Friday 10 October ~
Did you enjoy a midweek more or less without football, the venerable Johnstone’s Paint Trophy excepted? Did Tuesday and Wednesday evenings suddenly open up in front of you, adorned with thrilling new possibilities not related to staring at a green-dominated screen with hard-running, highly paid men pursuing a perfectly rotund object of dispute? Were older readers reminded of their youth, when midweek games were a special treat, not a statutory component of the clogged calendar?
Ironically, the reason we enjoyed a largely football-free week was because of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. By the time the latest round of qualifiers have been completed next Wednesday, many European teams will have played four group games already, despite the fact we’re almost two years away from the finals. Back in the 1970s, four games were all a country had to compete in to get to the World Cup.
On the surface, it would seem illogical that in 1974 there were 16 teams in the finals, yet Scotland only had to play four games to get there, while now there are 32 teams in the finals, and this time they’d have to play ten games, safely assuming they don’t win the group, but less safely assuming they make the play-offs as the second-placed team in Group 9. Those in six-team groups, such as England, could play a total of 12 games.
Sure, there are lots of new countries due to geopolitical changes, but not that many. Given that Europe sends 13 qualifiers, it would be simpler to have 12 groups of four teams, and one of five. But that’s forgetting the ongoing battle between clubs and national football associations for revenue. It’s understandable that FIFA, UEFA and their associates don’t want to cede any more dates to the club calendar when they know the clubs would just fill them up with more games, either from expanded competitions or exhibition tours abroad. FIFA would effectively be handing more income to the clubs for free, and the clubs, who complain enough about releasing players for international duty, would hardly be likely to turn them down and say: “Here, have our players for a crap international friendly where the coach subs out his entire starting line-up at half-time.”
Neither side yielding means that the following problems are never addressed: saturation coverage, fan and player fatigue, and chronic congestion of the ever-creaking schedule. In an ideal world, the representatives of club and country would sit down and work out a Europe-wide plan with no League Cups, all top flights reduced to 18 teams, streamlined European club competitions, and no more than six qualifiers for World Cups and European Championships. That way, we’d have a few free midweeks in the season when fans could have the time to actually anticipate the coming weekend’s action. Players would be fresher, and games in all competitions, whether club or international, would have a greater sense of occasion. Perhaps, if you want to put it in marketing terms, the games would become worth more in the financial sense too.
But that would take a combination of patience and long-term thinking with the aim of offering quality and value. As we can all see from the escalating global economic calamity, avarice and durable planning tend not to waltz hand in hand. Ian Plenderleith