the pressure to win, and to win in style; therefore laying vulnerable to unique tactical stylings; namely the counter-attacking masterplans of Messrs Ranieri, Santos, Coleman etc., which defied such plans. With the attacking, typically rewarding 4-2-3-1 strategies of classically ‘top’ sides, with far more considerable physical and financial muscles, proving ineffective and nullified by primarily defensively compact sides, who only had to take one chance on the counter to win a match, apparently world-class managers were openly mocked on the biggest stage. Since, however, these same top managers have reworked their tactical systems, for example Antonio Conte and his 3-5-2/3-4-3, perfected in his previous work with the Italian national team - who modelled their system upon his work before that with the all-conquering Juventus, who on a weekly basis had to face sides attempting to counter – it seems such miracles have faded. For now maybe, but I wouldn’t put it past another Leicester City to ruffle a few feathers in 2017, possibly not on the biggest stage, but in the wider scene, at least.
The Greatest Continue To Amaze…
Throughout the notable shocks we witnessed, there was a visible constant on display; these underdogs’ reliance on their star attacking names. Leicester had Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez; perhaps not regarded as world-class defensive lock pickers, but still well-respected leading men for their side. Portugal had captain Cristiano Ronaldo on hand to chip in with vital goals – remember his brace against Hungary which saw his side finally escape from the group stage – Wales had fellow Galactico Gareth Bale, and Chile had Alexis Sanchez to lead the line. While other attacking forces made telling contributions come the time of the final whistle blowing for each of these sides, particularly Eduardo Vargas in the final example, they would have had such opportunities had such feared, iconic players not been present to make the decisive runs, through balls and most vitally shots to wrap up matches for their sides.
This is where the ever-improving Real Madrid flourish with such ease. In the outspokenly, if impressively, attacking La Liga, their tactic of signing top names, on most occasions attack-minded individuals, to bolster their ranks and strike fear into the hearts of others, is an undoubtedly and ruthlessly effective plan towards the downfall of their opposition. In Ronaldo, Bale, Karim Benzema, James Rodríguez, Álvaro Morata and Isco lies one of the most potent forward lines around, which, arguably with most in their prime, beats even Barcelona’s selection dreamscape-turned-reality between Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Arda Turan, Paco Alcacer and Rafinha. Alongside a settled defence, this array of starlets have led Madrid to their most rewarding year in recent memory, claiming three major trophies across 2016 under a resurgence with Zinedine Zidane at the helm, also going 36 matches unbeaten in all competitions, running back to their 2-0 defeat away at Wolfsburg in the Champions League quarter-final first leg back in early April (still not as impressive as Welsh club The New Saints’ record-breaking 27 consecutive wins if you ask me).
…While new heroes emerge
It was not just the trophy-laden year of realisation for Ronaldo, nor the La Liga-Copa del Rey-Spanish Super Cup treble and 51 domestic calendar goals for Messi, as in previous years, however, as many of the previously unproven talents, at least at the top stage, and some totally fresh faces, came to the fore to provide us our dosage of entertainment.
Take Antoine Griezmann, for example, who previously hadn’t even arguably been regarded as the best French player, let alone the third best player in the world according the year-ending Ballon d’Or – since separated from FIFA, but more on them later – who led, as an attacking tour de force, his Athletico Madrid side to a gut-wrenching defeat on penalties against inner-city rivals Real in the Champions League final. All this, just a month before starring as a Spanish-trained rampaging winger on the international stage, even with the pressure as a beacon of hope for Didier Deschamps’ side, eventually bagging a Golden Boot award and, unluckily for him, a runner’s up medal in the final, against the aforementioned plucky Portuguese. While Griezmann missed out in Paris, down in Rio in August, Neymar, usually a sideshow to his elder strike partners Messi and Suarez, was realising his international ambitions at an emotional home Olympics. Downplayed by many (including us here) the Games, usually the highlight of every leap year, helped, in a slightly understated fashion to those outside of Brazil, the Barcelona starlet make amends for the 7-1 thumping his side – without him after suffering an injury in the quarter-finals - were served by Germany two years previous, scoring the winning penalty in the Maracanã against, you guessed it, the Germans.
Dimitri Payet, too, stepped up on this biggest of stages, while also leading from the front on domestic duty with West Ham, while Paul Pogba, yet another of the squad with such hopes for their home tournament, recovered from his questionable return to life at Manchester United, this time as the most expensive player in the world, to begin showing signs of why the £89.3 million spent on him was mandated.
Pogba’s new teammate at United, Marcus Rashford, led the contingent of explosive, uber-confident teenagers grabbing our attention this year, well-noted to have scored on his debut in the Europa League, Premier League and League Cup, while also repeating the trick with both the senior and under 21 England sides. If the mercurial Mancunian’s trademark was in bagging goals, then the Portuguese prodigy who beat him to the European Golden Boy title this year, Renato Sanches, had his energetic playmaking skills exemplified on the top stage at the Euros this summer, while fellow bloomers, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Joshua Kimmich, Kingsley Coman, Gabriel Barbosa and Munir included, also came on in leaps and bounds. With each of these prodigious talents safely secured of game time at some of the biggest clubs in Europe, I think it’s safe to conclude that the future of the game, at least on the pitch, is in safe hands in the near future.
Familiar Villains Remain
2016 has certainly not been without its controversy in any section of society, and in football, you can always rely on the old guard to ensure an expletive-laden contemplation of the footballing hierarchy from disillusioned fans, and not in a positive fashion. Yes, the likes of Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner, Michel Platini and Jerome Valcke all lost their positions at the helm of international football in 2015, with Gianni Infantino and Aleksander Ceferin recently ushered in to respective positions as Presidents at FIFA and UEFA, handed the reins for an almighty cleaning up act, but still, there are many evil forces blighting what should be such an empowering and progressive game. Public enemy number one; well, in the latter half of the year, it may have seemed that, alongside their success in the Bundesliga, RB Leipzig, but more widely Red Bull, were the main perpetrators targeted, with good reason too. But over the course of a long twelve months, we’ve pointed the finger at; the Chinese Super League/Government, Joleon Lescott, Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce, brawling fans, cheating players, Sky and BT, FIFA, UEFA, the FA, chief executives, hipsters, over-critical supporters, tabloid newspapers, Sports Personality of the Year, and, in no uncertain terms, mega-rich owners, the Class of ’92, Mike Ashley, Vincent Tan, the Allams, the Oystons, the Venky’s, Sheikh Mansour, and, harking back to our very first blog, Massimo Cellino, just to name a few. No shortage of talking points then, if you’ll excuse the pun.
While there may have been a few new faces there on the end of our critical eye, Sam Allardyce, previously only particularly on the end Newcastle and West Ham fans’ antipathy, as that from Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho come to think of it, and his rags-to-riches-to-rags story must surely have stolen the villain of the year title for sheer drama. His peculiar rise kicked off after he staved off relegation for Sunderland, witnessed Hodgson well and truly spoil his chance with England, and jumped onto the sinking ship as quickly as a suicidal kangaroo, charming the press with all of the ease of a bull in a china shop. As soon as he had pocketed the win bonus from a dodgy 1-0 win in Slovakia, he had the sense to completely dissolve any credibility English football had left by being caught in the act exchanging information about illegal transfer dealings in front of the national media, completing his self-destructive cycle, or at least we thought, with a shameful denial of guilt, before getting his grubby hands on the job at desperate Crystal Palace, at the wrong time and in the wrong place, if you ask me.
If there’s one thing sure for 2017, it is that villains, including the many that we’ve covered this year, will not stop disfiguring and exploiting the sport for all that it’s worth; as ever in football, there will still be those to spoil our fun.
Managers are more vulnerable than ever
It’s a well know and often outspoken factor of the game in professional circumstances these days; players underperform, yet continue to get paid more (on average), while managers face the wrath of increasingly impatient and tyrannical owners, whom they have to call boss. With the impending influence of cash upon each and every sector of the beautiful game, and results on the pitch the only factor in delivering returns on this investment, it seems that those brave fools who go into club management are treading a fine line every time they step out onto the touchline. Take the case of Swansea City, who, after cowardly sacking their most deserving and productive manager in their modern history in Garry Monk, have deteriorated into oblivion, a sorry shadow of the side which finished eighth in the 2014/15 Premier League season, devoid of identity, or patience it seems, also culling the methodical Bob Bradley after just eleven matches in charge, the effect of their hungry new ownership’s unwieldy ways. Charlton Athletic, Leeds United, QPR, Aston Villa and Cardiff City, also, have a proven track record of, rather than accepting they are internally fragmented and detrimental, blaming numerous, innocent managers, before even allowing them time to regiment their methods.
This can be sure to continue as long as we, but more importantly, the respective FA’s around the world, accept these damaging breeds of owners, personified by their ruthless impatience and shocking selfishness. Personally, as much as it may haunt us, it is also down to us failing to relent in our barraging criticism of certain managerial styles. Sure, negative performances warrant action, but there needs to be some perspective put on those performances, and the pressure-cookers of conditions in which these martyrs have to cope. Unless there is some movement in either of those circumstances, this growing tide will become even more prominent heading into coming years.
Morally… There’s Still A Lot to Be Desired
I doubt football, ever the business juggernaut that it is, will ever particularly take any amount of time to reflect upon its many moral accountabilities, but it has to be admitted that many are trying to make the sport a kinder, and more responsible, broad-church for all that hold it dear. For all the ups and downs of this year in football, the memories of the Euros and of Leicester City will be the ones that burn brightest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should gloss over the aspects we would rather forget, far from it. As some crackpot philosopher or ‘deep’ millennial once said; “Sometimes in order to keep moving forward, not only must you take one step at a time, but you must be willing to look back occasionally and evaluate your past, no matter how painful it is. Looking back lets you know whether or not you are headed in the right direction.” On reflection, this year has taught us many things; that we should value what we are fortunate enough to hold currently, instead of wishing the future along prematurely, that in equal terms, we are all at fault for the same things we still lament, and that, maybe, controversy and evil is inevitable, but while it may be continually in action, it doesn’t mean that it should be ignored.
While football may not gleam the brightest, nor ever choose its words too carefully, there is no doubt that its body of sheer power has the potential to reform what is, in truth, still the same model it was decades ago, just under a separate pretence, one of nauseatingly slick efficiency.
A Realisation of State
As the year passes, it is always poignant to remember those who played roles, however small or seemingly insignificant, in the lives of many, who have passed away this year. For football, perhaps this is more important than ever in recent times, as the outpouring of emotion in support of the fallen Chapecoense players and staff, proved, a particularly reflective moment for all involved in the game. While many other defining figures, for example Carlos Alberto, have also passed away this year, I feel that the sentiment shared by many in the wake of the Chapecoense airplane crash, not just the gesture by their scheduled Copa Sudamerica final opponents, Colombians Athletico Nacional, as well as continental governing body, Conmebol, to award the trophy to the Brazilians, but the reflection that it was this, the tragic, premature loss of human life, that put into focus how ultimately insignificant such a thing as football is.
Even though, for many of us, it may be a lifelong affection, a deal-breaker, a constant – well, maybe not always - uplifting presence in a world of uncertainty and fear, football cannot be the definition of us as sentient beings, nor should we let it be, instead merely just an interesting quirk to who we are, a small part in what makes us all unique, a convenient, and timelessly, entertaining distraction, which sometimes, in a certain event, has the power to unite millions. We owe it to those Chapecoense players to remember such sentiments as we pass on into 2017, and further.
What next for Talking Points then?
In an often unpredictable world, proven by what we’ve seen in football at times this year, I can assure you that if one thing will remain regular – in circulation at least – in the coming year will be our weekly blogs here. Yes, I’ll still be planning, penning, editing and uploading in the same constant cycle, hopefully over each of the coming 52 (or less, if you’re reading this into the future) weeks of 2017 – unless some other technical faults hits me like that of a few weeks ago – with something fresh every Saturday afternoon, or more often if you’re lucky or I’m bored, so watch out for what’s to come! If you’ve got anything you’d particularly like debated, alongside a few exciting things I have planned already, feel free to comment below, as I’ll appreciate any creative input you may have over the course of what I fully expect to be another tumultuous and – at times – testing twelve months. For now though, let’s look forward to 2017 and the opportunities it will hold for all of us, as with any year, it is likely to be packed full of intrigue, perhaps not on the scale some bill it to, but certainly in patches, which will define our personal experiences. I’m fully looking forward to it, and I hope you are too, so let’s look to the clock, and count down the seconds, 5…, 4…(Arsenal), 3…, 2…, 1…
Christmas is often a roadblock to normality, for those who celebrate it and those who don’t, in part, as well. For me, it posed an unprecedented question this week; what to write about, in keeping with the festive spirit? Here in stiff-upper lipped Blighty, the lack of a winter break, in stark contradiction to its continental cousins, maybe? It seemed a little too easy. A Christmas list-style ode, or Yuletide carol, to all the things I want to see banned or introduced into the beautiful game, was that a possibility? Too similar to past (and possibly) future blogs for my liking, even if it had the potential to recap all that I’ve covered in the year, whilst still assuming a festive stance. I even took a brainstorming session while sitting in the bath – fully clothed – on Thursday morning in attempt to discover a fitting subject. One that hits the theme for the time of year, chiming a hopefully positive tune, yet still captures the footballing scene in all its inglorious magnitude. In the end, it was only by the time I assumed my position, crouched over the desk in my slightly smaller-than-average room, on Thursday night, and began to pen the weekly blogging mind map that a (hopefully) fitting topic struck me.
Obviously football and Christmas have had a visible intertwining over the decades and centuries, with each having the other to thank for many a moment that will go down in history, à la the Christmas Day Truce of 1914, in the frozen fields of Northern France and Belgium, where British and German troops dropped weapons to partake in light-hearted games ‘over the top’. The annual tradition of Boxing Day matches in England, too, is a reminder of the sentiment those who run the game still have, or are pressurised into having by those with more soul, with the holiday period, a heart-warming and familiar presence in the modern game. This same game, expanded into unimaginable extremities by the businessmen in charge over the past half century or so, has not forgotten the religious holiday in many areas which mark it, even for its sins elsewhere, representing a peculiar, if seldom considered, period in even the most professional of leagues. Peculiar in the sense that many European leagues mark it with an extended break, I suppose, yet England, as a footballing fraternity, has so stubbornly refused to, in spite of the criticism of many a currently or formerly exhausted player, foreign manager or beleaguered pundit over the years, rather than by any other definition of the word. But as I said, we aren’t discussing the winter break here.
Why, then, did I lay my eyes on the eponymous subject of this week’s blog? Well, through my eyes, Christmas highlights both the best, and in dire cases, the worst, of football’s messy form, one decidedly torn by loyalties to the playing side and the commercial side alike, and how both can occupy the same mad house as one another. There are, of course, the examples of how football graces the institutionalised religious celebration, such as in the entirely touching behaviour of a number of clubs, players and fans across the globe, reaching out to those less advantaged and going out of their way to put a smile on the face of one another. However, an immovable presence, depicting how the grossly overfed sport has tarnished the name of the mid-Winter ceremony through its continued pursuit of stakeholder’s cash and inaction in attending the gaping wounds in the game, does hang over us all as we admire football and its role in society at this time of year. That’s why I’m here to analyse how useful the festivities are in expanding football’s presence amongst professionalised sporting ranks, and how, moving into the future, the likes of the Premier League will attempt to utilise our celebrations in their marketing ploys and financially profitable schemes.
Other than the obvious, in which you could observe that Christmas aids football in a purely commercial sense, considering the stature now of the holidays as an economic hotbed, as the sales of football kits, scarves, hats and any other kind of merchandise you could ever imagine, rise greatly, the time of year does affect the sport in many more subliminal ways. For one, it forms an impressive fan base for FC Santa Claus, the third division – or Kakkonen - Finnish side, who play their home games in the northern city of Rovaniemi, which lies within the Arctic Circle. I jest, though that is one of the less obvious affects in the Western world. What I’m keen to explore is to what extent football and Christmas are tied, how each relies upon the other, but more on how the former is a recipient of the latter’s message of goodwill and peace to all men. A message that transcends religious beliefs and personal backgrounds, I’m sure you’ll agree, whether you celebrate the holidays or not. These lessons, at least in the pressure cooker of a world we live in, especially at Christmas time, in the capitalist, majority Christian West, are put on repeat for the extent of the celebrations, maybe if not through the heavy-handed media, by the education we received, impressing these basic morals upon us.
It is, then, practically impossible to escape their reckoning, whether you support them or not. Maybe it is this overbearing status that forces the clubs in our public eye to send their stars out to the local hospitals to surprise the young patients and pose for photo opportunities, as we have seen over numerous occasions in the media over the past week, then. I understand there are many kind-hearted players who would jump at this opportunity, but considering the out-of-touch behaviour and extortionate wages of certain other players, you can’t draw any other conclusion than the fact that Premier League clubs, at least, are pressurised into acting in such plainly warm manners to their local communities by the league they compete in. Both sides need to keep up reputations in order to maximise profitable opportunities, as any other reasonable business does. As a wise man once said, it’s all about reputation. Never will that be more obvious than in football; an unapologetically fickle business in which hundreds of millions of pounds can be brokered in a single deal, brought on by the success of a team, who, more often than not, succeed because of their strong community ties, and their exploitation of this.
Let’s not be so cynical though. There is the possibility that club and league chairman do believe in the spirit of Christmas, and that their actions at this particular time of year are fully resultant of a warm heart overtaking their raw commercial urges. Sorry to put a dampener on that, but let’s not fool ourselves; they still make a healthy profit from their community-friendly schemes. Even by using a façade to reach out to their loyal and much-beleaguered fans, seeming as the men who walk with both the prince and the pauper, it seems blindingly obvious to most of us that their ties with the former of these two extremes sways their actions across the rest of the year. It’s interesting to discover just how much we convince ourselves of this though; because we still return to the terraces, and more commonly in front of the 40-inch, 4K, Ultra HD box, every weekend, eager for more, conveniently forgiving of the sport’s misdemeanours.
The point I think I’m trying to make here is that Christmas, as a fundamentally spiritual and thought-provoking festival, perhaps provides a timely reminder to those Scrooges we have in power of the game that, maybe just for a week or so, they should reform their ways and act in accordance with the morals, which come into more profound inspection at this time of year. Whether this small but apparently significant show of, what can only be viewed in my eyes as artificial, heart, is enough to settle the quarrels in the sport, from disillusioned fans to the billionaires in charge, can be adjudged through the continued success of the Premier League – it does enough to drown out the naysayers. Whether we believe their pageant seems to be a foolish debate – overwhelmingly, fans would say no, but subconsciously, the money flying out of their wallets on a weekly basis to continue viewing such exclusive football would prove otherwise. Maybe the Christmas celebrations are in fact the silver lining professional football needs to survive in the eyes of the public and the subservient corporations, the stakeholders of the game.
However much those in charge of such leagues as the EPL want to expand, treading the line between on-field performances and overbearing commercial involvement ever more as the years go by, perhaps it is the past that holds them back from such reckless abandon. Considering the sentiment English football fans still hold with the Boxing Day round of fixtures – in which, usually, every team would play at 3PM on the same day -, as well as the aforementioned romanticised historical landmark of the 1914 Christmas Day Truce amongst British and German troops along the Western Front, in some eyes, it could be seen as no surprise that clubs and leagues still bend over backwards to suit the needs of the fan at this most unique time of year. After all, it is the fans, despite their largely pessimistic outlook on the game, who keep the cogs turning in the trundling football machine we see before us today, as they pump more money in, mostly through TV subscriptions. There is definitely a visible trend in this nation of dogged protection of the past, and such sentiment can spell the downfall of those who disobey such quirks in societal fabric. It is sensible, then, on the part of the PL and other organisations, to act cautiously when eyeing up such traditions.
The FA, I’m sure, would appreciate, much more than the Premier League, the potential sacking of Boxing Day fixtures, and traditionally hectic winter schedules, in favour of a winter break, in the ilk of the Bundesliga’s 30-day rest period, Ligue 1’s 24-day respite, La Liga’s 18 days’ worth of stoppage, or Serie A’s respective hiatus of 16 days. Even the SPFL is downing tools for a month from New Year’s Eve this season! Why would the FA be so enamoured to it though? Well, it benefits them to have a well-rested and competitive, rather than overworked and eventually exhausted, national team, when international fixtures return in summer time. I know there have been many debunking’s of such an apparent myth by statistic-friendly journalists over the years, but just watching the England players, usually so proactive and interested at club level, dawdle over a simple pass, arguably more in fear than in basic fatigue, and fail to set alight a pitch, as we all know they can, has to highlight this basic fact. When given a period of physical rest, player’s careers are more likely to be extended, providing obvious benefits to national teams especially, who have such exclusive selection pools anyway, before having to face numerous injuries, retirements and hiatuses – for example, that of Ben Foster, hardly a key England player, but still a valued squad member, who took three years out of the format back in 2011.
The Premier League, however, desperately needs the Christmas period to ensure its absolute financial domination in the highly competitive footballing market, if not for the endless PR stunts, but for the unstoppable televisual income. With at least one PL game on either Sky Sports or BT Sport every day, other than December 29, from Boxing Day until 4th January, this year will provide bumper income for those in charge after a masterstroke in fixture formulation for the fans and businesses involved, but a nightmare period for managers, players and fantasy league bosses. Well, maybe the latter won’t be of much significance to those in charge, but when making such crude business decisions, the consultation of the employees who effectively control your industry (power the people and all that) is an advisable action. Without assessing the opinions of those involved, the powers that be have left themselves in a tricky position in that managers, especially those who enjoyed festive breaks in their previous roles – Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp, who happen to be in charge of what are currently the top three clubs in the nation – are going to have to go on the record and criticise such ruthless choices. In doing so, a single quote can spread like wildfire through the national media, landing the league in hot water.
This water only gets to boiling point, however, if we, as fans, give it the power to do so. Currently, I don’t see any collective fan movement which has the resources to do that, so we continue in this self-unfulfilling cycle of progressively worse corruption and capitalism. Considering the make-up of our strange world, however, it seems that perfection is ugly. We like to see faults within the things we love, as it shows them as possibly vulnerable, possibly weak, as if we finally have an upper hand on them. In football, there is so little perfection that in any other walk of life, the very concept would’ve long been dispatched. Arguably, having cavernous faults is football’s best asset, as it keeps it relevant, maintains its ability to divide opinion, splitting the population into loyal fans and dismissive doubters.
This is where Christmas makes up. Football uses the holiday to place weights on either side of the scales; positively, the sport appears to be acting ethically, negatively, it doesn’t seem to be truthful in these actions. As much as they like to deny it; cricket needs its sledging, rugby needs its concussions, boxing needs its pre-match bust-ups, Formula One needs its crashes and football needs its respective evils; inglorious capitalism and dishonest corporate actions. Despite each being glaringly negative aspects closely associated with the sports on show, they are the same aspects which attract debates, whether in newspapers, on twitter, or just over a pint. Debates are what attract the masses. In this sense, everything we live is intensely political.
It’s Christmas though. I don’t mean to be a curmudgeonly Scrooge. There are people in football who do the right thing, based upon the basic principles of Christmas, the whole year round. Just admire the people at St Pauli, Red Star FC, A.S. Livorno Calcio, Dulwich Hamlet or even Lewes FC (that old chestnut again), where left-wing, footballing beliefs win over in a truly uplifting section of the landscape we see before us. If they can succeed all whilst acting in an ethical manner, why can’t the other 99% of the footballing map? Stubbornness, ruthless business nature, disillusion with the game maybe? A combination of all of these, really. At this time of year, it’s important to remember our purposes, consider our actions and make up for all of our inevitable faults. If only football could heed such advice and do this truthfully, rather than put up a smokescreen to their stakeholders and claim that they are changing, then we might not be having this conversation. As I said before though, maybe football needs these evils, this continual plight, to keep its steam train running. It does have many other faults, mainly on the pitch, however, and I do wonder whether these alone would be enough to satisfy the public demand for evil in the sport. Providing a few of those in charge listen to the festive message a little more closely, then that is a world we could soon be living in. If there was one present football could afford its long-suffering public; then that should surely be it.
Formed, oddly, all the way back in 1940, Salford Central FC, now Salford City FC, surely couldn’t have ever imagined that by 2016, they would be owned by a consortium of five former world-leading prodigious talents, who, raised from within the city walls, would’ve gone on to represent both Manchester United and England during their careers. On that basis, you’d also have to think that they never considered the prospect that, alongside this consortium, the other 50% of the club would belong to a Singaporean billionaire. But it’s funny how life turns out sometimes.
Funny for some, maybe. But when you are on the losing end of this side’s incomparable financial might in the Conference North, or rather Vanarama National League North in its new guise, you might not feel so joyous. In fact, you might even feel more than a little peeved that, going against the grain of accepted English non-league club etiquette; this club has transformed itself from ninth-tier, practically amateur, nobodies, into cash-stuffed, ravenous business beasts, willing, under a new badge, kit, and soon enough ground, to ruthlessly buy their way up the pyramid, currently having reached the sixth tier in the matter of a decade. Two of these promotions have come consecutively under the financial stewardship of Messrs Neville, Neville, Butt, Giggs, Scholes and Lim (Gary, Phil, Nicky, Ryan, Paul and Peter), proving no coincidence in the pattern between funds and success.
If these same owners, however, are to reach the target Giggs very publicly set for the club back in 2014, to reach the Championship in the first 15 years of their reign, they will have to see another four, at best, unlikely, promotions in the space, now, of about 12 and a half seasons, with a play-off push their best hope for this season, the club’s first in such a lofty division in its 76-year history. Three consecutive promotions is something unheard of in such an infamously competitive setting as the English non-league sectors, but it would be no secret that if they did achieve it, the praise would lay at the feet of those who bankrolled such efforts, however much such credible pundits and failed coaches/managers as the ‘Class of ’92’, would like to deflect it. It is also well-publicised that they have drastically shaken up the previously small-scale industry of semi-professional football, rapidly exchanging the glass half-empty disposition of the much-maligned but loyal band of a few hundred supporters and tired, yet loved, identity of the club with a high-energy, cash-fuelled, wide scale investment in running each and every area of the club. In doing so, they have formed what is considerably now the most developed set of facilities, footballing or otherwise, in the whole of the non-league scene. Sustainable? It remains to be seen. Risky? Most certainly. A business plan that could shape the future of the way football is run, especially in the lower leagues? Depending on how you view it, of course, but not without its after-effects…
Hold up for a minute though. This is by no means an original concept in the fabric of global football. While in our distorted view in the UK, we may see Salford as a one-off in a landscape of die-hard, if outdated, advocates of the proven plan of small-time, local investment, a hit and hope tactic of build it and they will come. Open your eyes, however, to the world around us, and I’m sure you would’ve read in detail the stories of RB Leipzig in Germany right now, rightfully or wrongfully tarnished by many as an evil force in what, in vast quantities, is otherwise a truly heart-warming tale of German football, a hipster in a world of ruthless commercialism. It is by no means a dramatic jump to make the link between Leipzig, alongside what are effectively sister clubs in Red Bull Salzburg and New York Red Bulls, and Salford, despite their dramatic contrast in facilities. The main difference, obviously, is that the trio of Red Bull’s products are headed by a global corporation, not by a collection of reputable, but inexperienced in a business sense, ex-footballers, who have blind ambition, and rely mainly upon a priceless business associate in the one-man brand, Peter Lim.
Franchising techniques are not rare at all in the game outside of Europe though. Well, that depends on your definition of franchising I suppose, as if you prefer the concept that franchise clubs are those which are bought up by big businessmen, rebranded and run to serve as the sole property, and cash cows, of these same magnates, then you’re my kind of person – because that’s what I’m going with here. These are the targets of yet another rant. A different style of rant, I hope though.
So, we’re talking effectively the entirety of the MLS and the Chinese Super League, the representative biggest leagues for the two largest economies in the world, where the capitalists ideals – witnessed arguably more in the latter in this stage of its rapidly developing economy – in the national psyche are displayed more plainly than possibly anywhere else in their respective societies. Maybe this could’ve been implemented by their in-depth study of English football, of owners such as the Allams at Hull – or Hull Tigers as he would’ve had them known -, the Venky’s at Blackburn or Mike Ashley at Newcastle, all three of whom have forced their own agendas and businesses down the throats of both the clubs and their fans, often coming off worse as the repercussions gape. The way in which the MLS is run, confusing and ingenious in equal parts, means that while every club is effectively the property of the league, each of the 20 have individual ‘investor-operators’, usually the owner of a significant national or international business with the funds to bankroll a certain team to success. This money isn’t pumped into the wage budget though – as every side has to follow the same salary caps -, but into off field actions, which shore up finances into transfer coffers for designated overseas players, and for playing chips in the common occurrence of trade deals with other sides in the league, which could be for players or for draft positions.
These financial advantages are vital for success in such a tightly competitive league system, with the ‘investor-operators’ and their business prowess to thank for any potential deposits into trophy cabinets that a club might experience, proving a similar tale to European football in just how immoral you have to be to see success. Is this really a stark contrast to your average football club ownership though? This is what I’m struggling with at the moment. Being, at the end of the line, owned by the MLS itself, its clubs possibly aren’t the true definition of franchises, but when some have titles including ‘Earthquakes’, ‘Galaxy’, ‘Whitecaps’ and ‘Dynamo’, it’s hard to deny they are brands, selling an image to consumers, a large part of that belonging to the ‘investor-operators’ who run them. With China, it appears much clearer, as each club, with the help of state-backed enterprises, real estate companies and retail corporations, can stump up unprecedented fees in order to secure the services of what are largely Brazilian stars at the moment, aiding both the businesses investing, as it increases their presence and notoriety, and the nation’s footballing prowess, as they learn from some of the best. (That said, some of the football played by these sides is absolutely shocking, and not in a good way.)
What does this have to do with Salford though? Through the way I view their actions, as loaded investors picking up a deflated and arguably underachieving club, especially considering their catchment area – with a population of over 240,000, if we’re talking about the City of Salford rather than the town itself – higher in numbers than Barnsley, Portsmouth, Swindon and Reading for example, they are participating in the global swooping action of franchising clubs in order to gain financial success. While all five ex-players are true Salford fans, who have a right to their club as anyone else in the same area does, it does not give them the mandate to run that same club as dictatorial masterminds, with the blind ambition to inject incomparable doses of cash into the club’s coffers, hope everyone is sweetened by this, and announce their intention of being on the precipices of the Premier League within less than two decades. For me, that is not the way to run a football club at that level. That is why it has never been done before – at least on quite this scale – to any extent in the extensive entirety of non-league football.
Is it because, even though as individuals they only own a fifth of what invisible, if ghostly, presence at the club, Peter Lim does, the Class of ’92 stand out there on the terraces with the fans, have local accents and have the footballing expertise to run the shop, that fans, as well as the wider game, trust them? If you ask me, especially considering the evidence presented by the BBC’s peculiar social documentary-turned-personal tribute to such legends in their playing days at Manchester United; Class of ’92: Out Of Their League, I would argue it is. It’s a difficult subject to gauge, as they are proper Salford fans, and as a result are relatable, if *a little* less than the usual fan, considering their celebrity status, to those who have supported the club for decades, and less importantly, those floating fans who have started visiting since (I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who spotted Andy Tate on the last episode of Series 2). If they were from overseas, or outside the parish, like Lim, you can be sure they would be forced out by fans within a matter of years unless they had the unbelievable, bordering on farcical, stickability of a Mike Ashley, a Roland Duchatelet or a Karl Oyston.
While this documentary did cover the controversy of the move on the part of the Class of ’92, as well as their continuing assertions of true devotion to the cause and heart of the club throughout the two series of two episodes each, I personally feel it didn’t quite press them as much as it could in terms of discovering if they felt ethically they were doing the right thing. Sure, the programmes skirted around the edges of this, and maybe it was the wrong time and environment in which to query such challenging journalistic observations, but I felt had they gone past the frilly edges, that of the other side of the club – the volunteers who remain and the management team and players who are under heavy burdens to achieve – they could’ve raised some serious points within the game, and sport as a whole. Admittedly, those frilly edges were important in order to clarify the scale of the famous fivesome’s tide of alterations, and how there has to be a balance between the accepted non-league processes of volunteering and the higher-tiered methods of hefty cash injections, but I just felt it was all a little light – a diet version of what could be achieved as a documentary, providing it wasn’t operated by the BBC – who have the unenviable task of demonstrating impartiality at all times.
This is all so directly linked to franchising ‘evils’ because in order to grow to the levels Giggs, and presumably Scholes, Butt and the Neville’s (or Mitchell brothers as Chris Sutton would refer to them), would expect and target by 2029, they will have to uncover a source of direct, sustainable revenue, not their own pockets then, in order to help them survive at such a competitive stage as the Championship. In reality, if they were to reach and survive at a level where likely, by the time 2029 rolls around, each team will have their playing squads, management teams and boards fleshed out by overseas talent on serious amounts of cash, they would have to equip the club as a serious business, with a sponsored stadium name, high-profile shirt sponsors and providers, as well as recruiting a whole new generation of fans to fill the gates required. How do they do this? Well the easiest option is to franchise the club, merge it into a part-business, part-sporting titan by stripping it of most of its identity, replacing it with the cash of investor-operators, as the MLS likes to have them known, themselves and Lim in this case, who fund the club and promote themselves at the same time, in a self-fulfilling cycle. For this business partnership, their billions would be made through the number of Manchester flats, hotels and restaurants they currently, and will in future, own, very profitably, and reinvest into the club, if they do want success on such a stage at least.
I suppose though; the main issue here is whether, by leading such an unprecedented cause at this level of the game, the Class of ’92 (minus David Beckham, he who is well-publicised to be in the process of launching his own franchise club in Miami) are doing the community around the club, a service, or a disservice. Are they adding to the local identity and unity by pumping money in for the sole purpose of reaching lofty, financially rewarding heights, or are they dividing opinion in a dangerous, selfish and ill-though-out race against time to burn as much money in pursuit of foolish sporting objectives? That’s for you, and more pressingly the people of Salford to decide, really, although if it was me deciding where I stand, I do have to admit it is difficult. Do you sit in the past, happily bobbing along in the depths of non-league football, knowing full well that if your owners were of such a calibre, you could live up to the arguably deserved ambitions of not just professional, but almost Premier League level football, or do you take the leap, despite the painful risks you see clearly ahead? I’ll be honest, my opinions have altered slightly over this writing process, as I started out a complete cynic; bluntly derogatory of the ways of these ex-footballers and billionaires, but over time, research and consideration, I have to say, the temptation of the latter option is, in cases such as Salford’s, irrepressible. Despite my ways as a hardy supporter at Ringmer FC and Lewes FC over my short time on this earth, my battle-hardened experiences, witnessing only lows in my era as a supporter of both clubs, have been challenged at points by the careless, offhand ponderings of what actual promotion pushes would be like, as I imagine have those of the aforementioned Salford supporters, few in numbers but plentiful in experience.
If anything, it is my time spent on Football Manager ’12 to ’17 that has made me so inquisitive of what life as a fan would be like in such circumstances. Perhaps it is no coincidence, that, partly inspired by DoctorBenjyFM’s (a YouTuber you must check out, trust me he’s fantastic) Salford Story save in FM16, I, at this very point in time – maybe even as you are reading this – am in charge of Salford. I know, I may seem hypocritical after all I’ve said throughout this, what, 2,500 word blog (so far), but this is Football Manager. Let me assure you, I have not achieved what Giggseh wants from me yet (in fact I’m currently fighting off relegation in the Vanarama National League in the 2017/18 season), but I aspire to reach the Premier League at least in this save.
Maybe it’s a little experiment of a save, maybe I chose it because I felt Salford were the best bet, with the biggest budget, to achieve such goals (I was also considering Eastbourne Borough and FC United of Manchester before I started the save), or maybe it was just a split-second decision, but it’s irrefutable that it is easy to turn to sides like Salford in FM because their resources are so vast compared to their competitors. If there’s one thing that we can take from that, it’s that the Class of ’92 are arguably running their club like a Football Manager board, who just inject hundreds of thousands of pounds into the accounts to allow the club to remain debt-free, as throughout my save, I have been making monthly losses of around £20,000, despite the fact I am using less than the maximum wage budget, as there simply isn’t enough gate income. DoctorBenjy discovered this too, as during the early stretches of his save, he often lamented and poked fun at the lack of fans in the generically generated ground graphics. But this isn’t a joke. This is the livelihood of such a community-centred club that we are talking about here, that before the high-profile investment of 2014, survived just fine on low running costs, but now enjoys regular financial top-ups, at least if you believe the projections and predictions of reality that FM makes. It is supposedly the best simulator of footballing reality, if that’s worth anything.
We may never truly know what goes on behind the scenes at Salford City though, despite the highly-edited, short snippets of interviews with each shareholder we receive in the BBC’s coverage of the side. Their impartiality may never allow the vital facts and figures to come out, but if the rest of the footballing, and local, press, took more of a prolonged interest in the side, and the unique present and future it has before it, then I feel the factual aspects to this debate could be clarified further, as trusting one source, there seems to be a fair share of oppositions to the plans at the club, notably in the planning permission consultations Neville and Scholes had with local residents earlier this week. It is only fair to have concerns about traffic and litter in the local environment – but through my rose-tinted glasses as a football fan, focusing on the socio-sporting impacts, I worry about the sustainability of the idea, both in a footballing and economic sense. This does admittedly partly include how the city will deal with such a rapid improvement to their local side, and the baggage that comes with it, such as having to expand grounds and attract more fans. Is Salford going to be ready for a Championship-standard club by 2029? More to the point; is Salford City going to be that Championship-standard side by that point? Personally, I doubt it. But Alan Hansen doubted the Class of ’92, and look what that did for him.
Alongside them now, they do have Lim though. He is an unknown quality, if obviously a massive benefit as not only the 854th richest billionaire on the planet according to Forbes, but also as a vital business head, who will know inside-out how to deal with the disapproving public and how to plan out such a meteoric shift in performance and stage. Personally, I don’t feel they can reach that main aim by the required time frame, especially if the FA imposes the suggestions I have made in the past about FFP in Leagues One and Two, rather than just relying on clubs falling into administration to let the issue to sort itself out.
For Salford, their story can surely only go one of three ways; go swimmingly, achieving everything they aim for by 2029, go terribly, falling into debt in the event of Lim’s exit and accepting administration at a professional level, or move, if football was morally correct, patiently, breaking into the Football League at least by that point and passing what should hopefully be FFP rulings by that point. If anything, the latter is most unrealistic at this point in time, unfortunately. Maybe not so for Salford, as their adventure could now go one of two ways, whichever one it turns out to be then going on to dramatically change the face of English non-league football. Who knows, we might even see this brand of diet franchising flourishing on this scale if all goes well in the Ammies’ case. I for one though, would hope that justice is served to all clubs, as I don’t want to see the type of football I love blemished by a band of merry, financially affluent ex-players with their eyes far above this level. If they don’t care for it, why should we care for them? As ever though, I doubt justice will ever be the dish served at football’s establishment.
Having once been the preserve of similarly global professionalised ranks of sport such as tennis, rugby and cricket, video referral systems are now eating up lost ground in the world of football. The technology that has launched a thousand disparaging press articles and societal arguments, came through these tests with flying colours and become a mainstay of many a leading sporting landscape since, is now arriving at FIFA’s recently-polished doorstep, and meaning business it seems. Despite very little prior warning nor public consultation, the Hawk-Eye and FIFA coalition has sprung a - literally – game changing surprise upon the stakeholders of the game this week, in fact on just the day before the tournament in focus kicked off, as they announced that video assistant referees would be in place for a trial period throughout the latter’s very reputable Club World Cup Championship. Where better, they must’ve thought, for such a transformative, ground-breaking technological development than in the backyard of the tech universe – the host nation of this tournament, Japan – where up to 72,000 people could attend the final, which should surely contain Real Madrid’s force, in Yokohama, in just over a week’s time (from the point this blog is released).
There is little doubt that this tournament will go down as the turning point, arguably in the history of the entire game, but more realistically in the refereeing of the top ranks of it instead, as it will serve as the aperitif to what is bound to be a bountiful and, more importantly, reformed, future for football and FIFA alike, ushering in a new era of improved credibility and hopefully, sponsorship opportunities with wider markets. Whether this is destined to occur is up for debate, but indisputably, this decision by the higher powers, of which robotic politician Gianni Infantino is the foremost figure, this week, is one that will plant the seeds of prosperity for future presidents and league officials throughout the developed footballing world, transforming the way we, and generations after ours, see the game. Why is this? Well, get yourself comfortable and read on to find out…
Before I go into too much detail, there’s just one vital aspect to this whole global revelation of a story, however underreported it went by the wider media, which I couldn’t help but laugh at. Football, for once, isn’t setting the pace in the sporting world, much to their annoyance you have to believe, in that they have fallen behind, at least in the technological front, to comparatively smaller sports, which understandably turned to deviating methods to try and gain an upper hand, a USP if you will, to their world-class sporting industries. Rugby, for example, has blossomed ever since the decision to introduce video referrals back in 1996 for the league codes, and 2001 for union. Any previous fears over a downturn in support or a disenchantment with the professionalised sections of the sport at those points, as it turns out, were unfounded in due course, as since the latter few years of the 20th century, the two sides of the sport have seen a dramatic upturn in attendances and arguably supporter morale, not solely in tandem with the introduction of video referrals, but as a bi-product of the ramped-up drama and further credibility it adds to the sport. The way the marketing teams of particular top leagues in the rugby world have handled this addition to their games was admittedly very smart, taking the short break in play to add to the atmosphere in games by playing music while showcasing the drama on big screens around the ground, playing a large role in the increase in attendances of these matches since the turn of the century.
This fault in football’s agonisingly lethargic path towards this week’s decision can be laid at the familiarly blood-laden hands of a certain Mr. Blatter, a very vocal opponent of the forward-thinking systems of both goal-line technology, more pressing at the time, particularly in the wake of Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost’ goal in the 2010 World Cup, or rather any kind of technology. This could be explained by the motive Blatter had of desperately clinging on to his clique of supporters in African, Asian and Caribbean FA’s, who would’ve felt it was an unnecessary distraction to what mattered for them; more investment for less developed nations. Now that the dictatorial kingpin of the game has been culled, tossed out the back door of FIFA’s Genevan headquarters and replaced with another shiny, stable lawyer in Infantino, the clean slate is there for a creative flourish to the tarnished game, something Infantino is blatantly lacking, typified by his brainless suggestion earlier this week of a 48-team World Cup split into 16 groups of three sides. Despite this, we’re lucky to have vastly more knowledgeable and forward-thinking figures inside FIFA’s vaults these days, such as Marco van Basten, who in his role as Chief Officer of Technical Development – which most fans would’ve been clueless about before this week (at least I know I was) – played a big role in pushing through these exciting new propositions of technology in the game. Yet another example of the ex-players having more of a clue of what to do with the game than the lawyers again, even if they will forever be adjudged at the top level to be too much of a risk to place in charge of wide scale organisational bodies. *Sigh*.
One thing you have to admire about the aforementioned goal-line technology, introduced most prominently by the fine people at Hawk-Eye, GoalControl and GoalRef over the past five years or so, is that it has fitted in seamlessly into the global footballing landscape, in a very short space of time going from ‘flawed’ and ‘too expensive’ to a widely accepted, and valued, aspect of the game’s integrity. In the space of five quick years, Hawk-Eye founder Paul Hawkins went from having to write an enraged letter to Blatter himself over an apparent U-turn over the technology, to having his company’s technology in place at every Premier League, and only just miss out on bidding for rights to control the goal-line decisions at the 2014 World Cup. I doubt there has ever been a quicker transition in the politically muddied world of FIFA. That, simply put, is why we can trust these technological developments with the fate of football’s future; they do care about the safety of referee’s livelihoods and of traditional footballing values, but they, along with all of us sensible enough to realise the issues, want to see a more reliable and justified standard of decision-making in the game, trying to find the impossible; 100% accuracy. Some may say this will never be attainable. Well, put your faith in the likes of Hawk-Eye, who work tirelessly to develop the next big things in sports refereeing, I say, and they will take you to places you never imagined possible. Absolute refereeing reliability is surely the next destination on that journey to salvage the credibility of referees in an increasingly critical sporting world, where millions of fans can witness one fatal flaw in decision-making over their television, but vitally the single figure in charge can’t.
Moving on from merely goal-line decisions into the future should provide unthinkable benefits to referees, leagues, clubs, players and, more than anything, football in a wider sense. Just take a second to appreciate the sheer scale of disenchantment in the words of our pundits, managers, players and opposition fans in recent years particularly, as no one group here appears to be fully satisfied with the current system, which allows for a multitude of seriously game-changing errors. The awarding of penalties, or not as the case may be, in the event of an unclear case of diving or a handball is a crucial aspect to the game today, as players go over easier than ever – as demonstrated by Dele Alli against Swansea last week, and in many cases protest to referees more precociously than ever before – Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, we’re looking at you. These continuous accounts of deceptive and manipulative tactics towards referees make it almost impossible for refereeing teams to go a whole 90 minutes without making a single glaring mistake. Surely this can’t continue to be the case? Surely we want things to change for the better in the running of football, with easily avoidable mistakes, well, avoided?
One of the major criticisms of Video Assistant Refereeing (VAR) technology in all sections of sport, however, is that it detracts from the game, eating into the time allotted for each half of play, therefore sending fans home later from each game. Well, as far as I can decipher, this is a totally unfounded argument, devoid of any serious supportive evidence. From the Dutch referee, Björn Kuipers, in charge of the Italy vs France international friendly in September – the competitive debut of VAR’s, it’s important to remember – and his reference to the technology of instilling ‘trust’ in him from the players in his control, these progressive movements from FIFA appear, in their short history so far, to have had a positive impact. If you’re wondering, the technology was in fact used twice in the game – as it is only designed for truly game-changing incidents -, decisively seeing French player Djibril Sidibé escape a red card for a challenge on Daniele De Rossi, and De Rossi also avoid giving away a penalty for what might’ve appeared a handball, with both decisions only taking around 10 seconds. In the scheme of the game, these events could’ve been adjudged as decisive, especially on the international stage, where the smallest of events can completely change the course of a game and a tournament, testament to the cautious tactics employed by most sides.
From the completely positive signs emitted from that particular match, and the inevitable follow-up of the technology in the Club World Cup, effectively more FIFA’s guinea pig for new innovations rather than a serious cup competition – let’s be honest, we all know the winners already – all roads lead to world domination soon for VAR. Well, that might be an overstatement, but before long, it is a strong possibility we could even see this in place for the Premier League within the next two to three seasons – once, of course, the system has passed all immediate checks in its two-year trial period, in which it will be put through its paces in leagues including Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, Serie A and the MLS – and in the 2018 World Cup as the ultimate examination. Just as goal-line technology survived all these tests, admittedly having a slight stroke of luck in that it wasn’t called into action too often, just once in fact at the 2014 World Cup, I fully expect VAR’s to pass with colours, and soon become part of the furniture in our footballing world.
I can definitely understand the calls not to be too hasty with decisions of this calibre though. It is absolutely imperative to get the planning of these system’s introductions into the game fool-proof, making sure there cannot be a repeat of such debacles, as FIFA are prone to, such as the on-off relationship with golden goals, or the shambles of a plainly corrupt 2022 World Cup bid from Qatar. For once, though, this is something I believe we can trust the sorry excuse we have for a governing body in; they specialise in finer detail, and that is what this case is entirely about, working alongside the diligent International Football Association Board – the body that basically organises the running of matches through the rule books – to produce a unbelievably lengthy (even more than these blogs) and detailed report. In utilising their stock of lawyers around their Zurich offices, FIFA will be able to work their way through the red tape, achieved ultimately once the IFAB rules video technology legal in helping referees. In avoiding near-certain controversy by springing this announcement upon the sport, they have cleverly smoothed out the process over a number of years, allowing us all to get used to the instalments by their equally foreboding presence at the next World Cup.
One considerable, if lateral, thought I couldn’t help but detail here in order to massage the niggle at the back of my mind on this whole topic though, is; would this second wave of technological revolution in football force even more monotony upon those who ‘enjoy’ it? If anything, this is the argument I believe the campaigners against the decision, a minority I must admit in the wider scheme of football fans, was lacking, as it is the only one which will seriously impact upon series of future generations viewing, or possibly as may be the case, not viewing, the sport. I know; it is a repetitive sentiment on my part, but I do fear for a serious lack of action and character in top-level football right now, and going into the future. Already pushed out by the politically-correct businessmen and officials in charge of the vital, and more importantly dominant, commercial side of the game, I sense that the introduction of these types of technology, which slowly sap more power away from referees, whether you feel that is a good or bad thing, could eradicate even more of, ironically, the Talking Points of a number of high-quality matches around the globe. Seriously, I can’t remember an episode of Match of the Day in which there hasn’t been at least one comment on play-acting, diving, yellow/red cards, handballs or offsides. I honestly think I would miss, despite its absolute tedium, the dulcet (well, not quite) tones of Mark Lawrenson lamenting another ‘poor’ refereeing decision; “It was never a penalty, Gary, not in a million years”. It seems strange, but I feel it would be missed. If anything, VAR’s would fill the Mark Lawrenson-shaped void in our footballing lives, and despite his many faults, I’m not sure I’d be entirely comfortable with that. About half the running time on MOTD could be lost to this simple innovation, just imagine that!
I suppose, though, that these sentiments conjoin with the universal argument of; “think of the tradition being lost”, as they both share a close tie to the familiar aspects of football that we can’t help but be endlessly endeared to. Maybe not so endlessly, it may eventually turn out, as referees devolve power to their assistants in the satellite-adorned vans outside the ground in moments at which their human capabilities are pushed to the limit; those big moments which can decide the seasons, even futures, of certain clubs. Can these officials afford to be trusted anymore with these responsibilities? Well, despite decades and centuries of increasingly strenuous training, it seems not, as you can only honestly say referees get these types of decisions indisputably correct, at least to a neutral, maybe 50% of the time, possibly more depending on global region. As it turns out, Infantino, among large sections of the footballing community, doesn’t believe this is acceptable anymore, and has decided to head down the similar path of rugby, tennis and cricket, amongst others (particularly including American pastimes), opting for embracing technology, surely an inevitable response for the sport. In a growing global age of hyper-criticism from fans-turned-keyboard warriors, spawning from universal coverage of the top matches, FIFA have opted for the easy option for the future; to face the wrath of the traditionalists, a dying breed in sport, but especially in football, rather than the breed of ravenously sport-addicted internet honchos, who had the potential to rip the sport in half from its internal structure.
It may be a regrettable move for those who appreciate the niceties of football; the quirks, the controversies, the casual chats at the bar in the aftermath, but fortunately for FIFA; this brand of fan, as I would account myself to be, is being pushed into non-league, the beating heart of true footballing morals, the grassroots that provide the platform for the outlandish drama rolled out every weekend at the top of the professional ranks. We are only too happy to find a new love in the amateur/semi-pro levels of the pyramid; in fact we can accredit the honour to FIFA for our decisions. We are, however, all casual followers of the likes of the Premier League, despite our constant rejections of the concept, and we all rely on its success for the survival of further divisions, not just in this country, but right around the world. Even if VAR’s will only reach the grounds of Premier League clubs, 20 in a range of anything up to 7,000 teams just in England, they will have a profound effect on not just the way we see the game, but the way it sees us - as they will surely have to try new tactics to offset the negative impacts of these decision down the line – all around the footballing globe.
While Infantino may be sitting pretty in Japan, overseeing the success of system, throughout this week, he should view the future with a sense of trepidation; otherwise his dreams could blow up in his face. We all want a successful sport, of course we do. I also believe that VAR’s will play a big part in taking football to a better place, but I am wary of its ramifications within the fabric of the sport – professional and otherwise – as while, familiarly, it will improve the lives of the mega-rich, it has the potential to make those of the representatives in the background considerably poorer, as less and less attention is spent upon them. All we can hope for now is that the trial period of this fantastic technology runs smoothly, and we’ll see what we can do from there. This story is far from over, I’m sure it won’t have relented until it finally settles into its position like goal-line technology. It is, however, by principal, much more than that goal-line stuff of the past, it is the new kid on the block, the jack-of-all-trades of a system with immense power to shape our futures watching, playing, volunteering in, and living, the game. This technology, whilst out of sight, will surely never be out of mind, and therefore will be in the firing line in the event of a mistake. In an increasingly tech-reliant world in which we are all evolving, however, I believe we can trust it. We have to trust it. Whether we can trust the humans behind it is another thing, of course.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!