19 March 2009

RE : 10 Things That Could Change Football As We Know It

10 Things That Could Change Football As We Know It

"1. The 6+5 rule
This is basically Sepp Blatter’s idea for reshaping football. Every team’s first XI must consist of at least six domestic players (eg English players in an English Premier League team) and no more than five non-domestic players. Arsene Wenger probably has nightmares about this.
Famously, it breaks about a thousand European Union labour laws, and the European Club Association isn’t keen either. So UEFA’s proposal for a minimum number of “homegrown players” (ie players from the clubs youth system) seems a lot more realistic."

I'm for it. Or at least, I'm for the principle.

Since the Bosman ruling, player movement has increased phenomenally, and combined with certain policies (the FA's 60-minute rule being one) seem to pose problems for youth development in top european leagues. But I don't think that the 6+5 is really the best solution. After all, Barcelona have a great youth setup but when they won the CL in 2006 they didn't have 6 Spanish players. The 6+5 would mean that above average players from "rich" nations (England, Spain, Italy...) would be able to earn more money than better players from "poor" nations (Poland, Tunisia, Brazil...). I don't have any particular distaste for John O'Shea, but I'd find it pretty ridiculous if Arsenal, Man U, Liverpool and Chelsea were offering him bigger paychecks than Arshavin or Riera just because he's English.

An even more absurd problem of this would be players being pressurised into choosing for who they play. Drogba could have played for France or Ivory Coast. If there was a 6+5, no doubt he'd have been pushed pretty hard by the french clubs he was playing for then to declare for France so that he wouldn't cost an extra "foreign" slot. In the UK, how would cases like Ryan Giggs be solved? Or Darren Fletcher? I don't think it's in football's best interest for players from Africa, South America or Eastern Europe to have to choose between fulfilling their dream of playing for their country and fulfilling their dream of playing in the best clubs in the world. It could even lead to pretty scary contracts that trainees would have to sign that prevents them from declaring for another country than the one the club is from until they're 20 or they leave the club... Whilst the prospect of Ryan Giggs playing for England is pleasing for Englishmen, I doubt the Welsh are very enthusiastic. Worse even, players who are not going to be eligible to play for the country the club is in could see training centres closed for them. As people travel more and more, I wouldn't be surprised to see cases like Peter Odemwingie's become more frequent, and the 6+5 wouldn't ease the problem. Odemwingie was born in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) to a Nigerian father and a Soviet (now Russian) mother. He could have declared for any of Uzbekistan, Nigeria or Russia. Why should his carreer be affected because he chose Nigeria and not Russia? In an even more perverse twist, would any clubs have been interested in Lionel Messi, a 13 year old "foreigner" with growth problems that might never even come close to fulfulling the talent he has? Perhaps Barça would, but they might have been more interested in bringing in a Spanish 13 year old instead, even if he wasn't as good.

Why not have a system that's an expansion of UEFA's current "homegrown" criteria where teams have to field 2-3 "club-trained" players and 6-7 "federation-trained" players? Players with 10 "points" in a club are considered "club-trained", players with 10 "points" in a federation are considered "federation-trained", and the player is automatically "federation-trained" for the country he declares for : 5 points per year until 16, 4 points for 17 and 18, 3 points for 19, 20 and 21, 2 points for 22, 23, 24 and 25, 1 point beyond. A Portuguese-born kid that happens to move with his parents when he's 5 to Madrid and trains with Atletico when he's 13, 14, 15 and 16 before being cut from Atletico's rooster because he's not good enough. However, Montpellier (France) sign him. At Montpellier he's changed to a central defender and he's brilliant. At 18 he signs for Nice and recieves a first call-up to the Portugual side. By the time he's 20, he has spent 4 years training in France, so he's a "federation-trained" player, but he is also "federation-trained" in Spain and Portugal. It's not a perfect system, but I think it's a good compromise between the 6+5 that means that despite having played for Man U and lived in England since he was a pre-teen Ryan Giggs is a "foreigner" and the current non-national system that tends to encourage clubs to sign players from the whole world.

"2. No transfers for Under-18s
Michel Platini has proposed a plan to raise the minimum age at which a player can be transferred between European clubs from 16 to 18.
This would also mean European clubs couldn’t buy players from outside Europe who are under 18. Combine this with the above homegrown player rule and we’re looking at a massive shake up."

Whilst the principle of defending youth from being exploited is a noble endeavour, I'm not sure this is really in the right direction for players or clubs. Fabregas wasn't forced into moving when he was 16 from sunny Catalonia to rainy London, but did it because he felt he wouldn't have the possibility to break into the first team if he stayed in Barcelona. Piqué moved to Manchester for the same reason. Banning transfers for U-18s wouldn't have made their situation better. It would just have meant that Barça could continue not giving them first team experience without being scared that they might miss out on a gem, because they would have two more years to filter the good from the bad. Similarly, how would a ban preventing Barça from taking on Lionel Messi have influenced world football?

"3. Video technology
The technology exists for instant video replays to help referees make decisions. There just isn’t the will to use it. Some say it would slow the game down, others say it could be done quickly and correctly. Personally, I think it’s weird that everyone watching a game on TV gets to see a replay and the ref doesn’t."

I'm against video technology more for ethical reasons than practical reasons.

Firstly, most of the video replays are highly inaccurate or uncallable. Player X was offside by half a foot? Onside by a quarter of an inch? Only because of the precise frame used. One frame earlier and the offside players are onside, and one frame later the onside players are offside. Not only do most football commentators not know the offside rule (the cahiers du football regularly point out mistakes made by French TV), but they even ignore far more basic rules. Recently, I was watching a Bundesliga game (I think, it might have been Ligue 1) on TV5Monde, and the commentator (an ex-player) commented at one moment that he was surprised that the referee didn't call obstruction on defenders shielding the ball out of play, whilst if the player did the same thing in the middle of the pitch it would be signalled imediately. His co-commentator (I don't think he had anything to do with football) instantly seconded him, and suggested that it was something that was illegal but is "accepted" due to years and years of bad refereeing. The actual rule states that "protecting" the ball isn't a foul, and as long as the ball is within playing distance, a player may shield it with his body (except for arms). These commentators might like to look at pretty much any dribble to see that shilding the ball with the attacker's body from the defender is perfectly normal, no matter where on the pitch. Hell, some moves like the Cruijff turn are pretty much 50% shielding the ball with your body. Sure, putting a referee in charge of videos instead of some ill-educated and boisterous people would make for more "normal" decisions, but they wouldn't quell the controversy. How many times per game do opposing fans not agree, even with multiple video replays? Did he dive? Was he pulled down? Was it in the box? Since I'm French I'll just pull out one of the more remarkable "uncallable" events I can think of : last year's Coupe de la Ligue final. 91st minute, the score's tied 1-1, a long ball is sent downfield by PSG. Lens' defence is beaten, and Luyindula runs onto it. His first touch isn't great, and Hilton is catching on him. Just as they enter the box, Hilton puts his hand briefly on Luyindula's shoulder and he knee seems to catch Luyindula's leg. Luyindula falls. Penalty. The commentators on the night were enraged, saying that it's completely impossible to give a penalty so late in the game, that it was a dive, and whatnot. But the next day's papers were pretty much 50-50. Half thought it was a deceitful and disgusting dive, the other half thought that it was an ill-timed challenge. No matter what the video ref had chosen, he'd have been accused of being partial.

That's the second problem I have. When a ref has to call something he sees once in hardely optimal conditions (perhaps he has a second opinion if it's close enough for his assistant) and he has to call it -now-, he might make mistakes, but it's difficult to accuse him of being biased. Once the ref can look at the event from multiple angles, in slow-mo, and whatnot, any mistake becomes intentional bias. Instead of ranting about refereeing mistakes, fans will rant about referees favoring one side over another intentionally. Think that'll do any good to the reputation of referees? Instead of titles like "Ronaldo dupes ref with dive to win a penalty", think of "Ref ignores Ronaldo dive, awards penalty". Is that what Respect is about?

Thirdly, video refereeing is exceedingly limited on a technological basis. A few angles (not always very good), limited quality, limited frame-rate (this is mainly for offsides)... Brazil-Norway in the 1998 World Cup saw controversy arise when the referee gave a penalty on a seemingly innocuous challenge in the box, amidst huge protest on behalf of the Brazilian players. Only a few days after the game did a Swedish photographer publish his pictures of the incident, from a different angle that showed the Brazilian pulling the Norwegian striker's shirt, something that was almost impossible to see on the TV angles.

Fourthly, video is not in the spirit of the game. People talk about Rugby, Tennis or Cricket to point out that video technology is great, and yet avoid mentioning that in all three it is far from acceped as a universal balm. At Wimbledon in the 2007 finals, Federer looked mighty surprised as a number of "Hawk-eye" judgements fell inside the court by 1mm... Even though the margin of error is 3.6mm. I don't think Federer is some kind of cyborg superhuman, but after seeing millions of balls bounce just in or just out of the line, as well as being pretty close to the bounce, I don't think it's absurd to think that some of the time he might have been right. In Rugby, you can debate time after time with an England or South Africa fan the dissallowed England try in the 2007 Rugby World Cup final, and no matter how many times you watch the video, it's far from being clear, and video refereeing just increased the controversy. Cricket? Pretty much every test has a couple of LBW calls that aren't accepted by all. But unlike these sports, I like football when it's more of a flowing sport, with fewer breaks for the video ref to re-watch a couple of times the replay and make his opinion. What's more, video technology is only a solution for a couple of leagues, and will further increase the distance between the top few leagues and the rest of the world.

I must admit that I don't see any particular need for a change in refereeing, but should there be a change, I'd go for the 5-referee solution, even if it means that leagues need to find ways to make more people become referees.

"4. Premier League money meltdown
The Prem’s income is gargantuan. But then so is it’s bill. Clubs are falling over each other to outspend the opposition, which could end badly. The end of the Premier League as the global megabrand that its is would definitely shake up the status quo.
The Bundesliga business model (eg clubs instead of PLCs) seems a lot more sensible. As do the ticket prices. They are the tortoise to the Premier League/La Liga/Serie A hare. And with the Bundesliga revenues steadily rising, the league is in prime position to be the new hot ticket for big name players, should anything happen to the big three."

I don't really have an opinion on this. Things change over time. In the 60s Spain was the Knees bees, then the Netherlands and Germany became the place to be, before England took center stage. Then France, Italy and Spain took their turn. England has it sweet now, but anybody that thinks it'll last forever is delusional.

"5. Co-ed football
It’s nearly happened a couple of times. Perugia tried to sign Swedish striker Hanna Ljungberg back in 2003, while Maribel Dominguez came close to signing for Mexican second-division side Celaya in late 2004. And then there was Marta nearly but not quite turning out for Oldham in a pre-season friendly recently.
FIFA aren’t keen, and have ruled that “There must be a clear separation between men’s and women’s football,” with “no exceptions.” (Maybe there’s not enough money in it?) But never say never."

For this.

"6. European Super League
The rumours of Europe’s top clubs abandoning domestic leagues to form a breakaway league of superman and supermoney just will not die. If it ever happens, it will be a bizarre mixture of fascinating and disgusting to watch. And domestic football in the most popular leagues will be drastically reshaped. For example, imagine a Premier League where Aston Villa, Everton and co fight for the Premier League title while Man Utd, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea are playing with their new friends."

Unfeasable. How would Chelsea, Man U, Inter or any major club keep their huge fanbase when they’re nothing more than a mid-table team? Sure, it can be the best league ever, but lots of people follow those teams because they win games, end of story. All the clubs that are potential founders of this “super-league” know that they need to have a podium finish each season. Either in the league, or a cup, or the Champion’s League. Finishing 16th in a super-league would be a disaster for them, no matter how “super” this league is.

"7. Salary/Spending cap
As suggested by AC Milan chief exec Adriano Galliani today. He’s suggesting a US sports style hard salary cap, where all teams have the same predetermined limit on the amount that can be spent on wages.
The alternative plan is to limit club spending to a percentage of club income and prevent teams spending a sugar daddy’s money/spending themselves into oblivion."

Whilst I can see the interest fans of small clubs have in this, but I find that it would make winning much less of an exploit. If Rennes recieved as much money as Lyon to make up their squad, although I'd be happy if we won the league, I'd feel like we cheated and didn't "earn" our win. Clubs like Lyon are showing that the established order isn't forever, and a well-managed club can raise from obscurity to being one of the best. Sure, it's not a 3-season job, but that makes it all the nicer. Climing a hill is a nice achievement, but climbing the Everest is, IMO much more awe-inspiring.

A "turnover percentage" is more understandable in my eyes, but again, I don't find it particularly nescessary. With the exception of a few clubs (Chelsea in particular) most leagues see the teams at the bottom spend a higher percentage of their revenues in player salaries. Man U pay less than WBA, for instance. Why? Because although Man U pay a huge amount more in salaries, they also get a huge more amount through marketing. For such a measure to have any effect (except on rare cases like Chelsea), it would have to be at a level that penalises lower clubs more than top clubs. Thus likely having the paradoxical effect of making the leagues even more predictible, since the teams with the biggest market shares would be able to outspend every other club regardless of actual on-pitch performances.

"8. A big money non-European league
Right now, all the football money and power is focused in Europe. But it doesn’t have to be that way forever. And I’d argue that - don’t laugh - the USA could one day become a destination. Not many Europeans have much respect for MLS right now, but for a 14 year old league they’re not doing too badly. There’s still a potentially massive market in North America just waiting to be cracked, and if that happens… we could finally see a footballing destination outside of Europe. Just don’t hold your breath…"

Wouldn’t China have a better long-term chance of being that “big-money non-European league”? Not only is China going to be the economic superpower of tomorrow, but football is becoming more and more popular there, and it’s already on par with gymnastics and table tennis, despite these two being long-term domestic favorites… Add to that the fact that South Korea and Japan also have decent leagues and a strong rivalry with China, and I think you can make a case for the Chinese league progressing very, very quickly. The only setback is that right now the chinese league is crap (much worse than the MLS). But in 5-10 years, as more and more kids that grew up liking football come into the picture, there’s no reason why it won’t grow quickly, especially without sports like US Football, Basketball, Hockey and Baseball also competing for the talent.

"9. The internet
It’s already happening, slowly but surely. Even if certain leagues [cough - Premier League - cough] are slow to embrace it. But imagine if one day you were able to watch any football match from anywhere in the world via the magic of computers, for either a modest monthly subscription or on an affordable (99c per game?) PPV basis. I can almost hear the TV revenues crashing now."

I'm praying one day this will happen. Not only to be able to buy a stream to watch a game, but also download a video of a past game at an affordable price. Will it kill TV? Perhaps. But it's definately the way forwards.

"10. The end of international friendlies
The club vs country battle is almost over. And clubs have definitely won. Big players pull out of friendlies with imaginary thigh strains, and teams like Brazil rarely play a friendly in Brazil because there’s more money to be made elsewhere. If friendlies disappeared to be replaced by simple meetups and training sessions, that would be a loss for football fans. But if we could replace friendlies with some sort of world league or a series of regional leagues, then maybe we could re-introduce some competitiveness to international dates."

I might be a pathetic softie, but I like international friendlies. What I don't like is how many games international squads have to play. I understand that you need to play a certain number of games to qualify for the various international competitions, but sometimes I wonder if international friendlies are used by coaches for anything. Domenech seems to just roll out the same team every time, regardless of what happened, and not actually use friendlies to -prepare- for opponents. Sure, you can argue that your first choice team needs to know each other, but don't you schedule 2-3 friendlies just before the tournament in that case? What's the point of a friendly in the 2 months that follow an international tournament? Try out players to replace the ones that retired? I find it's a bit of a stretch. If FIFA cut 2-4 international dates from the current calendar, I'd be happy that a balance can be found. Perhaps grouping the international dates together in a kind of "international month" (April? October?June-July) would also be a solution. The problem is just that clubs don't want to release their key players for a friendly that's hundreds of miles away some 80 hours before an important match. And with reasonable concern : they pay the player's salaries. I'm also in favor of a kind of "international insurance" that pays the salary of any player injured on international duty for the dury of his injury. It's not a perfect solution, but it would ease the relationship between clubs and countries, IMO.