This is soccer’s age of the Big Idea. There is an incessant, unrelenting flow of Big Ideas, ones of such scale and scope that they have to be capitalized, from all corners of the game: from individuals and groups, from clubs and from leagues, from the back of cigarette packets and from all manner of crumpled napkins.
The Video Assistant Referee system was a Big Idea. Expanding the World Cup to 48 teams was a Big Idea. Project Big Picture, the plan to redraw how the Premier League worked, was a Big Idea. The Super League was the Biggest Idea of them all — perhaps, in hindsight, it was, in fact, too Big an Idea — an Idea so Big that it could generate, in the brief idealism of its backlash, more Big Ideas still, as the death of a star sends matter hurtling all across the galaxy.
And now, thanks to Arsène Wenger and a curiously obedient coterie of former players, we have another. This latest Big Idea is, at heart, a very simple thought, rooted in the noted Alan Partridge dictum about detective TV shows: People like them, so let’s make more of them. If the World Cup can grow in size, why not have it grow in time, too? Instead of playing it every four years, why not just play it biennially?
The reaction, well, everyone could have guessed the reaction. As fans, our relationship with soccer is an intensely personal one. It is bound up in affection and mythology and nostalgia, and though it is one of the great collective experiences, every member of the crowd perceives it entirely independently.
One might believe it to be a tactical endeavor; another might feel it is rooted in industry, heart and desire. It might bond me to a place, but it might tie you to your family. Above all, soccer links us all back to the most personal memory of all, our childhood, to a pure and unadulterated love, an unquestioning and unquestioned pleasure. Our devotion is to once again capturing the feeling we knew then.
It is no wonder, then, that fans are coded to resist change. No matter what form it takes — V.A.R. or penalties being taken in the wrong order or the expansion of the World Cup — change is necessarily external. It is proof of someone else, someone other, tampering with the way our game works, taking it further away from its truest and highest form, the one that it just so happened to take when we were young.
Wenger’s plan, then, was not met with rapturous applause. It has been condemned, pretty widely, not only by fans but by all but two of the groups that we now routinely describe as soccer’s stakeholders. Clubs, leagues, players: They are all against it. They all fear it congests the calendar yet further, that it strips the World Cup of some, or much, of its prestige. Its value, they say, lies in its rarity.
The two exceptions, of course, are the phalanx of so-called legends — John Terry and Michael Owen and Peter Schmeichel and the rest — consulted by Wenger, in his capacity as FIFA’s chief of global football development, ahead of, say, fan groups or the Bundesliga or UEFA; and the vast majority of FIFA’s 211 member nations, many of whom stand to benefit in some way from the expansion and are, not coincidentally, in favor of it.
This is just the first of quite a long list of problems with Wenger’s idea: Why should a decision that impacts the game at the club level as much as internationally, one that has ramifications for anyone who plays or watches professional soccer, be decided by such a narrow interest group?
What right — and apologies, here, if this comes across as Eurocentric — does the national federation of Oman or Uzbekistan or Canada, for that matter, have to vote on a proposal that would radically alter the way that European and South American club soccer, the great engines of the game, work? Particularly when they are not mere observers, judiciously selecting the best option for the game they love, but active beneficiaries of the plan?
That is just the start of it, though. The other issues are many and varied. Wenger’s system would see a World Cup staged every two years; in the intervening summers, the six major confederations would hold their continental championships.
Where, precisely, does this leave the women’s game? Would the Women’s World Cup have to compete with the men’s European Championship in odd years? What happens to the expanded Club World Cup that Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, has spent years conceiving and crafting and flogging?
If the World Cup can retain its prestige despite doubling in frequency, can the same be said of the continental tournaments? Is the best way to grow African or Asian soccer to make those continents compete for eyeballs and interest with the European Championship? The answer, to both, is no. There have been four iterations of the Copa América in the last seven years, and each one has meant just a little less than the last; this summer, running concurrently with the Euros, the Copa was largely an afterthought outside South America.
That Wenger and FIFA have not yet been able to provide a convincing riposte to those issues — beyond pointing out that more countries would be able to qualify for the World Cup, which is the sort of thing that may well prove to be untrue in practice, no matter how much sense it makes in theory — is a shame, because his proposal is not without value. The Big Idea may be riddled with flaws, but the small ideas that support it are worth considering.
Wenger wants to reduce player fatigue and soccer’s carbon imprint, as well as impose order on soccer’s archaic calendar, by streamlining the qualification process: Rather than a series of brief international windows, he would prefer either one, or two, longer ones per season. (When they would fall is not decided, but safe to say that taking a month off in October, just after Europe’s season has started, should really be an opening gambit at best). That is a Good Idea, one that merits capitalizing.
So, too, the thought of a secondary global competition — a sort of Europa League World Cup — to run alongside the main tournament, offering smaller nations a viable target, is not without merit. Soccer fans are naturally conservative, but it would be self-defeating to spurn any notion of change whatsoever.
Sadly, though, the potential benefits most likely will be lost, either because the whole plan is vetoed — UEFA, its nose tweaked by the sense that FIFA is simply bulldozing its vision through, has already vowed to fight it — or because they represent small victories in a resounding, overall defeat.
There is a sadness in that, because there are plenty of ways that soccer’s format might be changed for the better, and this is the chance to do it. There is a reason that all of these Big Ideas keep emerging: In 2024, the game’s calendar effectively resets and, until it does, every option is effectively in play. This is an opportunity for change, the progressive and positive sort, if only all of the interested parties could resist the temptation to claim territory and investigate nurturing fertile ground instead.
It should not be beyond the wit of soccer, for example, to keep Wenger’s ideas for a condensed qualification process and (more or less) contemporaneous continental tournaments, but abandon a biennial World Cup, with all its drawbacks.
Instead, everything would remain on a four-year cycle; one of the intervening summers would be given over to an expanded Club World Cup (again: a Big Idea that makes sense) and another would be left strictly fallow, to allow all men’s players a chance to rest and offer the Women's World Cup an uninterrupted window on the global stage. (Women’s continental tournaments could run in the same years as the men’s, though not simultaneously).
Why stop there? Qualification is long and arduous and, in South America, where almost everyone will qualify, will largely be pointless after 2022. Instead, guarantee the teams that make the last 16 of the Qatar World Cup a place in the group stage in 2026, setting a pattern that will reduce the number of teams for whom qualification is more of a chore than a chance. (This newsletter has previously advocated for this idea to be introduced for the Euros, too.) That increases the number of meaningful games, and allows elite players more rest.
While we are at it: The Nations League concept has been successful, but should be abandoned; the Champions League should revert to its current 32-team format, rather than the new model brought in under the now rather passé threats of Europe’s old elite; strict rules should be introduced on how many players over age 23 any club can have on loan, as well as a system allowing players not regularly representing their clubs the right to cancel their contracts and enter a draft; the viability of cross-border leagues should be explored to reduce economic imbalance; solidarity payments from the Champions League should be drastically increased; a Club World Cup for women’s soccer should be instituted immediately.
Soccer has an inbuilt, reflexive aversion to change, but that the sport is thinking about what shape it might take in the future should not be discouraged. Perhaps, in fact, that would be the biggest shame of all: not just if the sport’s age of the Big Idea resulted in the sort of change that leads to regret, in super leagues and saturation, but if it led to no change at all.
Talk? No Thanks. Let’s Argue Instead.
It would be nice, of course, if soccer’s various competing interests — its leagues and its clubs, its national federations and its tournament organizers and its players’ unions — could all get around a table and thrash out a future that worked for everyone, rather than hurriedly scrabbling to grab whatever little piece of land they can.
To know that such a prospect is a distant one, sadly, all you have to do is look at the simmering dispute between the Brazilian national federation and several Premier League clubs that may well strip a handful of England’s biggest teams of some of their most important players this weekend.
Just before the international break, the teams of the Premier League decreed that they would not release players for South America’s World Cup qualifiers — though a couple, Aston Villa and Tottenham, later backtracked, to absolutely no consequence whatsoever — because Britain’s quarantine rules would mean any players who traveled would not be able to play for two weeks after their return. They did so with the backing of the game’s various authorities.
At the end of the international break, Brazil demanded that FIFA invoke a rule preventing players who were denied the chance to play for their country from playing for their clubs for five days, meaning dozens must sit out this weekend’s Premier League schedule (and, in one case, a Champions League game on Tuesday). They did so with the support of a whole different set of authorities.
It is not worth lingering on who is in the right here (it’s the clubs, in case you are wondering, at least partly because Brazil has not asked that the ban be applied to Richarlison, the Everton striker, seemingly for no better reason than that Brazil quite likes Everton), or even if the ban will hold up (at the time of writing, talks were ongoing, as they say).
Far more significant is just how broken the lines of communication between the club game and its international counterpart appear to be. Would it have been too much to ask for the clubs to open a dialogue with Brazil before announcing their intentions? Did Brazil need to take such a drastic step? Is it really sensible to be throwing oil-soaked rags at the group of people weighing up the benefits of lighting a match?
That is the environment soccer has fostered. That is the culture and the climate in which anyone and everyone is trying to make change. It is broken, at some fundamental level, because all sides not only prioritize their own interests, but seem somehow unaware that theirs are not the only interests in play. Until that ends, no change that comes will be positive. It is not immediately clear how it can be.
The Rise of Spain
There were, in Manchester City’s defense, mitigating circumstances. Half of its team was missing through injury; its preparation for the season has been disrupted, more than many, if not quite most, by the loss of players to the Olympics; it was, put simply, a draw sufficiently tough to be regarded as unfortunate.
Still, City’s elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid on Wednesday should not be dismissed as a one-off event. The context of Manchester City’s defeat is important, but so, too, is the context of Real Madrid’s victory: It is yet another piece in the mounting body of evidence that the emerging power in the women’s game is Spain.
The United States may be the world champion. Canada may be the Olympic champion. England’s Women’s Super League may be the strongest domestic competition on the planet. France's Lyon and Paris St.-Germain may remain prized scalps, era-defining supersquads.
But it is a Spanish club, Barcelona, that finally dethroned Lyon as European champion last season. It is a Spanish player, Alexia Putellas, who was anointed player of the year by UEFA last month. And it is in Spain where Real Madrid — latecomers to the women’s game, having only officially fielded a team last year — has now joined its neighbor Atlético Madrid as a genuine counterweight to Barcelona.
How Real fares in its debut season in the Champions League remains to be seen, though knocking out City, a team assembled at no little cost and with considerable pedigree on this stage, augurs well. But the presence of those three teams at the summit of the women’s game in Spain suggests that its rise is only just beginning, that the sport’s axis may be shifting not only east, to Europe, but south, to Madrid and Barcelona, too.
No shortage of responses to last week’s column on whether clubs loaning out players on an industrial scale was morally troublesome. “How much do all these loan moves benefit and improve the player?” asked Ben Myers, rhetorically. “Answer: not at all. This is unfortunate because a player’s career becomes subservient to the financial needs of a club, and players watch their careers dry up.”
Mendel Litzmann, though, begs to differ. “There are successful players from this academy loan system, pioneered by [Chelsea’s] Marina Granovskaia: Romelu Lukaku, Mohammed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Jamal Musiala. There is an irony that Lukaku was brought back to Chelsea, after being part of the loan system.”
I’d probably fall somewhere in the middle on this. I don’t think there is an issue with clubs loaning players out for experience, as Chelsea did with Lukaku (before selling him, just as all the others were sent out and then sold on, for profit, raising the question as to whether Chelsea needed them in the first place, or whether they might have been better left elsewhere). Sometimes, a loan spell is exactly what a player needs. The problem arises when the players are loaned out, again and again, when it is abundantly clear the club has no intention of ever recalling them.
Jay Radecki, meanwhile, looked at it from the players’ perspective. “The market for athletes in soccer is full, on the margin, of players who could make it. Accordingly, players seek their maximum compensation at any free moment but also, maybe more important, the security of a longer-term contract. This desire for certainty in both wages and employment are the counterpoints that allow clubs to control the loan market.” This, perhaps, is the main benefit for the players locked in the loan cycle: They are protected a little, for a while, from the vicissitudes of the game.
And Connor Murphy volunteered the point of view of the clubs. “Gambling on prospects, like Marlos Moreno, is a risky business. Nobody wants to be left holding the bag after an expensive player flops. You want variance to work in your favor, not against you, so you sign a lot of players. You send them out and bide your time. Some players are stars, some are flops, and some are just OK. You keep the stars, eat the losses on the flops, and farm out or sell the ‘just OK.’” This logic is absolutely right, of course. Whether that logic is right in a whole other sense is the big question.
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