How Much Football Do We Really Want?

“We must change everything.  Why doesn't Europe work? It should be a Europe of England, France, Italy, Germany and Spain.   If you make a championship of five nations instead of the Champions League, with the top four of each championship, that's 20 teams.”

Aurelio De Laurentiis, October 2018

Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis may strike you as an unlikely supporter of the minimalist lifestyle, although those of a less-is-more inclination need not worry about a swelling of their ranks.  Minimalism and multiple television subscriptions are most likely incompatible, without mentioning a wardrobe of replica jerseys. Less is never more in football, and De Laurentiis is just the latest footballing figure to add his weight to an overhaul of European club competition, coming hot on the heels of a new FIFA proposal to expand the Club World Cup.

Perhaps emboldened by the success of the Nations League, De Laurentiis has interrupted his sniping at rival clubs to float the possibility of the big boys taking the playground ball away for a more exclusive kickabout.  Actually, he did also criticise PSG’s financial arrangements in his recent interview with Le Parisien, but for once this may have been merited.

More likely, De Laurentiis is looking at what may be coming down the line and is worried the FIFA proposal will see Napoli fall down to the relatively lower branches of the great football money tree.  

As admirably as Napoli have performed in Serie A in recent years, Gianni Infantino will no doubt look beyond footballing performance when FIFA cherry-pick clubs for the Club World Cup Mark II.  The best clubs in this case are the ones with a global presence, a disruptive social media strategy or a wealthy (and politically powerful) owner.

Allies of De Laurentiis include Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin.  Both have been critical of previous FIFA plans to either expand the Club World Cup or develop a new international club competition to replace the Confederations Cup.

With the global football calendar agreed until 2024 there are likely to be no immediate changes in any case, but the aforementioned Nations League (which Infantino also wants to develop to a global competition) could in future years be seen as a watershed moment for a shake-up in the footballing seasons.  

Infantino has been coy on where the $12 billion sponsorship will be coming from for a four-tournament cycle of the proposed Club World Cup, of which figures of over £100m will be given to participating clubs.  Barcelona and Real Madrid have already expressed interest, while Ed Woodward is no doubt wondering how many noodle partners he would need to sign up for that kind of money.

Neither club have expressed concern about money coming from Saudi Arabia.  Infantino likewise has no such moral qualms, having met the Saudi king and crown prince - who has been in the news himself recently - four times in the last year.  

“I cannot accept that some people who are blinded by the pursuit of profit are considering to sell the soul of football tournaments to nebulous private funds. Money does not rule – and the European sports model must be respected. Football is not for sale. I will not let anyone sacrifice its structures on the altar of a highly cynical and ruthless mercantilism.”

Uefa President Aleksander Ceferin, May 2018

The Uefa opposition hinges less on ethics and more on their finances.  The Champions League already provides for Europe’s biggest and best, who - coefficient arguments aside - still get in on merit.  Replacing their flagship club competition with a global offering may suit the Galacticos but will cast comparatively smaller clubs aside.  It will also dilute Uefa’s control over the biggest clubs, as well as Uefa’s money-spinning abilities.

De Laurentiis has also suggested that in eight years time “children who have just been born will not care about football,” which could go some way to explaining the sudden push to innovate.  It hasn’t gone unnoticed that despite the saturation of football people are still tuning in for now.

We can now watch four Champions League matches live across two days, and each Nations League weekend is reminiscent of the heady days of the World Cup group stages.

The world didn’t fall in on itself when the Nations League was introduced, neither did the clocks stop the last time the Champions League was revamped.  Football and minimalism may not be perfect bedfellows, but there may come a time when we ask ourselves, in that quiet moment between the Man City-Guangzhou Evergrande and Bayern Munich-Perth Glory matches - how much football do we really want? More importantly, how much needs to change before we stop watching?

Michael Hayes