What if Football Stopped for a Year?

As Arrigo Sacchi so memorably put it, football
is “the most important of the unimportant things in life.” Following football is essentially a full-time
job now. The endless blur of Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday thrums through the calendar like a bassline
and – with press conferences, transfer news, twitter, and fantasy football, it’s easy
to become overwhelmed. This is no accident. The Football Industrial
Complex demands ceaseless expansion. The World Cup is getting bigger. The European Championships
have already been expanded. Women’s soccer at all levels deserves much more attention.
Soon, FIFA will launch its re-imagined Club World Cup, too. There are still times of the
week upon which the sport has yet to plant its flag, but none of those days are safe
and nothing is sacred. Is this what fans want? Not really, but that
doesn’t seem to matter. Profit is king and at its worst, football looks a lot like capitalism:
mechanised, distasteful, unavoidable. But what if it wasn’t? What if we could
press the pause button on football? What if, against all odds, everyone involved in the
game agreed to stop, just for a year? Not the whole industry, but the matches. What would happen? And might the sport be
better for it? The players would certainly benefit, as they
currently play far too much football. As the physical demands of matches have increased—players
run farther and faster than ever before—so too has the number of games in the schedule.
Real Madrid played 62 competitive games in 2017-18. Flamengo, in Brazil, played a frankly
inhumane 82 times in 2017. It’s little wonder that, by the time World Cups roll around,
so many stars are suffering from injuries and fatigue. A year without matches would allow everyone
to get fit. Imagine a refreshed Alexis Sánchez, with those consecutive tournaments rinsed
out of his muscles, raring to go. Imagine Gareth Bale forgetting where the physio room
at the Bernabéu even is. Or Son Heung Min, not having to fly for days to satisfy his
club and international commitments. There could be psychological and emotional
benefits which, coupled with fresher bodies, could have a tremendously positive effect
on the standard of play. It could provide an advantage for young, developing players
too, who are often the casualties of a deepening ‘win now’ culture and whose careful incubation
is prohibited by the calendar. What if academy prospects could be gently
embedded within sides, becoming increasingly involved in training sessions and acquiring
first-team responsibilities without quite as much pressure. What if they were given
time to grow at a responsible pace? Football’s current form is inhibiting for
coaches, too, who have to build their sides over short pre-seasons. Coping with injuries
and transfers is one challenge, but the congested calendar poses another: with all those games—and
the many days which are inevitably lost between them —there’s never quite enough time
on the training ground. What if, as a consequence, the world is only
seeing the half-formed ideologies of the game’s highest priests? How fierce could Jurgen Klopp’s
counter-pressing be? What might Pep Guardiola’s attacking football look like? How many new set-piece routines could Tony
Pulis imagine and execute? Impatience and short-termism in the stands
and boardrooms prevents vision from fully flowering. Only the lucky are given time to
build with substance and to put their big ideas someway into practice. The rest are
really just watching the guillotine blade glint in the sunlight. In the most extreme
circumstances, that can directly influence the kind of football that is being played:
A manager who needs a result is always likely to be more risk-averse, his team more defensive.
The game’s imperatives – its week-to-week grind – has made expression a luxury that
most coaches have to do without. A year-long sabbatical would partly solve
those issues. With time to really consider their decisions,
owners could appoint managers in line with a broader vision for their clubs, not just
grab at the most convenient option. With no defeats or draws to muddy the waters, those
managers could go about their business without fear of dismissal. And with months and months
for them to develop their tactics and teach their players new habits, a technical improvement
on the field of play would be inevitable. And what of the supporters, whose dependency
seems so absolute? Even though their enthusiasm for the game
is often assumed to be insatiable, the narrowing gap between seasons is beginning to test that
assumption. Summers are no longer the barren prairies they once were: 2019 saw three international
tournaments running simultaneously through July and the Champions League qualifiers began
before the end of the month. So, while fan are still looking forward to the domestic
season beginning, it perhaps isn’t with that same fluttering, sugar-rush ache of anticipation. Scarcity was football’s ally. Rewind twenty
years and football on television was still a novelty, even in homes with satellite television.
Today, you can watch a Spanish game on Monday night, gorge on continental football on Tuesday,
Wednesday, and Thursday, catch the Friday-night Ligue 1 match and the earlier Eredivise kick-off
on Sunday, and then fill in the gaps with as many games as life allows. Long, boring summers also used to replenish
football’s novelty, dimming the memory of goalless draws and tedious mid-table finishes.
The eight-month conversation around the sport used to end in May and not begin again until
August. The internet changed that, of course, but so too has the unending fixture list:
every game has an implication for some club, somewhere, meaning that the debate has become
ceaseless. As soon as the first pre-season friendly kicks off, the opinions, complaints
and hyperbole begin too. The cumulative effect is deadening fatigue,
which any 12-month hiatus would quickly alleviate and replace with a more traditional yearning. It’s a fantasy scenario. Football’s gears
need to keep grinding to fill the pockets of its stakeholders and sponsors, and the
clubs themselves are businesses first and sporting entities second. The games are part
of their branding strategy; a rolling advert which never ends. But if they did – if football’s fields
were left fallow for a year – a richer sport might just grow in its place.

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