The Best Time to Fix Soccer Is Right Now

The consensus, over the last few years, has become perfectly clear. FIFA thinks it. So do UEFA, its great rival, and the architects of the proposed European Super League and most of the major teams in most of the game’s major leagues. Even Gerard Piqué is sure of it. They cannot agree on much, but they all agree that soccer has to change.

Their motivations tend to center on roughly the same theory, one perhaps best encapsulated by Piqué, the former Barcelona defender. The foundational belief of his Kings League is that soccer matches are just too long. Teenagers, he is convinced, cannot pay attention to anything that long these days, which he has decided is definitely a new thing that has never happened before.

Piqué is not alone, though. Andrea Agnelli, the now disgraced former chairman of Juventus, regularly said that soccer had to do something to win the hearts and minds of the TikTok generation. The Real Madrid president Florentino Peréz, a wholly convincing spokesman for today’s youth, made it a central part of his pitch for the Super League.

Their solutions, though, vary wildly. The Super League’s guiding principle was that what people really want is more meetings between the same, elite teams. UEFA, which took such great exception to that idea, basically thinks the same thing, if its redesign of the Champions League is any indication.

FIFA agrees wholeheartedly, but with the important distinction that all of those games should be in competitions for which it sells the broadcasting rights. The clubs, on the other hand, feel that more money might sort the problem out. Piqué, to his credit, has at least thought outside the box a little. He has gone down the lucha libre mask and secret weapon route, ideas considerably more original than an expanded Club World Cup.

For all the divergence of opinion on the means to achieve the aim, though, the basic theme is now so widely shared and so frequently repeated that it is essentially accepted as fact. Soccer has to change, somehow. And yet, fundamentally, this is very odd, because soccer — elite soccer, 21st-century soccer, Champions League and English Premier League soccer — has spent the last two decades attaining a sort of sociocultural critical mass. It now has the sort of reach, impact and engagement that actual religions crave. It is, by pretty much any measure, the most popular pastime ever.

That is not to say that it should not be open to the idea of change. Baseball, a sport no less laden with tradition and with just as much reason to be convinced of its own enduring popularity as soccer, had the humility to amend its rules this season in the hope of providing a more appealing experience to its fans. The majors have introduced a pitch clock, limited pickoff attempts, and banned certain defensive shifts.

(This last one is most curious to non-baseball-native eyes: Surely making it easier to score devalues the excitement caused by scoring? And is stopping an opponent from scoring not as valid and valuable a part of the game as the act of scoring itself? Why not make the pitchers throw underhand while you’re at it?)

The inspiration for those alterations, of course, was not merely the mounting — and correct — concern that three hours and change was too long for a sporting event, but the impact of the sport’s analytical revolution: Data had rewritten on some genetic level how baseball was played, and as a consequence diminished it as a spectacle. Or, more accurately, it had diminished it as the spectacle that its fans had been conditioned over generations to expect.

That particular problem is not what soccer is facing. It, too, has undergone a data revolution over the last two decades — a case can be made, in fact, that it was experimenting with data before Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s had so much as muttered the word “quant” — but its impact has been more subtle.

There are fewer shots from long distance now. Crossing is a little rarer. Everyone laughs at possession percentage statistics. (Heading is likely to diminish in the coming years, though as a result of greater research into its links to dementia, rather than any particular stylistic or philosophical development.)

That does not mean the product could not be improved, though what is striking is how many of its greatest shortcomings are of the sport’s own making. The introduction of the video assistant referee has proved almost universally unpopular, and so too the hard-line interpretation of offside it has spawned. It remains an item of absolute conviction in this newsletter that nobody has the slightest clue what counts as handball anymore.

All of these are within the wit of the game’s authorities to solve. V.A.R. should be invoked only for outrageous errors. Offside laws should be liberalized to give greater advantage to the attacker. Handball should be reserved for players swatting the ball away, like Luis Suárez at a World Cup, not a gentle, caressing brush with the fingers. Soccer has found itself in the curious position of trying to thrill young, fickle audiences by entangling itself in Byzantine regulation.

There are other changes, too, that might be considered. There is, certainly, a strong argument for an equivalent of a pitch clock: Rather than playing a game over 90 minutes, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that it should be an hour, with the clock paused every time the ball goes out of play.

Strangely, though, for all who hold the consensus that soccer has to change, none of those parties who are so convinced of its imminent anachronism seem to want to consider any of those alterations. They just do not come up.

Nor, for that matter, do any of the other tweaks that might serve to make the sport more immediately appealing: mechanisms to ensure more equal talent distribution, so as to reduce competitive imbalance, or greater revenue sharing, or a limit on the amount of players a team can acquire.

In years of discussing how to attract more young people to the sport, meanwhile, nobody appears to have mentioned the idea of reducing the paywall that surrounds it, both on television and in the flesh. Piqué’s Kings League is not especially likely to be the future of soccer, but it proved popular at least in part because it was free to watch on Twitch.

And yet for all the discussion of the sport’s looming irrelevance, the end of its golden era, few of those evangelizing for radicalism seem willing to tread down those paths.

FIFA is happy to launch as many new competitions as exist in the depths of President Gianni Infantino’s galaxy brain. UEFA will willingly redesign the Champions League, and its rivals will gamely try to tear it down. Piqué will joyfully tweak the way kickoffs work and hand out penalties at random and name a player “Enigma.”

But none of them, no matter how convinced they are that the future has to be different, will pause to wonder whether the solution has been present all along, whether the clues to the ways soccer needs to change can be found by simply looking at what made it popular in the first place. It is almost as if none of them really want change unless it just so happens to benefit them.

A little more than an hour into Bayern Munich’s visit to Manchester City in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, just before a defeat turned into a humbling, the German club’s fans unfurled a banner: “Glazers, Sheikh Mansour, Autocrats Out.” Then, on a second canvas: “Football Belongs To The People.”

It was, though it was probably not designed to be, quite a clever gambit. It put Manchester City’s fans in an awkward position. The name of their club’s benefactor was, very clearly, being besmirched. They quite like Sheikh Mansour at the Etihad Stadium. (They probably also quite like the Glazers, though for different reasons.)

And so they did what was to be expected: They chanted his name, almost until the point that Bernardo Silva headed home City’s second goal of the evening, and everyone’s minds returned to rather more pressing matters. There is nothing remarkable about any of that. But it did rather make it look like Manchester City’s fans do not agree with the statement that “football belongs to the people,” which is quite an odd position to put oneself in.

It goes without saying, of course, that is not how those fans would see it. There exists an unbridgeable cultural divide between English and German soccer: a single people divided by a common game (and vastly different ownership regulations).

German soccer resolutely believes that clubs should be owned by, or at least accountable to, their fans. English soccer does not mind who owns its teams, as long as they spend a lot of money.

That has been made abundantly clear by the drama over the ownership of Manchester United. Both of the groups to have made public their interest in making a deal with the Glazers have also been sure to point out that, alongside their commitment to refurbish the stadium and reconnect with the fans, they would make money available for transfers. People want to hear blandishments about engagement and infrastructure. But what they really care about is getting Victor Osimhen.

Fans of English teams, not just City, have been conditioned to believe that it is an owner’s job to spend money. At roughly the same time as the banner was being unfurled, and City was doubling its lead, news was emerging from Liverpool that the club did not intend to pursue the signature of Jude Bellingham, the England and Borussia Dortmund midfielder, this summer.

That makes sense. Liverpool knew, of course, that acquiring Bellingham would be expensive — current estimates have the total cost of the deal at around $220 million, including fees and salary — but it did not know, a year ago, that its team was about to age several decades simultaneously.

The club can, then, no longer justify committing so much of its budget to any one player, not when it may need as many as five new recruits to refashion its team. Liverpool does not come out of this well; its decline this season speaks to a colossal failure in squad planning. But, economically, the decision Manager Jürgen Klopp and his executives have reached is the sensible one.

Needless to say, that is not how the news was received by (the online section, at least, of) the fan base. Liverpool’s owners are, by the definition of Bayern’s fans, autocrats, but they share the fundamental belief that clubs should live within their means, and that owners’ primary function is not simply to lavish money on their teams in a quixotic pursuit of success.

It is not an extreme position. It is, deep down, quite hard to criticize. But it is not what English soccer has come to expect, not what it has been told over and over again is the aim of the exercise, and so it was deemed a sign of cowardice, of parsimony, of the willing acceptance of mediocrity, proof to many that what you really need, now, is an autocrat to cheer.

Australia’s last experience at the Women’s World Cup was underwhelming. The country entered the 2019 tournament in France with high hopes, a growing reputation and the best striker in the world. Sam Kerr did her part, scoring five goals in four games. The rest was an anticlimax. Australia departed in the round of 16, beaten on penalties by Norway.

Perhaps that has tempered expectations for this year’s edition, looming ever larger on the horizon. Australia has the advantage of being a co-host, alongside New Zealand, but its name has been conspicuously absent whenever favorites are discussed. The United States? Of course. England? The coming thing. Spain, France, Germany? Noteworthy all. But the Australians: distinctly low-key.

On Tuesday night, though, Tony Gustavsson’s Australia offered a little reminder that it plans to do rather more than host a party this summer/Antipodean winter.

England had not lost in 30 games, it had won the European Championship and then, last week, the historic and deeply prestigious finalissima, against Brazil, which is precisely the sort of event England takes seriously in victory only. England will be a force at the World Cup. And Australia dispatched Sarina Wiegman’s team with poise and precision.

Kerr remains, of course, the spearhead: If anything, the Chelsea striker is a more fearsome prospect now than she was four years ago. But there is a noteworthy supporting cast, too, a clinical streak, and what Wiegman herself admitted was an admirable discipline. Add the intangibles — the fervor of the local support, a sense of a disappointment four years ago to address — and Australia should be taken seriously.

Lionel Messi’s forthcoming dilemma elicited a considerable array of responses, but one reaction was conspicuous by its absence: sympathy.

“I can’t buy the narrative of ‘Poor Messi,’” wrote Pete Mumola. “He has to decide whether or not to take a $400 million salary, an equity stake in a Major League Soccer club or try to make an underperforming side of superstars achieve a European title. This is beyond first-world problems.”

Ken Roy was similarly matter-of-fact. “He is rich beyond the wildest dreams of his many fans,” he pointed out. If Messi was so devastated at leaving Barcelona in the first place, “he could have easily taken a token payment. Does he, his father, or any rational human being think that $400 million-a-year would in any way improve his life?”

I am not entirely sure this last charge is correct, as it happens: Barcelona’s mistake was letting his contract run down in the first place. When it came to re-sign, my understanding is that he could not have been registered regardless of the amount he was being paid. (That changed later in the summer.) The point, though, is valid. Messi does not have to limit his options to who can meet his salary demands.

Which brings us to a note from Paulo Coelho, who we are presuming is not that one. “You could also mention one (unlikely) option,” he wrote. “The return to his boyhood club, Newell’s Old Boys. But as you say, this is for business, not love.” Going back to Newell’s has always, I will confess, been my preferred coda to Messi’s career. I remain hopeful it will happen. It may just not be yet.

On another subject, Ben Myers wonders if the general chaos in the Premier League — managers dropping like flies, relegation-threatened Aston Villa now sixth, and so forth — ought to be traced to Qatar. “I think the turmoil comes from the World Cup,” he wrote. “The Premier League has been impacted more than other leagues simply because it had so many World Cup participants.”

It has not really been remarked upon enough how strange the Premier League table has been for much of the season. It is not normal to have eight teams embroiled in the fight against relegation. It is not usual to see three of the traditional Big Six™ locked in such enduring mediocrity, and it is not common to see their would-be usurpers last so long into the campaign. The fall World Cup must be a part of that. The dismissals, though, are probably just a corrective: Things have been relatively calm for managers for a year or so. That tends to be followed by a storm.