There’s an old dictum in politics to never let a crisis go to waste. Winston Churchill is believed to have said it first, of course. This idea drips with cynicism, but it’s nonetheless true that major turmoil leads to change and reform.
The biggest disruption to soccer since the second world war provides a similar kind of window of opportunity. This coronavirus-induced pause that’s run more than a month in most countries and is bound to go at least another – if not much longer, as the Dutch Eredivisie has already canceled play until September 1 – has forced a complete reassessment of the calendar.
The various leagues are eager to finish up the 2019-20 season, somehow, even as that prospect becomes more improbable by the day. After all, not finishing the season unlooses a cascade of consequences they’d all sooner avoid. Leagues could find themselves in breach of television contracts that stipulate a certain number of games. They’ll miss matchday income. Solutions will have to be found to complicated problems like who gets berths in continental competitions, who gets promoted, who gets relegated, all of which is ripe for legal action that could drag on for years. And there will be asterisks placed behind league titles three decades in the making (*cough* Liverpool).
To somehow salvage what they can, a willingness to rethink everything has taken hold. Some ideas even go so far as to stagger the next few seasons all the way through the November-December World Cup in 2022, since Euro 2020 has already been put off by a year.
Sacred cows are being tipped over left and right, and that gives soccer the chance to enact systemic change.
And here’s what it should change: the number of games.
As in, fewer of them. Waaay fewer.
For decades, soccer’s solution to everything has been to add more games, create new tournaments, stuff that calendar with just one more event, and then another, and perhaps another. No matter how much players were getting injured, in spite of some fairly miraculous sports science developments, more games. Always more games. The increase in games was the primary driver in revenue growth once the obvious gains in commercial business had been exhausted. That revenue became an imperative of the transfer arms race among the mega-clubs. This, in turn, incentivized the creation of more games. It was soccer’s vicious cycle, its circular logic.
But that congestion of games hasn’t necessarily served the sport well. It’s led to the era of large squads rotating, to teams downgrading domestic league cups to something to be contested by the reserves, to super-teams like Liverpool even bagging the hallowed FA Cup. And when some of those big clubs are running away with their leagues, it’s not uncommon for them to essentially field one team in Europe and another, lesser one for their domestic matches.
More soccer has not equaled better soccer.
So with this opportunity to remake the sport, why not trim it, give it a good paring down, edit the fat out of it until only the essence of it remains?
Cut the number of games. Eliminate uninteresting tournaments. (Will the rebooted, 32-team Club World Cup really be any more compelling than the old one, comprehensively dominated by whoever the champion of Europe was that time around? Unlikely.)
Perhaps reduce the size of some leagues – from 20 teams to 18, or from 18 to 16. It solves the Premier League’s winter break problem. And it even allows for more days off before big European games. And while we’re on the subject of those: Make the Champions League shorter, not longer. Cut down the Europa League. And for goodness sake, we don’t need the second-tier Europa League planned to kick off in the 2021-22 season.