2020 has been a year which most of us will be glad to see the back of. At the dawning of 2021, Oli Coates outlines some of the things we’d like to see to make the beautiful game even more attractive than ever.
1. Real, tangible change
Barely a week seems to go by without another issue of racism, prejudice or perceived shortages of education. From black players regularly receiving racist abuse from the stands and on social media to Millwall fans booing their team taking the knee, and the controversy in the Champions League fixture between Istanbul Basaksehir and Paris Saint-Germain, it’s sickening to see these kinds of things in 2020. We hope for real, significant change in 2021. It has to start with authorities like UEFA and FIFA getting tougher with sanctions, but education and inclusion of minorities at club board level and players’ unions are also necessary.
2. Full stadiums
Talk about not knowing what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. For many football fans around the world, being starved of seeing our teams live has been like missing a limb. Even watching games on TV feels hollow and empty, either with the canned crowd noise or eerie silence punctuated by shouts from players, managers and coaches. While amateur players will have been pleased to hear the pros using the same fond shouts as them, such as ‘away’ and ‘get out’, stadiums getting back to full capacity and bouncing under the weight of supporters cannot come soon enough. As former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby said, “football is nothing without fans.” Full stadiums are a paradise which we hope will never be paved with parking lots ever again.
3. The handball farce sorted out
Whatever happened to the concept of hand-to-ball and ball-to-hand? VAR should make spotting obvious handballs far easier, but it’s just made it worse. Almost any touch of the ball with the arm is now a penalty, allowing players to effectively hit and hope for the best when in or around the box. That’s not what the handball rule or indeed the game should be about. It simply has to change, and fast. It’s almost as if some of the referees, officials and administrators making up the laws and implementing VAR have never even played the game…
4. The offside farce sorted out
For many, the straw that broke the camel’s back was seeing Patrick Bamford’s goal against Crystal Palace in the Premier League ruled out for offside. The Leeds United striker’s whole body is onside apart from an outstretched arm, with the goal ruled out because Bamford points to where he wants the ball playing. This sleeve and armpit nonsense has to stop. There are so many problems with these tight offside calls, including the width of the lines used to make decisions, pinpointing the exact moment the ball’s played and the frame-rate of cameras. The pure, unadulterated joy of celebrating a goal has been taken away while officials frantically check for a way they can rule it out.
5. Can we just sort out VAR in general?
On the subject of VAR, it’s just a mess, isn’t it? One of the issues is the officials in charge of it seem bound to flag up offences which they’d probably let go if they were referring the game out on the pitch themselves. Then the match referee gets a slow motion replay where everything looks worse than it is. Directives appear to change from week to week, consistency is completely lacking from game to game, and most of us are totally fed up with it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a player who actually likes VAR, so why don’t we listen to them and just get rid of it altogether? Pretty please!
6. Agents buttoning it
Partisan feelings aside, if the sight of Mino Raiola declaring Paul Pogba’s Manchester United career done and dusted on the eve of arguably their biggest game of the season doesn’t make you despair about the role of agents in football, you must be one yourself. Or you should’ve been. Agents speaking out to the press in blatant attempts to engineer moves and subsequent pay-outs for themselves is a serious issue which needs to be addressed. From Dimitry Seluk poisoning Yaya Toure’s time at Manchester City to Raiola reportedly pocketing more than £40m from Pogba’s move to United, would it be so difficult for these people profiting from the talent of others to maintain a measure of decorum while they go about their business?
7. A happy Messi
What a sad, sad situation this has become. And as Elton John would say, it’s only getting more and more absurd. One of the greatest players of all time, seeing Lionel Messi’s time at Barcelona descend into acrimony has been tough to take. Now 33, we should be celebrating this little genius while we can, not second guessing whether he truly wants to leave the club he patently loves due to issues with board members and feeling like he always gets the blame for any of Barca’s problems. Messi appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, so if it takes a move away from the Nou Camp to release him and see the joy return to his game, it can’t come quickly enough.
8. The abandonment of immediacy
Speaking of Messi, the Argentine falls within this gripe too. Messi or Ronaldo? Messi or Maradona? Maradona or Pele? Football has an issue with immediacy exemplified by the need for people to endlessly argue over who is the best, or greatest, of a certain generation or indeed in history. Can’t we just enjoy what we have when we have it? And can’t we allow players time to develop and managers to imprint their vision on their team and club? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tenure at Manchester United is a prime example, with #OleIn and #OleOut trending from one half of football to the next. Debate is great, hysteria is boring.