What happened to the conversation about the future of soccer?

I thrust my cell-phone beneath my daughter's nose to show her the English League One (tier three) standings. "Look! Lincoln City are equal top!" The fate of my hometown team has never, in truth, been of huge interest to her. She examined the screen for a few seconds before pointing out in a voice that mixed pity with irritation, "Dad, they've only played two games.”

A middle-aged man is entitled to dream, isn't he? Especially at that time of the season when standings are distorted and bear an unfamiliar look. Among the top five teams in the Premier League are Everton, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, all boasting perfect records and six points each. How magnificent it would be if those teams were still in contention for the title next spring. In France, Paris St. Germain are stuck in mid-table after four games. In Germany ...

In Germany, Bayern Munich is already top after one game, having crushed Schalke 04 by eight goals to zero in Friday's curtain-raiser. You won't find a single pundit in Germany, or anywhere else for that matter, who'll tip anyone besides the Bavarians to lift a ninth consecutive title next May. The only doubt to that outcome depends on Borussia Dortmund showing more consistency than in previous years. No one else was seriously considered to be in with a shout before a ball was even kicked.

An editorial this week in the bi-weekly kicker magazine celebrated how wonderful Bayern are to watch right now, and warned other Bundesliga clubs from expressing envy at the team's "horrendous financial superiority," much of it born of Bayern's own success. Schalke, the magazine observed, had in recent times also had the opportunity to be as big as the Bavarians, but they'd messed it up.

There's some truth to that point of view. It's hardly Bayern's concern that some of their rivals have been financially mismanaged and made poor choices in terms of players and coaching staff. Focusing on Schalke as an example, though, ignores the entire structure of soccer in the country that Bayern relies on as much as everyone else in the German game. With COVID-19 stats soaring back upward across much of western Europe, that structure will be severely endangered by a second lockdown and a renewed suspension of the professional game. That applies for England, France, Spain and Italy, too.

It was magnificent to hear even a limited number of spectators back in most of the Bundesliga stadiums at the weekend. The noise of the crowd is really the only thing that makes soccer on TV worth watching. I still find it almost impossible to watch the Premier League when it's sound-tracked by nothing more than the echo of the ball and the yells from the bench. Yet with COVID-19 numbers rising again and slated to worsen with the advent of colder weather, it's hard to see a way back for full stadiums in the coming months. In the Bundesliga, both Bayern and Cologne were ordered by local authorities at the last minute to play before empty stands at the weekend due to a rise in the number of regional cases. It would be no surprise if such measures are enforced again across the whole league during the coming weeks or months.

That might bring us back to the conversation that was taking place last spring when the 2019-20 season was first suspended. In case you've forgotten, that conversation was: how can soccer survive this pandemic? Its focus was on a fairer distribution of the insane wealth and wages at the top of the game, to the benefit of the vast majority of those struggling at the bottom. Then play resumed and the conversation switched to how cool it was to see the Champions League played as a tournament (despite there being no one in the stadiums to watch it), why Lionel Messi won't leave Barcelona because no one can else afford to either buy him or to pay him, and how awesome Bayern Munich is right now.

Another story largely flew under the radar last week, perhaps not surprising given the ongoing newsreel of pandemics, environmental apocalypse and the upcoming U.S. election. Paris St. Germain's star ego Neymar has left Nike after 15 years and signed up with Puma instead. The deal is reported to be worth $30 million a year to the player. "It's fantastic that Neymar has become part of the Puma family," gushed the firm's CEO Bjorn Gulden. "He's one of the best players in the world and has an unbelievable influence on global soccer and youth culture. We're very excited and looking forward to working with him both on and off the field."

Look, I don't (much) blame Neymar and his parasitic agent for following the cash. It's what they do. Puma, on the other hand, could have better spent that colossal $30 million a year by investing it in the sponsorship of, say, women's professional leagues. That, however, would have been much less of a commercial influence "on global soccer and youth culture" than Neymar's latest hairstyle splashed across the billboards. And commercial influence is, despite the lip service major corporations are obliged to pay these days to make it look like they care about human rights, the only influence that interests a company like Puma.

I'm realistic about Lincoln City's prospects of promotion to the Championship, which would leave it just one more successful season away from the Premier League. Six points from two games is nice, of course. If this season can even be completed, though, I'll just be happy if they and all the other teams in their division still exist at all.

2 comments about "What happened to the conversation about the future of soccer?".
  1. R2 Dad, September 22, 2020 at 3:34 p.m.

    You've picked a tough row to hoe, Ian. I'd have to choose Salford to get to the EPL before Lincoln City.
    As far as the future of soccer goes, are we supposed to get the res-scheduled Euros 6 months or 18 months before the WC? Either way, WC qualification is going to be a mess.
    What about the women's game? A year after France the wind seems to have been taken out of their sails. Where is the convenient streaming package that allows me to watch their matches?
    RE: Neymar, who really cares about the endorsements? What's the ROI on it? Is Puma really going to get an extra $20-30M in earnings as a result? Doubt it, especially with the pandemic for the next 6-18 months laying waste to the leagues and youth game.
    Lastly, no love for RB Leipzig? Came in 3rd, and if they can add Jovic in the next couple of weeks they could challenge in the spring, no?

  2. Ian Plenderleith, September 24, 2020 at 3:21 a.m.

    I have no more love for RB Leipzig than any other soccer fan in Germany. Although clubs in the east (former GDR) got shafted after German re-unification (and thus a strong club in Leipzig is in theory a desirable thing), the way they 'franchised' their way in to the league system and trampled on the 50+1 rule to exclude fan voices in running their club makes them a tough club to feel any affection for. I'd rather see even Bayern as Meister again.  

    Good questions on Puma/Neymar financial returns and the impact of COVID-19 on the women's game - all that should be part of the conversation we already seem to be tired of having (but mention not playing the US anthem before MLS games, and the furious responses quickly pile up...). And the way things look right now in Europe, it's hard to see the European Championships going ahead with spectators, or even taking place at all (why bother if there are no fans?). Fair distribution of wealth is as huge an issue in soccer as it is in society, but we seem to be terrified of tackling it for reasons I don't entirely understand. As with climate change and the destruction of the environment, we'll likely react only when it's way too late.   

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