The Future of Football

Football's going to keep getting uglier, and you're going to keep falling more deeply in love with it.

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21 January 2013, 2:03pm

When I was a callow eight-year-old, there was no need to wonder about the future of football, the present was exciting enough. I watched my then-lovable team QPR beat clubs with better players and nicer kits at the Subbuteo stadium that is Loftus Road, and football was the most thrilling thing in the world. It remains so for any child lucky enough to witness hundreds of furious, swearing men release a fortnight’s worth of compressed rage in the direction of 22 other men.

The first time I remember thinking about how it might change was after reading this in the 1993 Roy of the Rovers annual. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at Roy (tragically maimed later that year in a helicopter crash) and his forecasts of games played on the moon and the emergence of ultra-futuristic players like Geoff Lineker. But he got some predictions right:

“A ball cannot be kicked across the middle third – without being touched by a player.” Former Barcelona manager and Bayern Munich chief-in-waiting Pep Guardiola has this pinned up in every room of his New York penthouse.

“The South Pole Bears, whose home will be the temperature-controlled Ice Pavilion – five miles north of the South Pole!” The World Cup of 2022 is being held in Qatar, a decision FIFA took despite the fact it would seem to necessitate an entire nation being air conditioned for a month.

“Great Britain won their second European Championship in a row after beating Iberia (formerly Spain and Portugal) in the final at the 200,000-seater 'Race Mega-Stadium' in Manchester.” A united Great Britain team has already happened. Admittedly, the European Championship wins, Iberian super-state and gigantic Manchester stadium with a name that has disturbing overtones of eugenics have not.


A computer mock-up of Doha Port Stadium in Doha, Qatar, where the World Cup will be played in 2022

This seminal piece of futurology also failed to foresee the increasing dreariness of modern football. When the goals and the LOLz stop, there’s a creeping sense that the sport is becoming more bland, more sanitised and more predictable. The future, if things carry on in the same vein, is depressing.

Football features the same small rotating cast at the top, occasionally interrupted by irrelevant teams like Birmingham City, Greece or Liverpool flashing inside their pans of mediocrity. There is the numbing perpetual motion machine of the players’ wealth, normalising the idea of top, top players earning £100,000 a week, and slightly more mediocre players earning enough to at least use it as bog roll. And then there is Alan Shearer.

It’s a miserable state of affairs, which isn’t helped by the increasing number of clubs attempting to model themselves on Barcelona. Assumed to be the best team to ever play the game, Barça have practically perfected a style of play predicated on hogging the ball like a gifted but maddening child in the playground; you know the one, the kid with the most expensive boots and no real friends.

Barcelona’s position as the bearers of The One True Football Philosophy means that players in all positions are increasingly expected to be able keep the ball wherever possible. The resulting style is often spectacular but oddly unsatisfying, like playing FIFA 13 on the easiest difficulty setting. For its opponents, there is bad news. The future looks like Barcelona, only more so.


Spain and Barcelona's Andrés Iniesta infuriating six Croatian players at once

Michael Cox runs the website Zonal Marking and is one of about three people who writes about football tactics on the internet who is worth listening to. “Football will become more technical, based more around passing,” he says. “For as long as the rules continue to adjust to penalise heavy tackling, it will increasingly impact on the style of football.

"Barcelona and Spain have been talked about so much that there's bound to be some level of backlash. Because there's been such an emphasis on copying them, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a brief period of the antithesis of that, where teams become physical and maybe focus on counter-attacking more. But I think that will be a fairly short-term thing. The wider consensus will still move towards passing football.

“It's almost like a race to the bottom. If one manager is outwitted by another by being more cagey and defensive, then he has to react in the same way. I guess that's why the goals per game average over the last 60 years has generally come further and further down.”

Cox’s vision of the future will sound disturbing to anyone who's been bored by the never-ending passing of Swansea City in the past few seasons or seen this Simpsons episode.

We can look forward to a generation of smaller, more technically able players and games less about joyously random blood and thunder, more cautious brinkmanship and carefully planned patterns designed to slowly unlock defences. Awesome.

Lionel Messi is the new optimum, so it’s likely the future’s best players will be shorter and more sinewy than ever before. Messi’s game is based around a centre of gravity so low that he’s completely impossible to knock down. If this is the new ideal, it may result in the gradual erasure of physiological outliers like Peter Crouch or, more worryingly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who have succeeded at the top-level almost in spite of their unusually proportioned bodies. A great shame.

The new, more standoffish football would appear to suit the more technically minded women’s game. The sport is making impressive strides in participation rates but is hampered, in this country at least, by an indifferent public. It strikes me that it needs a concerted marketing job to distinguish it as a viable alternative to men’s football, the combined might of Saatchi & Saatchi, Mother and Don Draper could probably do it, but it will probably end up with Barry Hearn.


Anzhi fans with a massive banner featuring players Samuel Eto'o (left) and Roberto Carlos (right) with manager Guus Hiddink (centre)

At least there should be some disturbance to the top echelons of the men’s game to look forward to. China and Russia are two nations effectively setting fire to their money by throwing it at football. Anzhi Makhachkala, the Russian club that sounds like a Eurodance holiday hit, have tempted fading superstars Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos to their team, paying Eto’o an estimated £364,583 per week. Shanghai Shenhua managed to convince Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba that the Chinese Super League is the place to be. Some astronomical sums of money may also have been involved in those deals.

While money clearly buys you players that were excellent in 2006, it may not lead to total sporting dominance. Writer and broadcaster Luke Moore is a quarter of the Football Ramble, the leading independent football podcast: "They've spent the money in the wrong way,” he says. “Players need more than just a high wage. The reason Didier Drogba wants to come back from China is that he's not getting the training, the coaching and the facilities that he's used to.”

One area in which football is enthusiastic in touting its progression is how it's presented on television. As high definition becomes the norm, we’re able to witness referees producing cards in more lurid colour than previously imaginable. Once Ultra HD, four times as clear as existing HD, takes hold, then, well, I hope we’ll have reached HD Zen, because I can’t bear to live in a world where so many people are trying to fix a problem that hasn’t existed since TV went colour and we could finally tell Forest from Wolves. Despite technological “leaps”, though, punditry on TV lags behind. Much mainstream coverage remains cliché ridden rubbish spoken by big sacks full of rubbish.

"The overall standard of football coverage will be raised as soon as the people who make the big decisions at the top of companies are young enough or generationally equipped to understand the internet,” says Moore. “That's why Match of the Day has stagnated and Sky aren't great at what they do online. They just don't really understand it. Long-term, the people who have grown up watching Match of the Day – to put it bluntly – will be dead. So you can't always rely on the philosophy that ‘This is the way it's always been so this is the way it'll always be.’”

One company gamely trying to take the sport forward is Opta, data analysts who specialise in examining football. Its data collectors track every single incident of every top-level game, a job that sounds similar to but marginally more depressing than a stenographer’s at a coroner’s court. Opta’s stats are catnip for clubs signing players and allow the company to offer a real-life version of the player search on Football Manager that can narrow down transfer targets. Although it can also lead to signing Charlie Adam.

“Data allows you to find out about players without ever having watched them,” says Opta’s marketing coordinator Simon Farrant. “You can watch the players you want to watch and avoid watching those whose agents have sent through a YouTube clip showing all of his great goals and skills but none of the times he’s missed open goals.”

There are technological innovations on the horizon that will make work like Opta’s more cogent. One reasonably exciting development is Adidas’ MiCoach, which uses a chip implanted in players’ boots to track their movements on the pitch, and even which part of their foot they’ve used to kick the ball. Number-crunching like this is likely to become increasingly popular among those attempting to build and run successful teams, especially those who saw Moneyball and think that a game as chaotic as football can be reduced to an algebraic equation to be untangled with mileage stats and pass completion ratios.


Brad Pitt (centre left) with Billy Beane (left), the stats-obsessed baseball coach Moneyball is based upon

Farrant is not Brad Pitt, and reckons that football’s equivalent may not exist. “We’re in a period of alchemy at the moment, in which people are constantly claiming to come up with something revolutionary within analytics. It’s an arms race, with people trying to discover the perfect model. I don’t think that model exists, personally. But I do think that the more research we do, the more we can figure out what’s important in each situation.”

Opta and its sector is growing, like football as a whole. The seemingly inexorable rise in the sport’s popularity, profitability and domination of the discourse will surely be followed by a horrendous slump, right? We’ve all read the lyrics to Stereolab’s "Ping Pong", we’re all secretly sick of football and one day we'll turn our back on it and embrace something less repugnant, right? Right?

The Guardian’s senior sports writer Barney Ronay thinks not. “We’re always doing market research at The Guardian and it always says the same thing: we just want more football.” More? “We think there’s lots of football, but we want more, just more, there’s never enough. It’s like this endless weeping sore. People just cannot get enough of this rubbish. And even though they say they don’t want it, the stats from the web suggest they do. It’s like this terrible drug.”

The natural riposte is that football’s distasteful, disgraceful shows of wealth will surely become off-putting in straitened economic conditions. Wrong again, says Ronay: “There’s an interesting idea that, even though you’re supposed to get sickened by football and its excesses as the economy collapses, people need to feel outraged about something to feel fascinated by it. Football is now that thing. It’s a bit like the serfs gossiping about the nobles in feudal Britain. Or the people below stairs in Gosford Park. They despise the people above them, but they just can’t stop talking about them. Football is this horrible itch that will never go away.”

I ask Ronay what he thinks the next must-have accessory will be for Premier League players: “A slave? A butler? That seems to be the natural progression. Football has absolutely no self-awareness at all. It’s basically run by idiots and often watched and played by idiots. It’s an industry with no conscience at all at the top. Even though people try – and there are some good people in football who care about its poor, quivering, tainted soul – they’re not often in charge.”


Wayne Rooney and his (no joke) diamond-encrusted motorbike

The vague hope on the horizon for those of us who are seduced by football, but aware that there is something deeply wrong with it, is Financial Fair Play. Brought to you by UEFA, which is in charge of European football, FFP is a set of regulations designed to prevent clubs from spending more than they earn. Good luck with that, UEFA. Journalist David Conn has written a number of books about football’s commercial boom, Richer Than God his latest. “There aren’t exactly loopholes to FFP, but there are exemptions that make the headline requirement that clubs break even a bit more nuanced,” Conn says. “Even Manchester City, who lost £98 million in their last set of accounts, could get through on exemptions. But if a major club that qualified for the Champions League didn’t comply with FFP, would UEFA have the nerve or the inclination to ban them?”

That may as well be a rhetorical question, because UEFA almost certainly won’t. The Champions League makes around £1.12 billion every season for UEFA and the clubs that take part. Banning a top-level team affects that bottom line, and UEFA is the same organisation that has decided to extend the European Championships, a near-perfect international tournament in its current 16-team incarnation, to a drawn-out version that will include 24 from 2016. Why? Money. Delicious money. Delicious, embarrassing, destructive money.

“This is a conversation that people at the top of, for example, the Premier League find quite boring, quite misguided,” says Conn. “They wouldn’t know why you’re bleating, they’d say it’s the most successful league in the world with some of the greatest players and it earns money for the country.”

The future of football is here and it’s irredeemably awash with endless, senseless cash. It’s the last days of Rome, if Romulus Augustus wore Beats by Dre. Except it’s forever. And it’s only going to get worse in some ways. But then, looking at Messi, Ronaldo, Wilshere, Neuer, Falcao, Bale, Cavani, Suarez and all those other talented, billionaire dickheads, perhaps it also looks as though it's going to get better. 

Follow Thom on Twitter: @thomgibbs

Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.

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