'˜This mini-World Cup is a wafer-thin mint. Football is bound to explode'
This is you right now and this is me. We are football fans who love the sport. Except we are full to bursting. There are too many games already and they are all on TV. Watching all of them, never leaving the sofa, is like being fed pie after pie after pie after pie and not even the occasional Waspburger, Alloa Athletic’s signature matchday snack and a favourite of this column, could relieve the monotony of something we love being almost ruined by stupidity and greed.
And then Fifa president Gianni Infantino sidles up to our La-Z-Boys. The loafing seats are surrounded by the detritus of real and metaphorical pies (unopened sauce sachets, unread tournament guides, unhung wall-charts – the latter so cherished when there was less football and it was more special). He ignores all this rubbish and, despite supposedly being football’s great protector, the rebuffer of stupidity and greed, he says: “New mini-World Cup, every two years?” This is football’s waffer-theen meent and it could blow up the game.
Infantino’s grand plan is there should be a smaller version of the World Cup for international teams running every two years. Not instead of the World Cup – don’t be daft – but taking place every odd year beginning in 2021. So let’s recap: World Cup, European Championship, Copa America, African Nations Cup, with Infantino’s “Final 8” joining the mix. The Confederations Cup would be abolished under the plan but this seems the only acknowledgement that footballers might drop dead from exhaustion or we’ll simply stop watching.
The “8” refers to the number of participating teams but it’s the “Final” which worries me. This could be football’s final act when you remember that Infantino has already expanded the actual World Cup (it increases from 32 teams to 48 from 2026) and – gadzooks – take into account that he is also keen on a revamped Club World Cup (24 teams every four years to rival the Champions League).
How much football do you watch? How much more do you want to watch? Infantino is frankly being infantile if he thinks we have a limitless capacity for clunky graphics, repetitious, self-evident punditry, betting adverts, rude managers trying to belittle interviewers and the stuff in between which happens for 90 minutes out on the grass. Putting Scottish football to one side, which we can access free of all this guff by watching games in the raw, we rely on TV to show us the game as it’s played elsewhere. We are not insular, we’re interested in other football cultures, and anyway we’re in no position to claim we don’t have to be interested because the best is happening right here. So take England, the world-famous Premier League and the showcase that is Match of the Day. Remember how you used to watch it right to the end, right to Stoke City/West Bromwich Albion/Cloggy United? OK, some of these teams are on first right now because they’ve finally achieved relevance through being relegation-threatened, but you get my drift. Once upon a time you watched it all and then you watched until the last handful of games… and now? I might fast-forward to check on Andy Robertson’s high-presses (this is not being parochial) and Pep Guardiola’s smart-alicky sneering and whether this will be the week post-match when Jose Mourinho’s eyes go dead just before he explodes in front of the sponsors’ plywood and all that’s left of him is a coat that indeed came from Matalan. But the rest will go unviewed and be deleted by Monday. No offence, Premier League, but I don’t have the time any more and I certainly don’t have the interest. You are not solely to blame for this dulling and denuding of my football love but your screeching self-aggrandisement hasn’t helped.
Take the Champions League. Admittedly my long-held view that it’s got so turgid you’re no longer sure if these scented Euro-stars are playing competitive matches or they’ve met in Paris or Milan simply to shoot a designer watch ad has taken a bit of a kicking this season. Manchester City’s money won’t win the competition and neither will PSG’s. The rarefied air of the private members club which usually supplies the semi-finals has been shattered by the radges of Roma and Liverpool performing a prog-rock symphony, packing in goals like notes on a mellotron. Even Real Madrid have been playing in their pants, and possibly on LSD, in an attempt to stop us thinking they own the tournament. All that said, the Champions League is usually too big and too boring and the expansionism which had warped it will surely do the same to the 48-team World Cup.
The prospect of the mini-World Cup on top of that must make the top footballers shudder. There are only so many limited-edition timepieces one can own and we cannot expect the main guys to dance for us at yet more showpiece events when they’ve already played upwards of 50 games in any given season. Players such as Chile’s Alexis Sanchez are not robots. We cannot command them, “Alexis, do your thing, be perpetual motion, then crash one off the bar”, just because Infantino thinks it’s a good idea.
Not for the first time on this page, I summon the spirit of the Glenbuck Cherrypickers. I don’t think any glamour games were kept off TV in Scotland because Bill Shankly’s fabled club might have lost fans from their hardcore of 15 but there was a principle at work that over-exposure would harm the product. I don’t remember us asking for all this football. Any more of it and the sport really will eat itself.