New Year’s resolutions for football

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2020 has been, to put it lightly, a transformative year for the world. For once, football is no different. As we head into 2021, the game is tangibly different in that it is now regularly played in front of no, or very few fans.

Yet it is different in a much deeper but less tangible way. Covid-19 has opened up a number of major ruptures within the sport that can no longer be ignored. What is decided will heavily shape the future of the game as we, or rather those at the top, decide what kind of game we want football to be. There are issues on the pitch to be resolved, too, such as those dreaded three letters VAR.

2021, then, feels like a big year for the beautiful game. What football decides on a number of increasingly unavoidable issue in 2021 will likely have a big impact for many years to come. It will force us to stare deeply into the heart and soul of the game and decide what kind of game we want to have.

VAR

Despite a global pandemic, there are some things that seemingly don’t change. The entire world was put on hold in March and yet as Premier League football returned in June, VAR was still on everybody’s lips causing more controversy. The irony, of course, is that VAR was brought in to remove controversy, but the reality is that is an impossible task. Far too many decisions are subjective in football and even then, football fans and pundits alike will still find something to disagree on. What is clear and obvious, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that the current system cannot continue in its current form. 2021 must be the year in which VAR is made to work once and for all. It is not going to go away but the current system seems to satisfy nobody. Handing back agency to referees, raising the intervention threshold, and getting rid of those ridiculous offside lines would be a start.

Gambling

Football’s relationship with betting is completely toxic. Everywhere you look within football, there is nearly always an advertisement encouraging you to bet on the upcoming games. Whether it be on television, shirt sponsors, even the names of leagues, gambling is now inescapable when interacting with football. This has got to change. It has led to many fans developing unhealthy relationships with betting, with former England international Paul Merson speaking candidly about his gambling problems. The tide is changing. A review of the Gambling Act 2005 has been launched, with measures such as banning betting sponsors on shirts being considered. The Coalition Against Gambling Ads also released this video highlighting the exposure younger fans are given to the incessant offers to bet within football. 2021 must be the year in which football finally clamps down on betting’s influence within the game, instead forming a far healthier relationship.

Owners

While most of use welcomed with open arms the return of football after the pandemic either brought an abrupt end to the 2019/20 season, or saw it temporarily paused and finished behind closed doors. However, for Macclesfield Town fans, their club didn’t return. Financial difficulties have been a running theme in recent years, particularly in the lower leagues. Covid-19 served to only tighten finances further. Macclesfield’s demise came just a year after Bury’s and it highlights growing issues of ownership and finance within football. Numerous clubs across the football league have been beset with awful owners, with the EFL seemingly unable or unwilling to step in despite being bitten numerous times. There is often talk of some sort of fit and proper persons test, but whatever is used to determine the suitability of prospective owners, it is clearly not up to scratch. Times are tough enough for clubs at the moment, a bad owner only makes things worse. The EFL must take responsibility and safeguard clubs’ futures as best they can.

Finances

The Covid-19 pandemic brought into focus, too, the financial disparities that exist between the big and small clubs. Macclesfield’s demise occurred while Premier League teams continued to spend millions in transfers. Bailouts were agonised over despite the relatively small sums needed from Premier League clubs. If we continue in this direction, Macclesfield and Bury will not be the only ones going bust. Something must fundamentally change in 2021. The disparities between clubs are simply unsustainable if we want there to be a proper football pyramid in the future. Premier League clubs must realise that without the lower leagues, the English game would be much poorer. They would do well, for example, to be reminded of where stars such as Harry Maguire first emerged. A far more equitable financial model is required, though without the power grab that was included in the proposed Project Big Picture. Ultimately, it is about deciding what we want our game to be about. If it is money, then we must be prepared to see more clubs go to the wall. But if it is deeper than that, rooted in ideas such as community, then a radical reorganisation is needed. Whatever is decided will undoubtedly have huge ramifications for the long-term future of football.

European Super League

Rumours of a European Super League are nothing new. They are regularly floated every few years or so when the biggest clubs in Europe seek to flex their wealth and influence in order to get what they want. What they want is usually money, and that means guaranteed spots in Europe’s premier competition. While most of us are thrilled at the prospect of an Atalanta reaching the latter stages of the Champions League, to Europe’s elite clubs this is nothing more than a threat that they do not like. Any notions of a Super League must be firmly left in 2020 and killed off in 2021. It would be fundamentally bad for the game, with profit rather than fans or competition being the driver of any such efforts.

Dementia

One slightly more sobering issue that football must tackle is its relationship with concussion and dementia. 2020 saw the football family lose a number of its favourite sons, including England World Cup winners Martin Peters, Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, and Norman Hunter. Charlton and Stiles both had dementia while Peters had Alzheimer’s disease. On top of that, fellow World Cup winner Bobby Charlton was also diagnosed with dementia this year. It brings to light again the link between dementia and playing football, which is now seemingly undoubtable. There have been discussions around banning or limiting heading at young ages, while there are new initiatives to introduce concussion substitutes. It is an issue that football is lagging far behind on. Concussion protocols are unclear, with a number of examples of players heading back onto the pitch when it was clear they shouldn’t have. 2021 needs to be the year where football steps up and creates a long-term solution, safeguarding the long-term welfare of current players as well as properly dealing with those former players currently suffering.


Fans

If there has been one positive of the Covid-19 pandemic for football, it has been the realisation that fans matter. In fact, they matter a great deal. For a while, it has felt like fans had been deemed a supplementary element of the game, at times even surplus to requirements. With soaring ticket prices and inconvenient kick-off times and dates changed at the last minute, it’s easy to see why. Money has dictated the tempo of change in football, with fans left to adapt and ultimately lose out as a result. Yet the pandemic has brought a new phenomenon; games being played behind closed doors en masse. It has suddenly made us all realise just how vital fans are not just to the matchday experience, but to the game as a whole.

The phrase “football without fans is nothing” has often been seen around stadia across Europe, most notably in Germany where fans have relentlessly campaigned against the anti-fan changes in modern football. But 2020 has made it ring true in a way few could have imagined. 2021 must be the year of the fan. When fans are eventually allowed back to matches in large numbers, there must be a realisation that fans are ultimately what matter, not profit or even trophies. Clubs are community hubs, they are a part of people’s identity, not just money-making entities. 2020 has made us realise just how important community is in various ways: hopefully, this translates to football too.

Image: joshjdss via Flickr

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