If you were to invent football tomorrow
The dramatic conclusion to three of the four UEFA Nations League A groups confirmed the success of the competition’s first edition. By our count, around 40 per cent of men’s international matches this decade were friendlies; it’s likely that competitions like the Nations League mean we will soon consider friendly matches anachronistic, if not already. While exhibition games used to be a good way of getting in crowds to watch players who they had heard of but had never seen, friendlies are no longer relevant in an era where it’s possible to watch YouTube clips of the latest Peruvian wunderkind less than an hour after his debut.
As fans of football, we’ve been trained from history to value certain things. For example, we like year-long competitions at club level, because we feel the fairest way to determine winners and losers is over a substantial period of time. And yet the scenes of celebration from players and fans in Gelsenkirchen, Lucerne and London this week suggests that tournaments decided over even four matches can capture the imagination. We’re certainly already comfortable with crowning a world champion after just seven.
The world is a different place to when leagues were first devised around the turn of the 20th century. We have different needs and expectations around entertainment, and lots more competition among providers. With attendances and viewing figures in the vast majority of leagues stagnant or in decline, the UEFA Nations League provides a case study of what can be done with some fresh ideas.
Football has tradition and history that is worth protecting and celebrating, but if invented today it wouldn’t be designed as it currently is. We might instead prioritise randomness over fairness (as the Nations League’s short time frame and aggressive promotion and relegation has done), equality over winner-takes all (as in US sports), or continental over national (playing regularly overseas would have been inconceivable to the founders of many football leagues).
We believe that smart associations and clubs – of all sizes – can and will work together to create a vision for football in the future. We may be part of the world’s most popular sport, but even a small change like we’ve seen in the past week shows that there remains untapped potential for everyone.