aMuch of the football calendar is finally clear, and it raises more questions about the rest of it – and where the sport is headed.
The World Cup is going to be an unbelievable 104 matches and a full 40 days, which requires more time and more energy. How long until we get close to ash in terms of duration?
There is still no sign of “giving” in the increasingly crowded calendar. This start date in 2026 will be the culmination of a decade that has seen almost endless expansion, resulting in a bigger World Cup, a bigger European Championship, a bigger Champions League and an additional continental competition in the European Conference League. Even the remaining two years will surely add up to the Club World Cup, adding more than 200 extra matches – and many more required match days – to the end of the calendar.
The immediate concern here rightly relates to player fatigue, and FIFA – for their part – has discussed a working group on player welfare which will include provisions on mandatory rest periods and rest days per week. There’s also something deeper, though, that extends to what sports are supposed to be.
Is “more” the only answer to everything? Does this actually serve football? Does anyone even think of this? The calendar already seems so bloated, the cleanliness and clarity of the competition compromised, the necessary symmetry of the tournaments being greedily burned.
Just think of the last World Cup, despite the controversy over its hosting. The tournament has a wonderfully self-contained quality, with the isolated nature of the event unleashing an impressive intensity. That alone played a huge part in one of the greatest football stories of all time, which was Lionel Messi’s drive to lift the trophy. He knew it was a month to offer eternity. It is an element that elevates the World Cup and makes it unique. It’s also a very sustainable thing, an energy that dissipates the longer the tournament lasts. So, just look at the mess left by several Cricket World Cups over the past two decades. Supporters are starting to lose interest by the end of it.
What sums it all up is how it took the organization of the FIFA World Cup to roll back plans to get rid of the four-team groups. That was even though fans and people within football had been vocally pointing this out for years. They are not heard. The reality of the matches had to be re-watched for some reason, as if it wasn’t obvious.
It made it seem like these decisions were made by people who hadn’t thought about any of this or – worse – hadn’t actually seen it before.
This is not as trivial a complaint as it may seem at first.
One of the biggest problems in football right now is the lack of a single body that ignores and tries to predict the overall health of the game.
This should of course be the ideal role for FIFA, feeding into that the confederations and then the national federations.
Instead, FIFA and UEFA are currently at war, and the calendar itself a battlefield. If you move to the National Associations, one clear example is how the Football Association was essentially set up in England by a new independent regulator. Meanwhile, Spain sees La Liga and the national federation locked in a similar battle with FIFA and UEFA. It’s been like that at almost every level of the game, and it’s manifested itself in the wake of Covid and trying to adjust to the many postponements.
Nobody wants to give up anything. Everyone has their need, and it is usually financial.
This is the source of tension between FIFA and UEFA, and why there is a growing argument that the current structures are not fit for purpose. They are meant to be regulators, but now both are driven almost individually by the resources that come from their competitions. This is the subject of the conflict over the calendar. The Champions League has become the most lucrative event in football, so much so that the big clubs feel they deserve more of it, and FIFA wants their own version of it.
This in itself reflects how all of this is then compounded by various pessimistic interests that seek to financially or politically exploit football’s enormous cultural power, from nation-states and sovereign wealth funds to private equity and other extreme expressions of capitalism.
Why do people seek to reduce or restrict the calendar when more matches means more money?
Who cares about anything else?
Well, we should, and so should those who are supposed to oversee the game.
Really, we are at the point where the whole sport needs an independent regulator, let alone England. How can football’s best interests be served when FIFA and UEFA are competing and mostly looking out for their own interests?
It’s as if the game needs an independent board that sits between all of this, has no vested interests in any existing rivalries, and is insulated from influences like states and capitalism.
Again, yes, this is supposed to be FIFA.
Instead, FIFA is led by a manager who has himself sought to exalt the game’s greatest divide politically, that between the Western powers and the Global South. It has led to the most vociferous controversy of the World Cup, above all the perception and criticism of an authoritarian country like Qatar that hosts it.
This is also what led to the expansion of competition in the first place. More countries outside of Europe want access to the game’s biggest bid – and all of its wealth.
It must be admitted that there are actually some advantages in this. It is bad for the sport that so much of its wealth is concentrated in Western Europe. Obviously, more massive game resources need to be redistributed.
It’s just that infinite expansion is not the answer to this. In fact it has the opposite effect, only increasing the financial gaps. What happens is that the whole gets bigger, but those at the top still get the most, so those at the bottom get a little bit more. The gaps grow larger, making worse problems such as competitive balance. This was the modern history of football. The vested interests of the game’s power structures mean that the only proposed solution to anything is expansion, but it doesn’t actually increase value – except for those looking to make capital on it.
The tragic irony is that – and these words are used with great displeasure – “the product is diluted”.
This is why the need for a committee to think this through and take a comprehensive look at the game has never been greater.
The only augmentation needed in reality is thought and insight.
With everything else, a lot was a lot less.
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