2021 Looking Ahead: Football is back, but concerns remain

There are growing concerns over whether the increasing rate of infection would force associations to hit the pause button again, which would bring about another logistical nightmare in the new year.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin won a record-extending fifth Women’s Champions League title.   -  AP

Reporter: “What’s the reason behind leaving out Ryan Fredericks?”

David Moyes: “Covid.”

The West Ham United boss’ brief reply, before the first football game of the New Year, was a sign of the times in the world of football.

In what was a gloomy 2020, few instances provided renewed optimism for the football fan in you. Roy Keane still hates players displaying emotions on the pitch after a derby game, Arsenal fans returned to the stadium just in time to boo their team again, question marks were raised over pointless international friendlies, and Sam Allardyce was called up to pull another team caught in a relegation battle.

But positive Covid-19 tests remain prevalent across leagues, and stadiums are closed for fans again. Also controversy is never far off. Neymar quashed reports of him hosting a five-day-long New Year’s eve party with 500 people as he ended up hosting a private party with around 50 guests in Brazil. There are growing concerns over whether the increasing rate of infection would force associations to hit the pause button again, which would bring about another logistical nightmare in the new year. The most recent round of testing in the Premier League saw a record number of positive cases, indicating a “circuit breaker” might be the need of the hour.

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The year gone by can be summed in one image: Liverpool ending its 30-year wait for a top-flight English league title in an empty Anfield stadium, isolated from its supporters, who stood outside the gates of the venue, unable to revel in their team’s success. Football’s resumption after the Covid-19 break has resembled something akin to glorified training games with no fans to add to the spectacle.

While sports came to a standstill, players – both past and present – as well as managers utilised football as a vehicle to bring positive social change, with England’s Marcus Rashford at the forefront with his fight against child food poverty. The 23-year-old Manchester United forward made the British government overturn its stance twice in the space of six months and provide free meals to vulnerable children. Football also took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign and the fight against racism.

The Champions League and Europa League knockout stages were held in first-of-their-kind bio-secure venues across Portugal and Germany where Bayern Munich and Sevilla, respectively, triumphed. Hansi Flick’s Bayern flexed its muscles on its way to a second treble.

A decade on from firing AC Milan to its 18th Scudetto, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 39, is again the fulcrum in its bid for another Serie A title.   -  Getty Images

 

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin won a record-extending fifth Women’s Champions League title. After having led VFL Wolfsburg into the final, Denmark’s Pernille Halder completed a move to Chelsea for a fee reported to be in the region of £350,000, a world-record fee in the women’s game, in the summer. The Women’s Super League was the preferred destination for the top stars, and last year’s World Cup winners from the United States Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis were among the biggest names to make the switch across the Atlantic.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic was felt during the summer transfer window, where the top five leagues across Europe spent a cumulative £2 billion less than the 2019 summer. The Premier League was the only one that managed to breach $1 billion mark (£1.49 billion), while the rest of the leagues took a significant hit. In the Premier League in 2019, there were five deals that crossed the £50 million mark, whereas last year there were just three instances, with two high-profile transfers from Chelsea coming on the back of the club’s two-window transfer ban.

The football world mourned the loss of one of its greatest performers and icons after the passing of Diego Maradona. Fans drove onto the streets across Argentina and the city of Naples in Italy, where Maradona had a successful seven-year spell at Napoli, to pay tribute to their hero. Another legend and World Cup winner, Paolo Rossi, and Indian football stalwarts P. K. Banerjee and Chuni Goswami, too, were among the departed.

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The international calendar that took the biggest hit from the break in football. The European Championship, the Copa America and the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers were postponed to 2021. Brazil’s men’s team will have the opportunity to defend its gold medal at the postponed summer Olympics in Tokyo, while the US women’s team will likely start as the favourite for a record-extending sixth gold. The feasibility of conducting Euro 2020 across an unprecedented 12 cities for 24 teams in the prevailing circumstances raises concerns. UEFA, however, remains confident of persisting with this format. There will likely be better clarity on the status of the tournament’s format based on the scale of the vaccine rollout.

There are fears over the safe completion of the World Cup qualifiers, where players will have to travel across the globe in the middle of the pandemic to decide the 32 teams for the finals in Qatar in 2022. A first-ever winter World Cup in December allows for the qualifiers and playoffs to be completed in March and June of 2022. The CONMEBOL qualifiers began on October 2020 and will run until March 2022 to play out the 18 rounds of fixtures, including matches scheduled for January and February of 2022.

While France, Spain, Germany and Italy opted to continue with the five-substitution rule, which was introduced at the restart, into the new season, English clubs are at loggerheads over the advantage it would provide financially rich sides.

Concerns remain over player burnout due to the short turnover from the previous season to the current one and the fixture congestion to complete the ongoing campaign in time. Managers have repeatedly voiced their discontent that the welfare of the players is being overlooked, and some of those at top clubs, including Jurgen Klopp, Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, have been locked in battles on the pitch with opponents and off the pitch with broadcasters over the alleged short shrift they’ve been given with the scheduling.

In what is a compressed season, the scheduled finishes in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France are slated for the weekend of May 22-23. With the club-football season culminating with the Champions League final on May 29 – assuming all the fixtures are played out before the end of May – it leaves just a 12-day turnover period before the beginning of Euro 2020.

This could be the year when Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain’s dominant hold over their respective leagues could finally come to an end. The makeup of the Premier League table from the first half of the season shows it could be the most unpredictable one in years. While Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Klopp’s Liverpool have dominated the league in the last three seasons, they have struggled to impose their high-energy, quick-passing style of football post the lockdown.

Liverpool’s tally of 33 points from 17 games is the lowest for a table-topper at this stage of the season since 2000-01. Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic approach of defending in numbers and using fast runners to hit on the break has seemingly found relevance again, with City and Liverpool struggling to impose themselves. Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur has an outside chance of winning the league if it can manage to keep key men Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane fit for the rest of the season. Solskjaer’s Manchester United, too, has some of the best pacey attacking talents in the league and is among the contenders for the title.

And 2021 could likely be the beginning of the end of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s duopoly over the Ballon d’Or. It was a mixed year for the duo with Ronaldo testing positive for the virus twice and Messi ending trophy-less for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Can Ronaldo, who is approaching 36, continue to put up the numbers he is known to produce? Messi’s Barcelona was humiliated 2-8 in the Champions League semifinals, which proved a catalyst for his transfer request in the summer. He made a U-turn on his decision to stay and won the war against Joseph Bartmoeu, who resigned from the role as the club’s president.

While sports came to a standstill, players — both past and present — as well as managers utilised football as a vehicle to bring positive social change, with England’s Marcus Rashford at the forefront with his fight against child food poverty. The 23-year-old Manchester United forward made the British government overturn its stance twice in the space of six months and provide free meals to vulnerable children.   -  AP

 

But there are also concerns over the direction in which Barcelona is being run on the pitch. The club’s identity appears far removed from the times of Guardiola between 2008-2012 and Luis Enrique between 2014 and 2017. It has faced repeated humiliations in the Champions League knockout stages and Messi had repeatedly made public his desire to win the trophy again.

With six months left on his contract, Messi is now free to negotiate a move away from his boyhood club. Can the likes of Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain tempt the Argentine away in a bid to fulfil their own Champions League ambitions? It is a big year for Messi because it also provides another opportunity to taste international success with his country for the first time at the Copa America.

In a year in which the Ballon d’Or was scrapped, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski’s goal-scoring exploits earned him the FIFA best men’s player award. Among the next generation of superstars, Kylian Mbappe (22 years old) and Erling Haaland (20) are well placed to challenge for individual honours with their impressive performances, while the latter’s club teammate Jadon Sancho (20) has seemingly hit a brick wall from the fallout of his failed move to Manchester United in the summer. At the other end of the spectrum, a decade on from firing AC Milan to its 18th Scudetto, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 39, is once again its fulcrum in its bid for another Serie A title.

US star Megan Rapinoe called for more investment in the women’s game after admitting to being surprised at her inclusion in the FIFPro World’s XI despite not having played since March. “The fact that I was selected once again sheds light on the fact that in order to push the game forward, we need continued investment in the women’s game to give more female players the opportunity to be seen on TV in their home countries and globally,” said Rapinoe, a two-time World Cup winner.

Closer home, FIFA took the decision to postpone the Under-17 Women’s World Cup to the new year before deeming it impossible to hold the tournament in February and March due to the prevailing situation. India was awarded the hosting rights for the 2022 edition.

Moments of 2020  

The Indian Super League (ISL), being conducted as a closed-door tournament in Goa, has had a largely incident-free return to competition, paving the way for other top-level sports in the country. The biggest takeaway for Indian football was the introduction of Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to the ISL, leaving the I-League poorer for it. But the expected fillip from the two clubs’ arrival to the ISL will likely be felt when the supporters are back in the stands.

FC Goa will embark on a journey no Indian club has never taken before when it features in the group stages of the 2021 AFC Champions League. India will also have strong representatives in the AFC Cup as well in the form of Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC. The 3+1 foreign player rule will come into effect, first in the I-League, and will be implemented in the ISL from the 2021-22 season onwards.

While India’s second-division I-League is set to begin in January, there is still no clarity on the status of the female counterparts’ top-tier football competition – the Indian Women’s League. Last year, the league was held in Bengaluru with several 2pm kickoffs in February. While the All India Football Federation is hoping to conduct the IWL in May, one hopes the women get a better deal in the wake of the pandemic.