You will have been aware of the recent game between Liverpool and Manchester United. Won’t you ever. The hype will have seen to that. Liverpool coach Juergen Klopp told us, “The whole world will be watching.” Last time these two teams played, the global TV audience was estimated to be as high as 700 million. I’m not sure it gets much higher than that, unless you can persuade half the world’s population to stay awake until the early hours.
Well, there was absolutely no fear of anyone, anywhere in the world, staying awake during Monday’s game. It was appalling. Even the English press, usually rather good at excusing poor Premier League games, turned on this one.
The Sun found it drab.
The Daily Mail asked, “Has there been a worse game between these fabled clubs? What was beyond dispute was the lamentable quality of this game.”
For the Guardian it was “a wretched game of football and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It was pure filth.”
Indeed it was. Total crap. And I feel quite justified in doubling up on that motif. It was crapissimo.
England’s Telegraph blamed ManU coach Mourinho for the debacle. Mourinho with his negative tactics, “parking the bus,” “Mourinho the spoiler, Mourinho the party pooper.”
True. Up to a point. But Mourinho’s contribution should not be over-rated. He was, after all, not doing anything that was not within the rules.
A sport-wide view is necessary. Consider: Within the past year we have had four of the most important games in the soccer schedule: the finals of the Copa America, of Euro 2016, of the Olympic Games, and of the UEFA Champions League. Adding in the 2014 World Cup final gives us all five of the sport’s top finals. Games bedecked with massive hype and equally massive ticket prices.
And what did we get in those games? We got boredom. Turgid, dull soccer, with goals at a premium. Just six goals, averaging slightly more than one per game, which is worse than it sounds because three of those finals lurched on into overtime -- another 90 minutes of ennui.
Three of the games, these marquee, show-case games featuring so many of the world’s top players, had to be “decided” by the farce of a shootout.
My point being that the Liverpool-ManU game was merely another example of what has become almost a guarantee -- that soccer’s top games will be over-hyped and over-priced ... and lousy. I don’t see how Mourinho can be held responsible for all of that.
Over-hyped and over-priced -- we need look no further than the marketing geniuses to account for those blemishes. Marketing is about maximizing profits, hence the high prices. And hype is a favorite marketing ploy with a dictionary definition of “making something seem more exciting or important than it is.”
Those marketing activities, which can be grouped under the general heading of “Greed” ought not to affect the actual playing of the game on the field. But they do. That is, they have been allowed to. The shootout survives, even flourishes, because it simplifies the sport almost to the point of stupidity, does away with most of the sport’s skills, but can be pumped full of synthetic drama. No tiresome midfield play, no dribbling, no heading, no tactics, just shots on goal and in five minutes we have a winner!
No real soccer person likes the shootout. But as a sound-bite version of the sport it is something that appeals to the shallow marketing mind. So it stays. Something that soccer authorities should never have allowed. But those authorities are not watching soccer any more. They’re lined up with the marketeers, learning how to make money.
Those authorities, not Mourinho and like-minded coaches, are the ones responsible for the sport’s alarming inability to look good on the crucial occasions. Marketing money has made these games super-important. Too much is at stake. They must not be lost. So caution and negative play take over. The soccer authorities -- which must mean FIFA, IFAB and UEFA -- have done absolutely nothing to counter the trend. They have simply ignored it. Apparently it doesn’t matter to them that goalscoring continues to dwindle that defensive tactics and mindsets dominate the sport.
Does it have to be that way? Is there some sort of natural inevitability to the way the sport has been going for the past three or four decades? Of course not. The sport’s rules are man-made, they can be changed quite easily. If any of those authorities would, first of all announce that they don’t like the way the sport is developing, and then determine to do something about it, changes would be made.
It is really quite extraordinary that no concerted effort is being made to get the best out of the sport. How can the people at FIFA and UEFA and IFAB be satisfied with the way their big games are regularly turning out to be dreadful duds?
Does no one think to ask why that should be?
What is required is a rule shakeup that would start with the abandonment of the long-established refereeing bias of favoring defensive teams when contentious calls are made. That needs to be completely turned around, with the advantage being always given to the attacking team.
The attacking mindset then needs to be applied to the rules, to make sure that not only careless and reckless tackling is punished, but simply poor tackling, too. Tackling, no doubt, is a skill, but a difficult one -- one that needs practice, but how do you practice tackling? Really, only in scrimmages and games.
But the difficulty in making clean tackles should not be used as an excuse for what happens so often in the modern game, the mis-timed and the clumsy tackle.
The change in attitude and the new refereeing severity needed to compel defenders to learn their craft properly, will not be welcomed by everyone. Referees will be bear the brunt of the inevitable criticism and hostility. A shame, as the problem is not their fault. It is the result of the decades during which the sport’s so-called leaders have simply been asleep on the job, and have allowed off-the-field soccer to fall under the sway of the money-mad marketeers, and on-the-field soccer to be dominated by anti-soccer defensive mindsets.
No, getting out from under those two incubi is not going to be easy, but the effort must surely be made. Without falling into idyllic visions of sunshine bathing a new and transformed sport, I would say that what is required is for FIFA and UEFA to demonstrate clearly that it is they who control the marketeers and not the other way around, and for IFAB to commit to a revised set of rules that will root out the traditional pro-defense bias, and will include rules that make “parking the bus” if not impossible, then certainly a losing proposition.