It’s hard to remember a more difficult year for the sport of soccer than 2020. Certainly, it never faced as many simultaneous crises as it did in the last 12 months — a pandemic that halted play for three months, the ensuing financial blows, an overdue reckoning with racism, a backlog of games in an already-overscheduled calendar.
But there are opportunities in these hardships as well, a chance to change the sport for the better. So here are some New Year’s resolutions for soccer.
Soccer should rearrange its priorities
Let’s start big. Soccer needs a rethink. Its model, which is to say the lack of one, inevitably ends in clubs attempting to devour themselves, and each other. Without any guardrails on their spending, especially now that UEFA’s Financial Fair Play has turned out to be utterly toothless, soccer clubs big and small are unrelentingly tempted to put every last penny into their first team. And while that’s understandable on its face, soccer is far too fickle a business to operate without a safety net.
Which is of a piece with a separate issue: the lack of solidarity. Without a strong superstructure to buttress the game — because UEFA and FIFA really only seem interested in enriching themselves and trading power for favors — there is nothing knitting the clubs’ interests together. It’s little wonder, then, that the big fish keep threatening to break away.
At some point, the sport will have to understand that the health of one redounds to the health of all. Does the Premier League need the fourth-tier League Two? No. But the Premier League needs the Championship. The Championship needs League One. And League One needs League Two.
It’s all interconnected. And that should be reflected in the way the entire business is conducted. More money should be shared. More emergency funds should be set aside in a common pot for emergencies.
For the good of everyone. Soccer needs a kind of New Deal.
Less emphasis on transfers
Soccer isn’t the only sport in which the agents wield outsized power. But it is just about the only one where they constitute the propulsive force behind transactions. Players are constantly moving from one team to the next. Because every time they do, agents get paid. The game’s super-agents stand to make tens of millions of euros from single transactions at the high end of the market. So they keep the revolving door spinning.
But all those moves aren’t always in everybody’s best interests. And they lead to an enormous leakage of money from the game into the pockets of agents. But curbing the agents’ power is complicated. And a needle must be threaded between players’ ability to bargain for the money they fully deserve — avoiding bad ideas like a salary cap — and stopping the enormous payouts to representatives who bring little to the table.
Especially in a time when the still-huge transfer expenditures in the summer market felt incomprehensible when set to the backdrop of layoffs and furloughs of staff and salary reductions or deferments for players.
Transfer speculation is good fun, but the actual transactions aren’t necessarily good for the sport.
Take burden of anti-racism activism off players
The lack of institutional support for social activism never ceases to startle in soccer. The governing bodies go through the motions, actually doing as little as possible about the sport’s entrenched racism problem. The leagues aren’t much use either, not doing much beyond sanctioning ubiquitous pre-game kneeling.
But it’s hardly fair for them to have to fight more or less on their own, not when there are so many different issues to address. It shouldn’t fall solely to them to fight the good fight. The clubs, leagues, federations and confederations have to do more.
Less is more
It was already well-established that soccer players are asked to play far too many games. But when the three-month layoff scrunched up the calendar further, players began to hit their breaking point. Injuries have been rampant and the soccer has suffered from all of those tired legs.
Soccer should have taken a paring knife to its schedule a long time ago, but at least the pandemic created cover for some big, bold reform.
We don’t need this much soccer. More soccer doesn’t equate to better soccer, no matter the financial incentives to keep coming up with new competitions. Let’s make the games more compelling, and count for more, by having fewer of them.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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