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August 2021

It’s football Jim but not as we know it*

* This is the editor’s headline and will only make sense if you recall the original series of Star Trek.  If not, you might care to think of this piece under the title “THE EVOLVING GAME – an article partially based on Jason Burt’s essay in The Telegraph” which is how the author describes it.

Either way it is by Don McMahon

Our beautiful game is 150 years old this year and is virtually unrecognisable from the original competition played in Victorian times. This is a phenomena which every football fan and player recognizes and appreciates, and mostly accepts as an inevitable part of the  evolving game.

There are, however, certain changes and developments which seem more difficult to accommodate in the average supporter’s universe. These unwelcome or unacceptable changes, as well as those that are unheralded but have a significant impact on the game in the long run, are still part of the evolutionary process and their impact can be significantly more disruptive to both supporters and clubs worldwide.

Let’s take a look at some of the more unconventional and possibly unwelcome developments and trends that have happened over the last few decades:

a) The rise of the big spenders in World football

There were always big spenders in professional football, and believe it or not Arsenal in the 30’s held the record for a transfer at £14,000 sterling which in today’s market would be the equivalent of £14,000,000 sterling, more or less.

However this pales in comparison to Real and City’s profligacy, who between them have spent near €1,000,000,000 in their ceaseless quest for a trophy or two. Such free-spending has forced the usually laconic European governing body Uefa to try and control this unrestricted financial doping through legislation and regulations. The jury is still out on whether this can succeed but current predictions are that it won’t make a dent in such free-for-all spending.

b) The rise of the ¨pseudo¨ megastar in League Football

Gareth Bale’s flight to Real at the end of the summer transfer window highlighted an already aggravated hyper-inflation of certain players after they had a good season or two. The examples are endless: Nasri, Carroll, Torres, Anelka, Eto, Schevenko, Kaka, Ibrahimovic, etc. while these men are skilled and proven stars, they proved themselves to be over-rated and certainly far too expensive for the end product.

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This phenomena is also aggravated by the media tendency to label a relatively young and untested talent as the ¨next _______¨ because he is showing some signs of actually being a decent Footballer.  This puts excessive pressure on these budding stars and encourages rather unfortunate expectations from the supporters.

c) The rise of the ¨modern¨ tactical formation which few can understand or follow.

The claims that the conventional striker is soon to be doomed to history are superfluous at best and highly speculative at worst. Mr.Burt’s article pointed out that  WHU tried out this approach against Tottenham using a 4-6-0 formation but that their victory was anything but a tactical one.

Arsène Wenger also noticed this result but, imho, correctly recognized that the traditional winger/centre-forward partnership has morphed into a more complex and technically demanding game of keeping the ball on the pitch and finding pockets to play into and eventually score.  Some call this a continental style but to me it is simply the inevitable evolution towards what Spain is already enjoying, less direct but highly skilled one-touch passing and more deliberate, patient build-up of play.

d) The focus on money in the Game

Money, like fresh meat, attracts carnivores and other feral creatures who feast on the ¨easy¨ manner in which it can be garnered. This leads to significant abuses such as rapacious agents draining funds that could be used to promote the game at all levels, poorer Clubs being ¨obliged to sell off their best players in order to survive, avariciousness from the governing bodies like FIFA and EUFA and of course the ultimate plague associated with cash, corruption and crime.

The inflationary spiral that started in the 80’s and has only become more severe each season since, shows no sign of abating. Money, according to many is in football’s case, the root of all football evil.

e) The failure of some nations to develop or protect their youth talent

The origins of the Beautiful Game are at the amateur level and these players represent about 90% of players worldwide.

I can speak from direct experience in North America in saying that there is a desperate shortage of trained and competent coaches/managers and an equally significant lack of proper and planned youth development. This was shown by my country’s very poor showing over the last few years in the Concacaf tournament.

In the UK, we see constant complaints about the lack of English players in the EPL, and how the professional leagues rely on imported talent to sustain the game. Conversely, we hear the French, German and Spanish youth development strategies heralded and admired by pundits and ex-professionals.  There is NO doubt that Britain is lagging behind other nations in their overall strategy for coaching and player development, but this isn’t just a British phenomenon. As well, certain countries permit what amounts to ¨sports slavery¨ by unscrupulous agents and middle-men and this is a terrible tragedy for football as a whole.

f) The failure of officials and authorities to stay ahead of the Game

As a retired professional referee, I know how much faster and more demanding the game has become since I retired in 1989.  When I started in 1968, players were smaller and the game was slower and generally easier to officiate because there was still respect for authority.

Watching our current crop of officials, and comparing them at the local professional level and the world standards of FIFA officials, it is apparent that these men (and women) need additional help in all areas of preparations (both physical and mental), stricter standards and training in being consistent and fair, more transparent and constructive assessments, and much better technology which already exists in other sports.

The number of occurrences of egregious errors and incompetent match management are disturbing at both the amateur and professional level. Walter and his team’s excellent work in analysing the PGMOL’s performances sheds a rather worrisome light on just how inconsistent (and worse) these officials can be. We should be demanding that the men and women in the middle be of a superior standard and preparedness compared to the players and managers but we seem to be settling for second-best, which leads, all too often, to some very disconcerting fiascos.

Football is the world’s largest spectator sport and more nations belong to FIFA than the UN. The upcoming World Cup will be the most watched TV event in the history of this medium.

Football is growing worldwide, especially in the women’s game and is now the 2nd biggest amateur sport in the US behind baseball.  Once Asia and Africa begin to promote the game more aggressively and efficiently, the Beautiful Game will be truly representative of that wonderful sports ideal: a universal pastime enjoyed universally. The above concerns, in my view, represent momentary hiccups on the road to this vision but they must be addressed assertively and confidently in order to discipline the Beautiful Game and conserve its original values and basic worldwide appeal.

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7 comments to It’s football Jim but not as we know it*

  • blacksheep63

    Don, thanks for this thoughtful reflection on the state of the game. I am not sure that I share your optimism for the future because football is unlikely to ever be ‘a universal pastime enjoyed universally’, especially as it becomes more and more dominated by the corporate shackles of FIFA and UEFA and the domestic leagues in Europe.
    The money thing divided opinion at football’s birth in the late 19th century as some eschewed professionalism and remained steadfastly amateur. The same arguments have been won (and lost) in cricket, athletics, rugby and a hots of other sports. Sport (with all the ad-dons of the media that surrounds it) is a business, not a pastime. Even the little clubs that Tony & I have been visiting are dependent on gate money, sponsorship, sales of food and drink etc.
    Football (in Spain notably) also continues to behave as if there are no financial rules. If RM and Barca were not football clubs they would have gone bust ages ago.
    So my vision is of an increasingly corporate and commercial game, owned and run for profit at the expense of those of us who can’t help but stump up for it week in week out.
    Oh, and £14,000 in the 1930s does not equate to £14m today, a more accurate figure would be a little over £500,000 but your point is still valid. 🙂

  • elkieno

    Wow what an excellent article.
    Well done

  • AL

    I find the lack of respect in footballers one of the main things putting me off today’s game. Players now think they’re bigger than everyone; clubs, managers, refs, fans, etc.. Just look at rugby, no arguing with the ref, and very disciplined too. And these are supposed to be tougher men.

    Looks like Khedira might be available on the cheap and appears to be very close to Ozil too. Just can’t stand the way he praises mourinho though;

  • jambug

    Interesting article.

    Point F

    As much as I agree that by and large our officials are poor, that is just a small part as to why we have such an issue with their decision making, because of much greater importance is there impartiality, or lack there of.

    Being incompetant is one thing. Being what seems to be selectively and deliberately biased is another thing all together.

    The way a vast majority of our media are either completely ignoreing, or worst still, deriding, wthout even a thought of further investigation, the revelations of Halesey, and indeed Poll, I find worrying in the extreme.

    If ever there was proof needed of complicity between our Media and the way they ‘instruct’ our referees to officiate, surely this total disinterest in setting up any form of public enquiry is it.

    These are major allegations being made hee against top people in our National game, and all most want to do is either brush it under the carpet, or worse, discredit it out of hand.

  • mk

    Sorry, off topic and linking to the mirror. but straight from Wenger’s mouth confirming what many of us knew and too many impatient and or ignorant fans could not comprehend.

    This was the first season Wenger has had money to spend without feeling he risking the club’s finances and future, he is the reason we were able to sign Ozil and was working on it for a significant length of time before the deal finally went through (not a ‘panic buy’) and he cares more about this club than many of our so called fans.

    Slightly more on topic, not sure if anyone saw the article about match fixing in la liga, naive to think that the prem is immune to it.

  • para

    It is sad how inflated the player’s wages have become, but there is not much one can do about it. This is the world run by money, and anyone who tries to stop it will get left behind, the money just moves somewhere else. So best we can do is enjoy the football or stop watching football all together. It seems that everything increases in price from year to year, some from month to month, like a ball rolling down a hill gathering pace with every inch, no end in sight.
    OK i’ll stop being depressed and be happy at Arsenal’s progress now.
    Forward gunners.

  • OMGArsenal

    Thanks everyone for your great comments. Blacksheep63: I don’t share your pessimism but agree that the little clubs need to be helped by the FA and the EPL financially. Struggling to survive on gate receipts, sponsors and concessions to keep them afloat is shameful. 1% of the total gate and TV money from the EPL would be a tremendous boost for such clubs. 1% of the agents fees and player salaries would also be significant and 1% of the national budget spent on promoting these clubs would be equally justifiable. There are many ways in which such clubs can be supported without stretching anyone’s budget, but it needs the taxpayer, the supporters, the media and the authorities to get behind the idea and push for it to happen.