English football needs to add two MAJOR new rules

A love of football has been in my family since my great-grandfather first emigrated to England in the late 1800s! My grandfather attended his first football match shortly after the First World War, and was a lifelong fan of Fulham – a team whose fortunes have bounced around a lot in recent years. The sport has changed immeasurably since then, with the upper echelons of football becoming awash with money and arguably losing touch with the working-class roots someone of my grandfather’s generation would recognise.

The amount of money in football is partly driven by television broadcasting, but also by a change in the way clubs themselves operate. No longer are clubs content to make a small profit; enough to pay the wages, maintain their ground, and keep the lights on. Instead, some of the biggest clubs in the country have become corporations, earning huge profits for shareholders and/or private owners – many of whom are based overseas.

Football has changed a lot since my grandfather’s day!

Football has seen a number of rules added and changed over the years. Extra time and penalty shoot-outs have replaced replays. The offside rule, and adjustments to it, changed the way matches are played. There were “golden goals” for a while! And of course, the recent addition of VAR (video assistant referees) has been controversial in some quarters. These rules affect the game in different ways, and we can argue whether each one has been for better or worse.

Recent events over the last year or so have shone light on the fact that English football is missing two rules that I think are absolutely vital to the future success and integrity of the sport. It’s surprising to me that a professional league like the Premier League never adopted such rules in the first place, or that the EFL, which has been running since 1888, has never considered either rule necessary. Let’s look at each in turn.

The logo of the English Football League.

Firstly we’re considering something that the pandemic brought into sharp focus last year: what to do if a season can’t be completed. For some reason, the Premier League, EFL, and other leagues around the world appear to have no provision for this scenario – yet it’s something that any professional body should be planning for. There was an intense debate last year about what to do in the event that the season couldn’t resume following pandemic-related disruption, and the absolutely stunning thing to me was that there seemed to be nothing in the rulebook to cover this.

Professional football has been disrupted in the past, by both world wars. Even though no such disruption had occurred since the 1940s, it should still have been a possibility for the Football League to consider when drafting and updating its rules, and it’s really a dereliction of duty – or else rank incompetence – that no one knew what was going on last year. Football’s governing bodies appear to have taken the approach of “it probably won’t happen,” and just not bothered to put any kind of rule or guidance in place. That’s not acceptable and has to change.

What should happen if the football season is disrupted again?

The rule needs to be ironclad and simple, so there’s no room for argument or cries of “unfair” based on the performance of individual clubs. I would have it look something like this:

In the event that a season cannot be completed, one of the following will apply: If fewer than one-third of scheduled matches have been completed, the season is declared null and void. All points earned, goals scored, yellow and red cards awarded, and so on are considered entirely expunged. When a new season is able to commence, all teams remain in place, with no promotion or relegation taking place. If more than one-third of matches have been completed, the season will be considered complete. League table positions will be considered final, with promotion and relegation based on current standings. All goals, yellow and red cards, etc. will remain on the books.

An empty football ground.

When the rule has been decided on and incorporated into the laws of the game, no club will be able to cry “unfair!” if a future season is disrupted and needs to end early. It might be difficult to agree on the appropriate cut-off, before which the season is voided and after which the season is declared complete. I’ve suggested one-third of the total number of matches, because usually by that point in the season things are becoming clear as to which clubs are doing well and which aren’t.

If one-third of matches doesn’t seem right, that number could be changed to half, 75%, or whatever clubs agreed on. But the principle remains: there needs to be a cut-off point at which the season is declared complete, and a point at which the season is simply declared void. Every club needs to sign up to this, so that there will never again be the kinds of arguments we saw last year.

New rules need to be written ASAP!

The second new rule pertains to the European Super League, the failure of which is one thing fans of practically every club can agree was fantastic! When the European Super League was proposed, I wrote a piece for the website criticising the project for its patent unfairness. But that’s kind of beside the point. The new rule needs to prohibit any team(s) from joining a breakaway competition without the explicit permission of the Premier League and Football League, and needs to specify strict penalties for any clubs that do so without permission.

As above, this rule needs to be watertight and easily understood, with no loopholes or get-out clauses. It will also need to be specific on the penalties for clubs that violate the rule. I propose something like this:

No team may agree to join or participate in any competition, league, tournament, or match, even in principle, without seeking the prior agreement of the Football League and a majority of member clubs. No “breakaway” competition, league, or tournament may be set up without the permission of the Football League and a majority of member clubs. Penalties for violating this rule will include: an immediate twenty-point deduction for any club involved, the complete prohibition of any player involved in such a league, competition, etc. from playing in any match in the Football League, Premier League, FA Cup, and other football competitions in England, and for clubs that continue to violate this rule over the course of more than one season, expulsion from the Premier League, Football League, and all other English competitions.

The “treacherous six” – the six English clubs that tried to undermine football.

Despite the rapid collapse of the European Super League, some of the wealthiest clubs and individuals involved in English and European football have not given up on the idea altogether. However, they have now tipped their hand, which gives the Football League, Premier League, and other European leagues time to act and bring in these kinds of harsh penalties to discourage it from ever happening again.

English clubs are already threatened with a ten-point deduction for falling into administration (i.e. becoming insolvent) so the principle of points deductions for bad behaviour exists and is acceptable. If a twenty-point deduction were put into place for the six Premier League teams who tried to join the European Super League last month, at least two – possibly three – would have been relegated. Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham would all be in or just above the relegation zone, so this kind of threat will work.

Arsenal would be in serious trouble if there were consequences for their failed attempt to join the European Super League.

In Scotland there are two huge teams: Celtic and Rangers. They’re the two biggest clubs in Scottish football, and between them have dominated the Scottish league and cups for decades. But in 2012, following a series of financial issues, Rangers was relegated from the Scottish Premiership and had to begin all over again from the Scottish Third Division. Rangers is a case in point: no club, no matter how big and powerful they think they are, is above the rules.

Scottish football was dominated by Celtic in Rangers’ absence, and it was only this season – for the first time in a decade – that anyone other than Celtic won the league. English football is not a two-horse race, so the relegation of even clubs like Liverpool or Manchester United would not lead to one team dominating in the way it did in Scotland. It might even be a net positive for English football overall.

I love football. The unpredictability of the sport, especially in cup competitions, is fantastic. But as the game has become a worldwide money-making machine, corruption and greed have followed. The two rule changes I’m suggesting wouldn’t fix everything wrong with football in England. But they’d be a step in the right direction.

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The European Super League will be bad for one simple reason: fairness

I don’t talk about football very often here on the website. In fact, I daresay I’ve discussed the FIFA football video games on more occasions than the sport itself! But with all of the discussion flying around online since last night’s bolt from the blue announcement of a possible European Super League, I felt compelled to comment.

The twelve clubs – six of which, I’m sad to see, are from my native England – have drawn a lot of criticism for this plan, and we’ll discuss in a moment the potential ramifications for them. But with so many people piling on with criticism mixed with ideas for “punishments” it feels like a really basic message is in danger of getting lost in the confusion. What it all boils down to is simple: fairness. That one word encapsulates everything wrong with a European Super League.

It’s deeply disappointing to see these six clubs – plus six of their European allies – planning to grab more money and power for themselves at the expense of basic fairness and sportsmanship.

Every sport, whether it’s curling, showjumping, ice hockey, or football, has to be fair and has to be seen to be fair. There will always be bad individual decisions; referees who make a bad call, a goal disallowed or allowed to stand incorrectly, and so on. Those idiosyncrasies will always be part of football, and indeed of any team sport. But the rules underpinning competition have to be seen to be fair – they can’t disproportionately favour one team, country, or club over everyone else. Yet that’s exactly what the European Super League would do. It would play favourites.

A closed league in which most clubs can never be relegated no matter how poorly they perform, and in which those clubs are given vast sums of money from the league’s sponsors is simply not fair. If those clubs are then allowed to participate in other competitions, such as their domestic leagues or cups, they have an additional unfair advantage in those as well. So the European Super League is not just unfair in that it would keep its fifteen “members” there in perpetuity no matter what else was happening in the wider game, it would give each of those clubs a massive boost in whatever other competitions they participated in.

Manchester United are one of the clubs involved in this scheme.

Money has already made the upper echelons of football incredibly difficult to break into. The fairytale of Leicester City winning the Premier League a couple of years ago came after decades of dominance by a handful of very wealthy clubs backed by even wealthier investors and owners. The reason why Leicester’s win was so truly unexpected is because pundits and commentators had felt that it would be impossible for any club without significant financial resources to be able to compete against the so-called “big six.” The European Super League would cement the “big six” at the top of the English game, doling out huge sums of money to them to keep them at the top of the league in perpetuity. There would never be another Leicester or Bolton Wanderers winning the Premier League – and that’s exactly the scenario that the European Super League is designed to create.

That’s bad sportsmanship. It’s antithetical to the nature of free and fair sporting competition. By further eroding a sport already awash with near-incomprehensible amounts of money, the European Super League would effectively kill any real competition at the top. The other 14 clubs of the Premier League will be locked in a perpetual battle for seventh place – and whoever finishes seventh might as well be crowned champions, because the top six places will be effectively beyond the reach of any club without the financial backing of this new institution.

Hopefully this proposal will be shown the red card.

FIFA, UEFA, and the Premier League all bear a degree of responsibility for what’s happening, though. And they are not innocent parties to this clusterfuck. I’m old enough to remember the controversy in 1992 when the Premier League was set up, breaking away from the Football League. The clubs were tempted by money then, just as they are now. For the Premier League to criticise the European Super League for doing something superficially similar is at least slightly hypocritical, and sadly this gives ammunition to proponents of the European Super League.

UEFA and FIFA are both institutionally corrupt, with members quite literally and demonstrably accepting bribes. The only reason next year’s World Cup will be hosted by Qatar (or the 2018 iteration was hosted by Russia) is because of bribes paid to voting members. That’s just one example, and both institutions have been plagued by bribery and corruption going back decades, putting their own interests ahead of the wider game.

FIFA – football’s governing body – is institutionally corrupt and has been for decades.

So there isn’t really a “good guy” to back in this fight. It’s the billionaires versus the billionaires in a battle for power, control, and the right to make as much additional money as possible – on top of the money they already have. It almost doesn’t matter which side wins, because the “big six” English clubs, and their equivalents in other countries, will still dominate the game regardless thanks to their international owners and the vast sums of money in the game. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “lesser of two evils,” nor that the European Super League is somehow okay.

Despite the money sloshing around football, there are still surprises. Leicester’s title-winning season is a recent one, but we can also point to the successes of clubs like Wigan and Portsmouth in the FA Cup, Leeds’ successful return to the Premier League in their first season after promotion, and in Europe the likes of Montpellier’s title win in Ligue 1. Even with all the money at the top of the game, football can still be unpredictable – and that’s why so many fans around the world love it.

Portsmouth’s 2008 win shows that the FA Cup can still create wonderful surprises.
Photo Credit: Jon Candy profile, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Taking away the most basic tenet of sportsmanship and competition – fairness – would leave European football in a very dark place. Those fairytale seasons, already eroded by the long dominance of a select few wealthy clubs, would fade into history, with all but a handful of clubs effectively relegated to second-tier status.

This is why there’s so much backlash, even if not everyone commenting on the situation can fully put it into words. A European Super League in which fifteen clubs can compete against one another in perpetuity with no threat of relegation is not only unfair as a concept in itself, but that unfairness would not be contained and would spill over into every other league on the continent. The crux of why fans of all clubs – even those proposing to join the new league – are united in opposition is because everyone recognises the inherent unfairness of the proposal, and how that unfairness would kill sporting competition.

This proposal is all about money and power – and retaining both permanently for the big clubs.

So what measures can domestic leagues, as well as bodies like FIFA and UEFA, take to prevent this from happening, especially given how far advanced the plans seem to be?

Because this is a fight over money – and the television and broadcast rights that give whoever wins the right to make money – simply expelling the teams involved, as some have suggested, doesn’t seem viable. The Premier League would lose out in that scenario, because the broadcast rights would suddenly bring in far less revenue if the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea aren’t involved. This is the game of brinksmanship that the European Super League is playing – effectively throwing down the gauntlet and saying “you can’t make money without us.”

That said, there are measures short of full expulsion that could be taken – but they’d only work if every league in Europe and FIFA can all agree. First of all, there could be automatic points deductions for all participating teams. A deduction of ten points is automatically applied to any English teams that go into administration (i.e. that become financially insolvent), and something similar could be applied in this case. This would mean all European Super League clubs begin their domestic campaigns with -10 or even -15 points, which might go some way to restoring some semblance of fairness at the top, allowing the rest of the league to potentially compete on fairer terms with an effective handicap – giving them back their shots at the championship.

Barcelona (Camp Nou stadium pictured) are one of twelve teams planning to join the European Super League.

Secondly, one proposal UEFA threw out last night was that any individual player who plays in the European Super League would be banned from international competition, including in the World Cup. This sanction would make a lot of players think twice before signing for a European Super League side, even if a lot of money were on the table. Some would still take the money, of course, but any player with dreams of representing their country would think twice.

This proposal in particular is a threat to the European Super League. If it could be expanded, with players who play in the European Super League banned from all other competitions including domestic leagues and cups, the only players who would ever agree to participate would be has-beens. The European Super League, if it were forced to operate under such restrictions, would end up looking like the Chinese league or, at best, Major League Soccer in the United States – where players who used to be good enough to play in the big European leagues essentially go to retire!

Banning players from international competition could be a way to fight back against this proposal.

By pushing restrictions onto the individual players instead of (or as well as) the clubs themselves, and remaining united in doing so, the big European leagues, UEFA, and FIFA could drive a wedge between the clubs and their players, forcing players to choose. Maybe this kind of tactic feels shady and wrong, but if it kills a bad proposal it would be worth it. Though the big clubs do wield a lot of power, they don’t hold all the cards, and if players felt that signing for Manchester United would be bad for their career, you’d see better players moving away from those big clubs, and the already-boring European Super League would look worse and worse.

And that’s another good point. The European Super League will be boring, or at least unexciting. A league where there’s no relegation for the big clubs has no threat, and with no threat comes no drama. There’ll be no reason for players to push themselves in the final minute to score that amazing goal because… what’s the point? Once you’re in the European Super League you’re set for life, apparently. If you lose fifteen matches in a row there’s no consequence, except perhaps for the manager who’ll lose his job! By destroying one of the most basic elements of sporting competition – relegation – the European Super League doesn’t have much to offer anyway.

But whatever you think about these clubs and this announcement, it all comes back to one central point: a European Super League with permanent positions for wealthy clubs is inherently and inescapably unfair. There will be consequences, somehow, for any clubs that go down this road. I just hope that, when the dust settles, football isn’t too badly damaged by this latest self-inflicted wound.

All brands, clubs, etc. mentioned above are the trademark or copyright of their respective owners. Some stock images courtesy of Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

How football is handling the pandemic

Just to get this out of the way, when I say “football” I mean “soccer” – that’s what we call the sport here in the UK.

Football is one of the world’s biggest forms of entertainment. Top professional leagues regularly bring in huge television audiences, and the quadrennial World Cup is viewed by billions of people around the world. While we have yet to really feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the world of televised entertainment – aside from a few shows like soap operas which have either cut down their episodes or gone on hiatus – football has seen the biggest, most immediate impact. Cinema is of course affected too.

Here in the UK, many questions have been raised about how football clubs have handled the pandemic. Some Premier League teams, which are highly profitable and employ players making hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, have been justly criticised for placing non-playing staff on leave, with British taxpayers expected to foot the bill for their unpaid salaries while the pandemic goes on. Some of these clubs have since reversed their decisions, motivated, no doubt, by the outpouring of public anger at the move. Others have not, and will continue to furlough their staff for as long as they can get away with it.

The Premier League is the top division in English football.

Many of the Premier League’s top clubs are owned by individuals or business consortiums which have literally billions of pounds at their disposal, which is why people have been so angry at them. At a time when everyone in the country is expected to play their part and work together to overcome an event that is unprecedented since the Second World War, some super-rich clubs are behaving as though that’s somehow beneath them.

The players themselves aren’t much better. Many players, including some at the top clubs in the Premier League, aren’t excessively wealthy, and the income a player can expect to make decreases the further down the rankings their club is. But some players do earn mega-bucks – hundreds of thousands of pounds per week, often with bonuses on top of that. And so far, the Premier League’s players, both individually and collectively, have chosen not to take a pay cut. There was talk a couple of weeks ago at a laughable 30% cut, which seems to have recently been revised down to 25%, but thus far even this has not been enacted and many of the league’s top stars are still drawing these eye-watering salaries as the season enters its second month of being suspended.

As with the clubs themselves, some of these players seem to think that there’s one rule for the people of the country and another for them. At a time when everyone is having to make cutbacks and sacrifices, players and their association are not willing to do so. Some individuals have made contributions to charity, but by no means all of them have. A voluntary charitable donation, however nice that may be on the surface, is not the same as taking a significant pay cut to allow their clubs to retain non-playing staff and to reduce the burden on taxpayers and the country’s debt.

Public anger at these clubs will continue to grow, and clubs should not expect all to be forgiven when play can eventually resume. From a PR point of view, they need to get a handle on this immediately to avoid long-term damage to the reputation of not just individual clubs, but the leagues and sport themselves.

As we see in the United States in particular, some people are becoming impatient with the ongoing suspension to normal life, and we have already begun to see individuals and businesses campaigning for restrictions to be lifted – even though the pandemic and the dangers it poses to individuals and the healthcare system has not abated. We could talk all day about the merits of closing large parts of the economy, and while there’s nothing wrong with asking questions, we have to be prepared to hear answers we don’t like. We also have to understand and appreciate that, under circumstances such as these, not all opinions are equally valid. A researcher who is an expert in virology is going to be far better-placed to answer the question of how and when to ease restrictions than a football club executive who’s concerned about his club’s bottom line.

At time of writing, the lockdown in the UK is expected to last a minimum of three more weeks. Personally, as someone with health issues, I’d been advised by my doctor to stay at home and self-isolate for twelve weeks, and the earliest I could expect that advice to change would be in late June or early July. The lockdown presents football with a huge problem – with the season around three-quarters complete, what should happen?

Thus far, they have opted to kick the can down the road and say that they will simply resume the season when they believe it would be safe to do so – and most analysts expect this would take place with no spectators present. But with no end to the lockdown imminent, and a need to complete the season by the end of June for contractual reasons, football is in a bind. There are major contracts between both players and clubs and the leagues themselves and television companies. These contracts involve vast sums of money, and no one wants to be out of pocket. Many clubs also have sponsorship deals which begin and end on the 30th of June.

A football stadium.

While there are several options, all of them have downsides. Recommencing the season before it is safe to do so would go against government advice, and quite probably the law. Even if it were deemed safe to restart play in May, this would mean players would have to fit in many more games into a far shorter window than they are used to, which could arguably affect the outcome of the season overall. Continuing the season past the 30th of June and into the summer would not only be a huge issue due to the contracts mentioned above, but would also mean clubs would have to cut out lucrative foreign tours which, for some teams, are a significant part of their annual revenue. Players would have little to no time to rest between seasons, and despite what some people feel about these players “only playing 90 minutes a week”, the amount of training and effort required for a player to perform at their peak when it comes to match day is intense, so they do need a break sometimes.

Another option would be to cancel next season altogether, and simply resume the current season in the autumn/winter months, perhaps with more friendly matches or a new tournament to make up the difference in the number of matches. This poses a number of issues for legal and contractual reasons, and doesn’t seem to have been seriously considered at this stage.

If the season has to be abandoned, the big issue that comes into play is fairness. For Liverpool, riding high at the top of the Premier League where they’ve been all season, not being declared champions is unfathomable. Yet a club like Aston Villa, currently battling to escape relegation, would surely argue that if the season had been able to finish they would have had a chance to avoid that fate. Money is also a huge factor – Premier League clubs get a huge amount of money each season from selling the television rights to their games, rights which are worth far less in lower divisions. So a club on the brink of promotion to the Premiership, like Fulham or Leeds, would want to see the season conclude with every team being allowed to move up or down in accordance with their current standings.

In the case of an abandoned or incomplete season, the choice between declaring it “null and void” or using current standings to promote and relegate clubs is huge. The Premier League may opt to try to fudge things, accepting promoted clubs from the Championship without relegating anyone, but this would only serve to further complicate matters.

How someone feels about this is undoubtedly going to be coloured by their favourite team’s status. Those hoping for a promotion will be wanting their team’s current league position to count, and those desperate to avoid relegation will want the whole season expunged if it can’t be completed. My club, AFC Wimbledon, have spent most of the season dancing just above the relegation zone in League One, so from a selfish point of view I’d be happy if the season were declared finished at this point!

The club I support – AFC Wimbledon.

The problem is that there’s no way to satisfy every club. In a normal season, everyone knows the rules and the playing field is as equal as it can be in a sport where money matters. Some individual clubs may complain about a match not going their way because of bad refereeing, but generally speaking they all know the rules and they all accept the outcome: win or lose, promoted or relegated. But this situation is not only unprecedented, it’s one which the Premier League and the Football Association seem to have had no contingency plans for. If they did, all they would have to say is: “if the season can’t be completed, outcome X will happen”, and point to the relevant section in their contract or rulebook. But no such rule exists, and it seems to be something which will be decided at the whim of executives and the clubs themselves, which can only lead to bitter feelings and recriminations.

Football needs to learn two lessons from the pandemic. Firstly, clubs must behave like they’re part of society and the country they inhabit. Their players may be mostly foreign, they may make a lot of money from other countries, but if they’re based here they need to remain aware of that, and at times of national emergency they need to behave better. Secondly, every major football league needs to establish clear rules for contingencies where a season cannot be completed. They could have one blanket rule, or they could make different rules depending on various factors, such as how far into the season the cancellation occurs. The rules would need to be agreed on by every club, and would thus become a part of the game. That way there would be no crying foul; everyone would know what they signed up for and things wouldn’t have to be decided on the fly by executives and clubs who all have a vested interest in getting a specific outcome to the current season.

These things apply to other sports too, and with leagues and competitions in sports around the world being cancelled, suspended, and postponed, it’s important for all of them to have a coordinated response which, as far as possible, is fair and doesn’t provide anyone an unfair advantage or disadvantage.

We will get through this pandemic and the lockdown will eventually end. It may not end quickly enough for some people, however, and it may be too late for the current football season to end in time. Sooner or later, big decisions will have to be made about what to do, and those decisions should be codified into the rules of the game for the future. As depressing as it may sound, this is unlikely to be the last ever pandemic, nor the final time the football season may have to be paused, postponed, or cancelled. Establishing what to do is important, and making sure that everyone who participates knows what to expect under such circumstances is vital for the integrity of the game.

Speaking for myself, I feel that if the season cannot be completed in its entirety, the fairest thing for the majority of clubs is to annul it and to begin next season without any relegations or promotions. Every club would remain in their current division, and no championships, medals, cups, etc. should be awarded. Next season would begin where this season began, and could hopefully be completed without interruption. Even though a number of matches have already been played, if the season cannot be played in its entirety it would be unfair to award titles and to promote or relegate teams based on where they currently sit. Some clubs may have had an easy run so far, and would be enjoying a higher league place, where others may have played all their tough matches and be hoping to regain lost ground against easier opposition. If there were only one or two matches left to play, perhaps ending the season based on current standings would be okay, but not with over a quarter of the season left to play. If an individual match had to be abandoned at the three-quarter mark, the current score would not be taken as the final score. Instead the match would be rescheduled, and if that were not possible then no score would be recorded. The same principle should apply to the season, even though I can understand the counter-arguments.

However things may currently look, it’s my hope that the season can be completed. If it can’t, it won’t be good for anyone as there is no way of satisfying everyone with the options available. However, as with everything else in these highly unusual times, the decision to restart play cannot be a financial or business decision and must be made by scientists, medical professionals, and government officials.

So I know this has been a big change to what I usually write about here on the blog. I try to keep things focused on the world of entertainment, but I feel that football does at least come close to that category! I may talk about football-related topics in future if and when I have something to say, as it’s a sport I follow and have an interest in.

Until next time!

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