Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Thirty Three
Step back and it’s very difficult to contemplate football these days without a profound sense of weariness. For the first time ever, all five of Europe’s big leagues have been retained. The FA Cup final demonstrated the vast gulf in quality that exists between Manchester City and even a decent mid-table Premier League side.
There are major concerns about the use of football as a propaganda tool by various states, and an increasingly hostile reaction from fans who don’t want to hear it. The authorities treat those who actually go to games as an unfortunate inconvenience while Uefa thinks it’s acceptable to play a major final in a city one of the competing players feels unable to visit and that only a tiny proportion of fans can get to. Proper journalism, asking relevant questions to the powerful, is derided while partisan tubthumping and manufactured outrage thrives. Football, once again, is reflecting wider society – indeed, in the blinkered tribalism, has in some way pre-empted the sorry state of wider discourse.
And yet some of the football played this spring has been extraordinary. The knock-out stage of the Champions League and the play-off semi-finals produced almost unimaginable drama, two weeks of the sort of games that will still be talked about in awed tones in decades. In one sense, the authorities have got football very right: the backpass law, the liberalisation of offside and the crackdown on intimidatory tackling have without question made for a better spectacle.
But even behind the tension of all those comebacks lurked two worrying thoughts. A specific one was that Barcelona probably shouldn’t be letting in three or more as often as they do – four times now in Champions League knockout games in the past three seasons – and that they reflect a fundamental decadence about certain of the superclubs, unused as they are domestically to facing a real fight.
More generally, the tension of the play-off finals came from the fact that they were battles between essentially evenly matched teams, capable of landing blows on their opponents, something that is becoming rarer and rarer in the top divisions. In the season just finished there were 67 Premier League games in which one team had 70 per cent of the ball or more, as opposed to an average of one per season between 2003-04 and 2005-06.
That is a fundamental change to how the game is played. There is some research that suggests younger generations prefer that, that there is a constituency that would rather watch Neymar performing his tricks against hapless rubes than see an actual contest. Perhaps that is how football will be in the future, more of an entertainment than a sport.
But for those of us who see the game as a contest of near-equals, competitive balance remains an enormous concern.