Soccer had a plan. The qualifying rounds for the 2022 World Cup would end in March of that year; with the celebration of the draw a month later, and the start of the tournament scheduled for November 21, 2022 in Qatar. However, the global pandemic arrived; and with it, the struggles, the adjustments and, above all, the negotiations between the two souls that live within this sport: club football and national team football.
Both sides stand united against a common enemy, the coronavirus; although they also remain vigilant when it comes to defending their piece of a world football cake that is smaller than before. And only two confederations (UEFA and Africa) have the opportunity to decide to hold World Cup qualifiers for the originally scheduled date. The calendars of the four remaining entities (CONCACAF in North America, CONMEBOL in South America, AFC in Asia and OFC in Oceania) have been, in different ways, affected by COVID-19.
Last month, FIFA President Gianni Infantino expressed optimism, noting that the positive aspect of playing a World Cup in winter was that football had a little more flexibility. However, this still involves stuffing World Cup qualifiers, Nations League, Euro 2020 (to be played in 2021), CONCACAF Gold Cup, Africa Cup of Nations, the Olympic Games soccer tournament and the America’s Cup to celebrate them all. for the next 25 months, all within the delicate consensus that results in the FIFA International Match Calendar. All this, while we hope that the pandemic does not unleash greater chaos on the world.
Last week, FIFA changed its rules regarding player permits to play international matches for the remainder of 2020. Previously, it was mandatory for clubs to release players during international breaks; today, it became optional until the arrival of the new year, as long as there are travel restrictions with mandatory quarantines, either at the club headquarters or at the national team concentration destination, and the respective governments have not granted “exceptions to sport”. This is not a major problem for Europe, since generally different countries grant exceptions quickly and in rare cases trips take more than a couple of hours. However, this is an issue with much greater consequences in other parts of the world, such as South America, Africa or Asia, whose national teams have a majority of players based abroad.
There are two sides to this coin. The first is the well-being of the players, particularly within a highly congested match schedule. Clubs don’t enjoy giving up their players at the best of times, much less during a pandemic. Putting them on airplanes and dispatching them to the other side of the world, where medical protocols may not be as strict as at “home”, is something that keeps club managers awake. Let’s add the fact that, with the constant changes to the guidelines of the different governments around the world, which occurs as the numbers of infected rise and fall, there is the risk of subjecting them to mandatory confinement once they have returned home. That could mean an additional two weeks of unavailability, along with lost training time, resulting in footballers may not be physically fit to play matches and are available again until early November … just in time for travel and play the next FIFA date.
These are the reasons why several representatives of Europe’s big clubs and leagues, as well as FIFPro, the footballers’ union, met with FIFA last month, with the aim of reaching an agreement. Routinely, professionals from Asia, Africa and South America must assume the obligation to make multiple intercontinental trips each fall: between the routes to play international and Champions League commitments, Lionel Messi (for example) has games scheduled in Spain, Argentina , Bolivia (with its considerable altitude), Italy, Peru and Ukraine … all this, during the next six and a half weeks.
The other aspect, although it is somewhat crude, is still valid: the clubs pay the salaries of the footballers and, from time to time, they are forced to give them up to play international commitments without receiving much compensation. Handing them out to undergo high-risk activities may seem unnecessary and even unfair, particularly when there is little money and the economic effects of stopping playing commitments at European level, or falling into decline due to not having some players due to side effects of national team matches are magnified.
We also have the obvious other side of the coin: national team football. It was easy to forget these days while we were enjoying the Champions League draw, the return of the great domestic tournaments in Europe and the final hours of the transfer window; But for most of the world, the national team is paramount, particularly during a World Cup playoff cycle.
The bottom line is that many national teams did not play competitive matches in the past year and there is little scope for action within the International Match Calendar.
We have two dates in September 2022 and another two in October 2022; and all were assigned to regional competitions. Immediately, we can imagine that these can be used to solve different pending issues of World Cup qualifiers, even if it means running the wrinkle in other tournaments. In the worst case, some back-and-forth commitments can turn into knockout matches – that worked well for the Champions League, but the World Cup qualifiers represent a totally different animal.
It is possible to analyze converting some stops of double runs into triple runs, just as UEFA will do in the two breaks to come; in part, to satisfy commitments made to television. We reiterate: this is relatively easy to do in Europe, where distances are shorter and infrastructure is optimal. In other parts of the world, it could turn into a logistical nightmare. Not to mention the issue of the footballers’ health.
Soccer “triple runs” involve playing three games in a span of seven days. By the way, that’s the reason why Italy (34 players) and England (30) called up extensive squads for the upcoming FIFA Date: if they don’t rotate, the coaches will face the wrath of the clubs. That’s important, because this knockout cycle will take place amid the most crowded club calendar in history. Europe’s domestic leagues, where most footballers play their trade, got off to a late start as a result of the spring break and will end early, thanks to the European Championship.
In England, they decided to go ahead and play the Carabao Cup, returning to the rule of a maximum of three substitutes. After quarantine, a provisional rule was introduced allowing up to five substitutes, in order to allow for higher rotations, reducing the physical burden and the risk of injury. The Premier League voted and narrowly decided to revert to the three substitutes, believing (erroneously, in my opinion) that having five substitutes represents an unfair advantage for the more renowned clubs. The 2020-21 Premier League season will have the same number of matches as the 2018-19 tournament, but that campaign was roughly 10 percent longer.
The situation can hardly be managed, if the pandemic allows it. The different laws vary a bit; but the leagues remain firm in their position of not rescheduling matches if a club is affected by an outbreak of COVID-19 positives; to the point that, in most cases, if a club has 13 players in full physical capacity (including youngsters under a professional contract) no postponement will be granted. Why? Because there would be no date to relocate the engagement on the calendar; which is why we witnessed the absurd spectacle of Tottenham Hotspur, who was forced to play three competitive matches (a Carabao Cup round of 16 match against Chelsea, a Europa League tie against Maccabi Haifa and a Premier away match against Manchester United) in a period of six days prior to the FIFA Date.
We are aware of why all this happens. The different European clubs project a decrease in their income of more than $ 4 billion between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 tournaments. It could be a little less if fans are allowed into the stadiums earlier than planned (speaking of a maximum of 50% of capacity); It could be a little (or a lot) more if the stands are kept closed or if more broadcasters or sponsors go bankrupt or try to renegotiate their contracts to pay less. The world of soccer needs to squeeze its product to the maximum possible. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not about being greedy. It is a survival issue.
There is a sense of “cross your fingers and try to get the most out of it, while you can” that has taken over world football. Typically, this is the time when a columnist would point out alternative solutions, lamenting the ineptitude and greed of the executives in charge. I would hate to do it in the current climate, because the last 10 months have shown us how many aspects of life are beyond our control and in part because I’m not sure they could have done something different and doable.
This is already a very peculiar season, marked by an asterisk. Hopefully it doesn’t go beyond a footnote and turn into something that ends up defining the course of the next 18 months.