Ever have the feeling life’s too short? Welcome to the life of a soccer scheduler. So many games, so little time in the international calendar.
As everyone agrees, that calendar is crammed. It helps to visualize it as a suitcase you’re packing for vacation, 10 minutes before the taxi arrives to take you to the airport. Do you really need so many pairs of underpants? An extra sweater? An August international friendly date, just as Europe’s biggest club leagues are getting underway? Probably not, but of course, you don’t want to leave any spare room, or use less than your airline’s weight allowance. Hey, UEFA – come and sit on top of this while I try and fasten the clasps. NNNNAAGH! GOT IT!
Of course, then you get to the airport and you’re five pounds over and don’t want to pay the rip-off $600 fee. Everyone behind you in the line’s tut-tutting, so you end up wearing three T-shirts and a coat and carrying your second pair of sneakers through security, perspiring like a New Orleans jazz vocalist and making the TSA think you’re a shoe bomber.
FIFA’s long-expected and just-confirmed decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in the winter is exactly — exactly — like this. So now (well, in nearly eight years) is the winter of European club soccer’s discontent, with dire warnings of major disruption to the calendar not merely in 2022-23 but in surrounding seasons.
The calendar’s so delicate, see, such a balancing act, so stuffed already, that a six-week domestic hiatus would cause chaos, rioting on the streets, mass suicides. Frankly, it’s very unclear at this point if soccer as we know it will survive, or whether other, better-organized sports will rise to take its place in the planet’s affections, such as lacrosse and Ultimate Frisbee.
Of course, 2022 is a long way away. By then we may all be watching 10 live matches simultaneously in 4D as we commute to work in self-driving cars. We might be checking email using Google Contact Lens. Ted Cruz might be in his second term as president. Heck, MLS may even be bigger than Jesus by 2022. On their birthdays, 10-year-olds in Malaysia will weep with sorrow when their parents gift them replica Manchester United jerseys, because they were hoping for a Toronto FC kit.
Despite that temporal distance, European club soccer’s leaders seem to know exactly what’s going to happen. Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the English Premier League, has reportedly even threatened to sue FIFA to stop them hosting the World Cup midway through the EPL campaign.
The break’s an especially acute issue in England, which, unlike other European leagues, doesn’t have a winter break. The EPL calendar, see, was originally drafted in 1787 after the Great War of Independence From Cricket and is considered so sacred, so fundamental to the sport’s very character, that it can only be altered by a vote from two-thirds of the clubs and the sign-off from some guy in an expensive suit who works for Sky Sports.
Two years after the war, an amendment enshrined every Englishman’s right to keep and bear soccer on Boxing Day. In practice, December 26 is a day when there’s virtually no public transport and the weather’s usually so bad that some games get postponed at the last minute after fans have traveled for hours on icy or wet roads. But why shouldn’t a few people suffer hardship and potential danger in order that the majority may preserve an anachronistic tradition that no longer makes any sense, except that a habit has become so ingrained it’s mistaken for a key tenet of national identity?
Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images.
When the European leagues moan, and when they sound more conciliatory, what we’re really seeing is politics in action, because Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and his pals at the European Club Association correctly spot an opportunity to make FIFA pay for this change. They’ll look for increased compensation for their players’ participation and some concessions that affect the balance of power between the club and international codes. They started off by taking an extreme and intransigent position but will eventually meet FIFA somewhere in the middle after stubborn public statements and backroom deal-striking, because that’s how negotiations work.
We’ve already seen some path-smoothing politicking going on in the U.S., with FOX and Telemundo quietly awarded the 2026 rights without a tender. Best guess: the ECA boys will win a reduction in the number of international dates and an increase in UEFA’s share of the World Cup’s revenue.
Which would be a successful outcome for them, because is it really credible to argue that a tournament that will involve about 700 players for four weeks (two weeks of buildup, two weeks of games), with that number reducing by half, and half again every few days, is going to rip the fabric of world soccer apart for years? That players can’t handle the workload, in an era when they’re fitter, more rotated and part of deeper rosters than ever before? When advances in sports science and treatment, and rule changes, have improved recovery times and reduced the risk of serious injury? Maybe it would help if teams didn’t jet thousands of miles every summer — and increasingly, winter — on brand-expanding foreign tours of faraway lands, where they no longer play loose and laid-back exhibition games with dozens of substitutes but are part of pretentious “tournaments” that hype up the competitive element in order to charge higher ticket prices and eke out more TV money.
The truth is that economic forces (a polite way of saying “soccer’s insatiable dash for cash”) already make the sport a year-round entity, with all kinds of demands on its stars, whether they’re playing or promoting. Scudamore may complain about the elongation of his season in 2022 but he didn’t seem bothered when Manchester City embarked on post-season tours in Abu Dhabi last year and the U.S. in 2013.
It’s fine to suggest that FIFA awarded the tournament to Qatar on the basis that it’d be in the summer, and that it shouldn’t be there in the first place because the vote stank more than a fishmonger’s in Pike Place Market. But of all the myriad reasons to oppose the event, fighting it because it’s going to be in the winter is among the most dubious and self-interested. If the critics were thinking first and foremost about players’ health, they’d long ago have backed a switch away from the hellish heat of a desert summer.
No one is admitting that in this particular case the tournament will actually be better for being in move to November-December. Players won’t be as tired midway through their club seasons. Games will be faster, and in less-oppressive heat.
When top leagues and clubs think about expanding to new markets, they’re thinking only of their own narrow ambitions, not the good of the sport in general. For the anti-winter brigade, international expansion means playing friendlies (or, one day, a regular-season game) in Sydney, Shanghai or St Louis. It doesn’t mean doing anything to help the biggest and greatest sporting event on the planet. Or, in the case of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, helping to make it a little less dreaded.