Summer used to mean a break from football but the notion of the game having a proper off-season is now outdated, as Al Needham explained in August 2013
Somewhere, in a pub cellar, strings of red-and-white bunting and posters of howling face-painted people are collecting dust. Somewhere, on the internet, rumours about someone being denied service in a pub (or emergency surgery, or the right to be buried) because of the polyester-based shirt they were wearing lie dormant. Somewhere, in a cold storage facility, huge tubs of reconstituted chicken slurry aren’t being turned into shapes of footballers. It’s summer. But it’s a year with an odd number on the end, so there’s no proper football tournament. That always feels wrong.
It didn’t used to be like this. Once upon a time, football was a winter game that knew its place in the sporting calendar; when June rolled around, football was happy to shut down for a bit, the back pages of newspapers would recognise other sports, Roy Race and Nipper and their imaginary comic ilk would join the local cricket team (or have a go at American football, rollerball or whatever) and enough of a radio silence would be maintained to whet the appetite for recommencement in August. Yes, there’d be mention of the Australian season in order to keep the pools going for a couple of months but it wasn’t like anyone over here was really interested in how Tarrawanna or Swan United were doing in their league. We managed without football for a while and it did us no harm at all.
These days, as we’re all aware, the notion of football having a proper off-season is as quaint and outdated a concept as the marketing departments of chain shops saying “Oh, it’s still only October – better leave off promoting our Christmas stock for a month or two”. While cricket only gets the coverage it used to when the Ashes are on, tennis is reduced to the two weeks that Wimbledon is on and track athletes seemingly have to kill other people to get noticed by the papers, there’s still football coverage all over the place, despite there being no actual football to cover. Even the truly interesting aspect of the off-season – the unveiling of next season’s shirts – is pretty much all over before the current one ends.
Quick experiment: in the first week of June , ten whole days after the Champions League final, a very cursory media trawl is revealing. What’s on Talksport? Roberto Martínez leaving Wigan for Everton. What’s the top story on the BBC Sport website? Jesús Navas joining Manchester City. The back page of the Daily Star? José Mourinho holding up a Chelsea shirt. Sky Sports News? Footage of Japan becoming the first nation to qualify for the World Cup. Which is a whole year away.
Like the majority of football supporters, I’ve had the stodge of a predictable and unvarying domestic main course; now the weather has perked up, I want the fancy pudding of an international tournament, with all the trimmings. There’s a part of me that craves the smell of a freshly opened packet of complimentary Panini stickers (which will go into the book and then remain untouched forever), who wants to actively argue with people on Facebook about the rights and wrongs of the local chip shop hanging a cross of St George outside with “World Cup Special – Fishcake, Peas and Chips £2” written on it in marker pen. And yes, a huge part of me truly believes that a summer where one can’t walk down a supermarket aisle and openly tut at iceberg lettuces in football-shaped bags is no summer at all. And the actual football can be pretty decent at times, as well.
And it’s not just for my benefit – think of the financial implications. Whenever England fail to qualify for a tournament, the players can’t even get off the pitch before the articles pile in estimating how much damage they have personally done to the economy. Take 2008: depending on which hysterically apocalyptic report a newspaper deployed to get you to take interest in their business pages, as much as two billion imaginary pounds were chucked over the side because England made a dog’s arse of it against Croatia, including an estimated loss of 25 million extra pints to the pub trade, god knows how many unsold flatscreen TVs and untold bales of shirts and flags being left fallow. So – and I’d like to know why financial experts don’t have the nerve to address this question – what happens in a year when England don’t qualify for an international tournament because there isn’t actually one on?
Obviously, FIFA and UEFA would never do anything to debase their showpiece tournaments but this lack of something a bit more substantial in odd-year summers simply won’t do. There are options that would remedy the problem. The first – moving the Olympics to odd years – is the easy one. After all, it’s only been going for 100 or so years, it’s already messed about with the Winter Olympics and we’ve had it in our country in our lifetime. If tennis and golf can have their top pros involved, so should football. And seeing as there are such things as indoor refrigeration and snow blowers (and summers not being what they used to be, global warming and so on) the Winter Olympics won’t suffer too much for being pushed back a few months.
Next, if we’re having a vote to decide if the country is going to stay in the EU, can we have a proposition tacked on that would let us stay in, but also join South America? They’ve let the US and even Japan have a crack at the Copa América in the past; surely entering a UK-based squad, possibly in the name of, say, the Falkland Islands, wouldn’t cause too much trouble. If that’s too much faff, we already have a Commonwealth Games. There should be a football equivalent, if only in the hope of sneaking a return of the Home Championship through the back door.
The final proposal is a bit of an ask but how about football, and the people who make a living off the back of it, doing what other sports seem to manage – shutting up completely about football for six weeks or so and allowing us to get all excited about it when it finally comes back? No? Well I suppose the Confederations Cup wasn’t too bad – at least I finally had an excuse to wear my Tahiti away shirt.
Illustration by Matt Littler