The European football season is over, save for a few cup finals. And here lies the fundamental flaw of a game that is overplayed, overpriced and too frequently hyped. We have soccer fatigue. From the season ticket holder who has paid through the nose to watch sub-standard expression of the supposed beautiful game, to the armchair fan who has never been to a game because, hey, Sky Sports, there is a universal acceptance that football is losing its magic, its ability to surprise, delight and dazzle. The money going into the game from TV rights is not evenly distributed, creating a top tier of teams that always win everything. Youth development, particularly in England, has been sacrificed for the big transfer fee. Teams play so much football that, in the English Premier League at least, they tacitly engage in a competition not to qualify for Europe’s tournament for the nearly rans, the Europa League, a worthless contest that saps the resources of even the well off, and confines their exhausted players to mid table obscurity the following season. Witness Liverpool’s disintegration in the last few weeks.
There are indeed exceptions. The sight of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi strolling through Bayern Munich’s defence in the European Champions’s League Semi Final is a case in point. His duel with Real Madrid’s Christian Ronaldo to become the greatest player of his generation has pushed both their performances to hitherto unseen levels. While both players have never won a World Cup, they will likely be regarded alongside the very best in the game; perhaps even alongside Maradona and Pele. Lower down the pecking order, more and more fans of the game are tuning in to second tier football that maintains its honesty, its unpredictability and its authenticity. The second tier of English football – the Championship – is without doubt the most dramatic league in Europe. The fact that AFC Bournemouth can get promoted to the premier league shows that football can still retain its romance.
Yet at the end of another football season, where the richest clubs from Italy to France topped all the major leagues, these noteworthy exceptions do not point to a dramatic shift in the status quo. Something, ultimately, is rotten in the state of this game, not least with its governing bodies, which award the World Cup to countries with dubious human rights records and are mired in corruption scandals.
What are the solutions then? Here are some of my own antidotes.
1) TV rights money ought to be distributed fairly so that the less well off clubs also benefit. This should be out of recognition of their role in youth development, and in acknowledgement that competition is better than domination.
2) Unnecessary tournaments, such as the English League Cup and the Europa League, should be scrapped altogether.
3) The domestic cup competitions that do remain, such as the FA Cup, should reward the winner with a Champions League place. In a stroke, this would reignite these flagging competitions and give a chance for all teams in the country, not just those at the very top leagues, to break through to the big time.
4) The Champions League, Europe’s premier club competition, should be primarily for champions and cup winners rather than for teams who finish fourth, and who parade around their grounds at the end of the season as if they have won something.
5) If the teams finishing second in their domestic leagues are to be allowed in at all, then perhaps their place should be decided by play off between the teams immediately below them. It will make for more drama in seasons that too frequently peter out weeks before with one team running away with everything. Juventus in Italy have just won their fourth straight Seria A title and no other Italian team has come close to stealing their crown..
6) The transfer system needs to be ripped up, with limits placed on the maximum fee, and on the numbers a team can buy and sell. There should be bans on moving clubs once the season starts, and there should be a shift to an American football style draft where the less well off clubs get first pick on the country’s emerging talent.
7) Ticket prices ought to be capped and the ownership rules surrounding clubs needs to changed to ensure that the fans’ voices are represented in decision making. This happens in Germany and lo! They are world champions.
8) Football needs to become less beholden to the TV schedule and more closely aligned to the family schedules. It therefore needs to once more become a Saturday or a Sunday, when parents have time to take the children to games that are affordable and welcoming.
The solutions I have offered are by no means an exhaustive list. Ultimately, for football to regain its magic, there needs to be less of it. It needs to be less reliant on big payouts from TV companies, and its fortunes ought to be linked more to the talent it produces and nurtures, rather than the merchandise it sells.
There are still a few magical elements in the game - Lionel Messi is one