It is not remotely original to say that 2020 cannot end soon enough. Most of us have experienced the greatest collective disruption of our lives. Many of us have lost loved ones. Some have lost their livelihoods. We know better than to believe that just because the earth made another (imperfect) revolution around the sun, it is unlikely that anything will change significantly at midnight. But that makes no sense for a renewal that brings a change in the calendar less real.
By the time you are reading this, football is a part of your life no matter how big or small you choose to play it. And that means it also brings with it desires for something better and better. I’ve shared mine below as I’ve been lucky enough to do this every December for the past seven years.
Roll on 2021 …
Wishes from: 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014
1. That we should think about the forced suspension of play in the spring – and the persistent absence of followers for most reasons – and use it as a guide. What did we miss What is important? What is less important? Professional football is a relentless, commercially run 24/7 operation that lies somewhere between collective spirituality and fleeting entertainment. It’s not set in stone. We – or at least the institutions at the top – can shape the future.
2. That the legacy of players feeling empowered enough to take a knee and other forms of protest not be dispelled over time. That was and is systemic racism; Others may be about the environment, human rights abuses, whatever. Players have a platform. It’s a privilege and a responsibility at the same time. Let them feel empowered to use it when they see fit.
3. Euro 2020 will even take place in 2021. Also (if necessary) in a different form, in different places, with different formats. I miss international soccer tournaments. For many of us, they defined every other summer for our entire lives.
4. The new FIFA regulations on agents and transfers are approved and, just as important, applied consistently and with integrity. Agents and intermediaries serve an important purpose, but they and the clubs they empower should not be allowed to operate in the dark and without regulation.
5. That we get clear rules about who can own a club and under what conditions and that decisions are quick and transparent. No more nonsense where Newcastle’s takeover bid was pursued by the Premier League for months without explanation.
6. While we’re at it, let’s start a conversation about what owners can and can’t do. On the “can’t-do list” I would include things like irresponsible accumulation of debt, taking out cash for your own purposes, total obligation to intermediaries and generally poor administrators. A club is ultimately the heart of a community. Whether it’s a community of a few thousand supporters on a provincial team or a few hundred million around the world, that has to come first.
7. That the biggest single decision in the next 12 to 18 months – the reform of the international game calendar – will not be guided by greed, power games or a handful of selfish clubs. The year 2024 is the witch’s hour, when the FIFA calendar, which regulates practically all aspects of club, international and youth football, has to be agreed and the stakes are huge. We could see more games, we could see Champions League games on weekends, and international games were relegated to a single window every year. Everything is in the game, and these reforms will determine how the game plays out for the next decade.
Sid Lowe opens up on Lionel Messi’s latest comments on his future at Barcelona
8. That all the renegade talk in the European Super League will be talk unless it’s based on something other than greed. We have been playing European games on a pyramid structure for more than 120 years with ascent and descent between the different levels. It worked remarkably well too. If we want to talk about building the game even further and making it more sustainable, that’s fine. But if – as it seems lately – it is primarily driven by the greed of some clubs and the need of other clubs for new income after spending too much or suffering economic damage due to the pandemic, no thanks .
9. That fans and the media – especially those focused on big clubs and big leagues – not ridicule and ignore the UEFA European Conference, which starts this summerthan just another great joke. One of the side effects of flexing the big leagues has been to displace the rest of football and make sure the Champions League is filled with clubs from the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga and Ligue 1. This competition gives others a chance to play.
10. While it’s great that rich people from Asia and North America (and the companies that control them) put money into Europe’s elite clubs, at least for the clubs themselves, we’re creating the right conditions for them to be local and actually investing in the rest of the world. Otherwise we always have an uneven playing field.
11. The world outside of Europe and South America realizing what worked there doesn’t have to be what works elsewhere to best develop the game. UEFA and CONMEBOL have a lead of 100 years (or more). Maybe the discussion about LigaMX and Major League Soccer makes sense. Perhaps the Gulf States, where there is a lot of money, could use their own regional league. Perhaps the idea of a Pan-African League isn’t that far-fetched. Let’s be open-minded. It’s not a one size fits all.
12. That the concussion protocol is taken seriously. That means temporary substitutions and independent evaluations on the pitch side. It won’t be until then.
13. That we at least examine the possibility of making the five-substitution rule permanent. If you look at the rankings in France, Germany, Italy and Spain – where they were adopted in contrast to England – the doomsday scenario doesn’t seem to have fully materialized over bigger, wealthier clubs that dominate, right?
14. That Lionel Messi stays in Barcelona. Yes, it is a personal wish. Sorry, but I love the idea of a legend spending his entire career in a club.
15. That Barcelona are making themselves a club that Messi is worth staying at. This could take a little more work, given the dumpster fire they’re in – some self-inflicted, others out of control – but there are elections to come. Believe it or not, Barcelona fans have gone through far worse times and not only survived but thrived. They will be back and hopefully fast enough for Messi to stay here.
Matteo Bonetti collapses what went wrong for Juventus in the 3-0 loss to Fiorentina.
16. That Cristiano Ronaldo defies gravity and reinvents himself. We first defined him as a whip-swift winger who unleashes a whup ace with an intoxicating array of tricks. One of his most important steps now is the Jordanian wait at his header post.
17. That Juventus fans and critics understand the need for what they are going through this season with Andrea Pirlo at the helm. The attacking football, the belief in young players, the high line, the counterpressure, the possession game … yes, it’s a groundbreaking philosophical change. And maybe Pirlo doesn’t have the tools to deliver it on his first senior outing. But someone had to do it because their previous model wasn’t sustainable in the modern game. And even if he fails, it will make his successor’s job a lot easier.
18. That Eden Hazard stays fit. Not so much for Real Madrid’s sake – they’ll find a way without him – but for his sake and for all of us who loved his mazy, down to earth runs and eyes-the-back-of-the-head awareness and precise results. (Oh, and because Belgium should be among the favorites for the newly planned Euro 2021.)
19. Even if Marcus Rashford does not develop into the world’s greatest superstar his precocious success suggests, everyone will remember what they have achieved in public life as a caring, selfless person. Inspiring others by taking a public stand is not for everyone, and they do it with passion and dignity. For all we can say, he’s a better person than a soccer player. And that’s kudos.
20. That people realize that Marcelo Bielsa is playing the way he does because he believes it is the best way to win. He’s not on a philosophical mission to entertain, he doesn’t like giving away cheap goals and he really believes that this is the best way for him to get the most out of his players at Leeds United. And guess what? It works and it’s fun. The next guy to call him naive gets a boot in his head. Bielsa knows what he’s doing.
21. That this generation of young American talent – Giovanni Reyna, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and others – continue to promote sport as a whole in the United States. Why? So one day we can laugh at that old joke: “Football is the sport of the future in America … and always will be.”
22. That Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira find a place to play when their contracts expire next June. Both joined Real Madrid a decade ago. Both were closed for most of 2020, partly because of their huge contracts and because they couldn’t move on (and didn’t want to take a wage cut). I don’t want to remember these two world champions who train alone as sad sackcloths while being labeled as greedy.
23. That Kai Havertz finds a place at Chelsea, even if it takes time. Especially when you see him in person, you realize what a unique talent he is. But it is also far from easy to accommodate him at this stage of his development. He is young. Be patient.
24. That Jürgen Klopp sees his contract with Liverpool. Yes, he has already delivered the Premier League and the Champions League. Yes, he built a team that is back at the top of the league. So if someone calls, few would disapprove of them, despite the fact that they are committed to the club by 2024. But what he does is very special and the Premier League is richer for having him with them.
25. That Manchester United find their mojo, with or without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It is true that it was good for other clubs to emerge after the hegemony of the Sir Alex Ferguson era. But it’s been a long time since United ruled, and what is most confusing is the sense of constant drift that has been around since then. Managers have come and gone, but the decision-makers above them have remained the same. And yet it still doesn’t feel like they’re building on anything. It can’t all be up to the manager.
Manchester United are second in the Premier League. Is that because of or despite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?
26. That Paul Pogba will regain his smile, be it in Old Trafford or elsewhere. The panditocracy – mostly ex-pros, mostly ex-players of the “golden era” of the United States who damnedly love to keep everyone by (or believe they set) the standard they set – seems to enjoy it immensely have to point out each of his mistakes. He’s not perfect, but he’s extremely talented and fun to watch. And that word “lazy” gets tossed around way too much when it comes to Pogba.
27. That all three top-class free agents in Milan – Gianluigi Donnarumma, Hakan Calhanoglu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – stay after their contracts expire in June … But when it gets too expensive, there is no question who you prioritize. (It is Donnarumma, by far the youngest of the three.) All three played a major role in Milan’s renaissance as well Scudetto Challenge this season, but none of them are essential. The system that was built and the young players who came on board … This is What will Milan drive in the future?
28. That Neymar stays fit and stays productive. I feel like I say this every year. He’s not in the Messi / Ronaldo conversation and never will be. But I also don’t want a man’s ability to be outdone by the next generation – the Erling Haaland / Kylian Mbappe cohort.
29. That Borussia Dortmund hold this crew together for a while and give them the leadership they need to be successful. As the “smartest guys in the room” you got a lot of pats on your back to put together this impressive corps of young talent: Jadon Sancho, Haaland, Reyna, Jude Bellingham and now Youssoufa Moukoko. They also honestly admit that they can’t keep them long term. OKAY. So sacrifice one, get a trainer who can get the best out of them and convince them to win something big – something really big – before they are resold.
30. That children who fall in love with the sport are primarily given the opportunity to support their local club before jumping on the big juggernaut / club train, simply because it is relentlessly pumped onto their screens. Yes, this was cut and pasted from last year, but worth repeating. And it is the only desire that we have the most control over.