Football had a plan. Qualification for the 2022 World Cup would wrap up by March of that year, with the draw a month later and the tournament itself kicking off on Nov. 21, 2022, in Qatar. Then came the global pandemic and, with it, the scrambling, adjusting and, above all, negotiating between the two souls of the sport: the club game and the international game.
The two sides are united against a common enemy, the coronavirus, but are also mindful of their own share of a global football pie that is smaller than it once was. And only two confederations (UEFA and Africa) have a chance at determining World Cup qualifiers by the originally planned date. The other four (CONCACAF in North America, CONMEBOL in South America, AFC in Asia and OFC in Oceania) have, to different degrees, already been derailed by COVID-19.
– 2022 World Cup: How qualifying works around the world
– UEFA Nations League 2020-21: What you need to know
FIFA president Gianni Infantino was optimistic last month, pointing out that the positive aspect of a winter World Cup is that football has a little more flexibility. It still means cramming World Cup qualifying, the Nations League, Euro 2020 (in 2021), the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Africa Cup of Nations, the Olympic football tournament and Copa America in the next 25 months within the delicate footballing compromise that is the FIFA International Match Calendar. All while we hope the pandemic doesn’t wreak more havoc on the world.
Last week, FIFA amended its rules regarding the release of players for international duty for the rest of 2020. Whereas teams were previously forced to release players during international breaks, it’s been made optional until the new year, provided there is a travel restriction with mandatory quarantine in either the club’s location or the national team’s destination and no “sporting exemption” is granted by national governments.
This isn’t a huge issue within Europe, since countries are generally quick to provide exemptions and travel is rarely more than a couple of hours. Yet it’s a much bigger issue in other parts of the world, such as in South America, Africa or Asia, where the bulk of a country’s national team is often based abroad.
There are two sides to this. One is player welfare, particularly with a hyper-congested match calendar. Clubs don’t enjoy releasing players at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Stuffing them onto planes to send them halfway around the world, where medical protocols may or may not be as stringently followed as they are back “home,” keeps them up at night. Throw in the fact that with ever-changing government guidelines around the world as infection rates rise and fall, there’s the risk of mandatory quarantine when they get home. That might be another two weeks of unavailability, plus training time lost, which in turn means they might not be match-fit and available again until early November — just in time to jet off for the next international break.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Predict results in ESPN’s English Soccer Pick ‘Em!
The above is why representatives of Europe’s top leagues and clubs, as well as FIFPro, the players’ union, met with FIFA last month to hammer out a deal. Professionals from Asia, Africa and South America routinely face multiple intercontinental trips every fall: between international and Champions League travel, Lionel Messi (for example) is set to play games in Spain, Argentina, Bolivia (at altitude), Italy, Peru and Ukraine — all in the next six-and-a-half weeks.
The other aspect, while a bit crude, is nevertheless legitimate: clubs pay the players’ wages and yet, every so often, they have to give them up for international duty without much in the way of compensation. Sending them off for high-risk activities can seem needless or unfair, particularly when cash is tight and the economic effects of missing European football or being relegated because you lost players to the after-effects of international duty are magnified.
Then there’s the obvious flip side: international football. It’s easy to forget these days as we drooled over the Champions League draw, the return of Europe’s big domestic tournaments and the final hours of the transfer window, but for most of the world, the national team is where it’s at, particularly during a World Cup qualifying cycle.
The fact of the matter is that many national teams haven’t played a competitive game in the past year, and there is very little wiggle room in terms of the International Match Calendar.
There are two dates in September 2022 and another two in October 2022, and they’ve been allocated to regional competitions. In a pinch, you imagine they could be reclaimed to settle final World Cup qualifying issues, even if it means kicking the can down the road with regard to other tournaments. If worse comes to worst, you can turn home-and-away fixtures into single-leg events; that worked for the Champions League, but World Cup qualifying is an entirely different animal.
You could look at turning some breaks from double-headers into triple-headers, as UEFA are doing with the next two breaks, partly to satisfy TV commitments. Again, it’s relatively easy to do in Europe, where distances are small and infrastructure is good. Elsewhere it can be a logistical nightmare, and that’s before we get into the player health issue.
“Triple-headers” mean three games in seven days. That’s why, incidentally, Italy (34 players) and England (30) called up vastly expanded squads for this upcoming break: if you don’t rotate, you face the ire of the club sides. That matters, because this qualifying cycle will take place against the backdrop of the most congested club calendar in history. Domestic leagues in Europe, where the majority of World Cup players ply their trade, kicked off late because of the spring shutdown and will end early because of the European Championships.
Gab Marcotti casts doubt on whether CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying games will be completed.
In England, they decided to go ahead and play the Carabao Cup, while going back to a maximum of three substitutes. Five substitutes were introduced post-lockdown to allow for more rotation and lessen the physical burden and risk of injury. The Premier League voted, by a narrow margin, to go back to three, believing (wrongly, in my opinion) that five subs offers an unfair advantage to bigger clubs. The 2020-21 Premier League season will have the same number of games as 2018-19, but that campaign was nearly 10 percent longer.
You can just about manage it, pandemic permitting. Legislation varies a bit, but so hell-bent are leagues on not rearranging fixtures if a club is hit by a rash of positive COVID-19 tests that, in most cases, as long as you have 13 able-bodied footballers (including youngsters on professional contracts), you won’t be granted a postponement. Why? Because there may be nowhere to put it in the calendar, which is why we’ve already witnessed the absurd spectacle of Tottenham Hotspur being forced to play three competitive matches (a Carabao Cup last-16 game vs. Chelsea, a Europa League qualifier vs. Maccabi Haifa and a league game at Man United) in the space of six days before the international break.
We know why this is happening. European clubs are projecting a revenue shortfall of more than $4 billion over 2019-20 and 2020-21. It could be a little less if fans are allowed back in earlier rather than later (it’s based on a 50% capacity); it could be a little more (or a lot more) if the grounds stay shut or if more sponsors or broadcasters go bust or try to renegotiate their contracts downwards. Soccer needs to squeeze as much as they can out of their product. In the vast majority of cases, it’s not about greed, it’s about survival.
There’s a sense of “cross your fingers and pack in as much as you can while you still can” pervading the global game. Ordinarily, this is where a columnist might point out alternate solutions and lament the ineptitude or avarice of those in charge. I’m loathe to do so, partly because the last 10 months have shown us how much of life is beyond our control and partly because I’m not sure what else they could have done that was workable.
This is already a unique season marked by an asterisk. Let’s hope that it will be a footnote, and not something that ends up defining the next 18 months.