Some players have been lucky enough of the chance to rest and recharge, but others will hurtle straight from World Cup qualifiers into the Easter weekend.
For the last 12 months, very few things in life have been perfect and moaning about the quality of football when we are lucky to have any would be crassly insensitive. Those of us who get our kicks from watching football should count our blessings.
But this season has been an important reminder that less can sometimes be more. Whether it is actually heeded is another thing altogether.
For years, the approach across all sports seems to be overkill – cricketers hopping from one bio-secure bubble to another, new tournaments constantly added to the golf and tennis circuits, Formula 1 grands prix coming out of our ears.
More games or races equals more television money, equals end of discussion. Football has been as bad, if not worse.
With some fans likely to be allowed into most, possibly all the stadia, this summer’s delayed European Championships should be a real celebration of football, a joy to be a part of. It would be a surprise, though, if the football was that great.
The world’s leading players have been flogged to death since resuming last season in June 2020. The pre-season was shorter, and this campaign started later but finishes at the same time. The leagues are the same size and but for the odd FA Cup replay or very occasionally a two-legged tie being played over one – though not, ridiculously, when both legs of European knockout rounds have been on neutral territory – so are the cups. Incredibly, the Nations League actually got bigger.
It might mean some of this summer’s best performers are those who have not featured much this season – perhaps players like Jesse Lingard, out of favour for the first half, or those who make it back from long injuries in time to be back into a rhythm by June 11. When it comes to mainstays at clubs that have gone deep in domestic cups and Europe – you know, the world’s best players – we may have to temper expectations.
In the summer where they most need a rest, they face a European Championships swollen from 16 teams to 24 four years ago to pack in 20 extra games. Next year, the authorities will have to work out how to fit a winter World Cup into the schedule, due to be the last before it expands again from 32 teams to 48.
Having every game on television or the internet has been important for those loyalists unable to cheer their team on in person, but also a reminder of why it is best to be selective about how many games we broadcast.
When even people as ‘sad’ as me, locked in our homes, choose not to watch a football match, we must have hit overkill.
Not everyone is being run into the ground.
Whilst Rotherham United squeeze their final 12 games of the season across an unreasonable 36 days – Doncaster Rovers ‘only’ have 11, but will hope for three play-offs after that – Leeds United’s last 13 are spread over 85 days. Their non-internationals can have no complaints about this last part of their schedule, but might wonder why December to February was so condensed.
Football has a chance to do something about it, but the worry is greed will be make things worse.
This week, Uefa was expected to vote through a new, expanded Champions League format featuring an extra 100 games. The assumption was it would be waved through despite opposition from big leagues such as the Premier League and smaller ones whose clubs risk being squeezed out by a format based less on meritocracy, more on history.
Opposition has grown enough to delay the vote until mid-April.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. The joy of the Champions League and more so its predecessor, the European Cup, was the novelty of teams facing opponents they would not normally. Making it next to impossible for the continental giants – that is, the giants when the music stops today, not necessarily when the matches are played – to not qualify will only increase over-familiarity.
We do not want ‘elite’ competitions where the best players are rested because they are too knackered to do themselves justice and top careers are cut short. Much better to have fewer games where the elite go hammer and tong, attacking at speed, pressing with fury, not sitting back because the tank is almost empty.
Those extra Champions League dates will have to come from somewhere, which means future Premier League teams not in Europe and knocked out of the cups – and the League Cup may have to go completely – like Leeds now will play even less frequently so the rest can play too much.
The TV companies and clubs would be better for matches that are events people want to watch rather than overloading us with diluted games. The sooner they realise, the better.
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