Just like the hat, football’s grip could suddenly go out of fashion after Qatar | World Cup 2022

Look at a photograph of the crowd at the 1923 FA Cup final and pretty much everybody is wearing a hat. Fast-forward a quarter of a century and a rough estimate would be that a little under half the crowd at the 1948 final are similarly clad. Go forward another 25 years to 1973 and although Bob Stokoe, the Sunderland manager, topped off his tracksuit-and-mac look with a trilby, almost nobody in the stands at Wembley has their head covered.

In the unlikely event that anybody at the first Wembley Cup final gave the matter any thought, it is doubtful they would have believed bare-headedness would become the norm. And yet over the course of half a century, men stopped wearing hats. Things change, often unexpectedly, and aspects of life we take for granted can drift away, almost unnoticed.

Football today, as David Goldblatt argues in The Age of Football, is the most universal cultural mode there has ever been, consumed avidly across the globe. It is everywhere, a badge of identity, a tool of dictators, our universal entertainment. But could there be a future in which that supremacy wanes?

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Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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The Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez, keeps telling us that football is losing ground among the young but, given his assertion comes amid his advocacy for a European Super League and his reluctance to release whatever data demonstrates his claim, it’s hard to know how much credence it merits.

What is clear is that, across the pyramid, more people watch football now in the UK than ever before, that television rights deals have never been higher and that, even if Fifa’s claim that 3.572 billion people watched the last World Cup final is obvious nonsense, it was the sort of number that could be bettered only by a presidential assassination, a global charity concert or a human walking on Mars. But nothing lasts for ever and, as we approach a World Cup so morally questionable that some are refusing to watch, it is worth asking what it would take for football to lose its dominant position.

Most cultural modes fade because of technology. Music hall and theatre yielded to radio and cinema, which yielded to television, which may now be in the process of yielding to streaming platforms. Newspapers quake before the internet. Even the hat declined with mass car ownership as people spent less time outside.

Yet technology has, by and large, only enhanced the grip of football on the global culture. First radio and then TV have spread it throughout nations and then the world. The expansion has not been without consequence: the fear until the 90s was that broadcasting games would lower attendances at grounds. Absurd as that may seem in the context of the modern Premier League, it has proved apt in many other countries where the preference is to watch the big European leagues on TV rather than attend matches.

Billy the white police horse helps hold back the crowd spilling on to the pitch at the 1923 FA Cup final
Hardly a bare head to be seen as Billy the white police horse helps hold back the crowd spilling on to the pitch at the 1923 FA Cup final. Photograph: Hulton Getty

Social media has ensured the conversation about football goes on, the banality, offensiveness or delusion of much of the discourse less relevant than its volume. Perhaps Pérez is right and the younger generation are all too distracted by TikTok and Fortnite to bother watching Real Madrid hammer Real Mallorca or Elche but, without seeing his evidence, it doesn’t feel like that.

But sometimes phenomena do just lose popularity. Discussing Elon Musk’s troubled takeover of Twitter, the tech strategist Gareth Edwards outlined his theory of the “trust thermocline”. A thermocline is the narrow transition layer in a body of water between the surface, where waves keep the temperature relatively warm, and the much cooler water below. It is where the temperature suddenly plummets.

Edwards’s theory is that a social media company, say, can tick along, making money, riding out small increases in cost or diminutions of service until suddenly a critical mass of frustration is reached and users desert the platform, after which it’s almost impossible to restore trust – not least because users have migrated elsewhere. “The greater the role emotional engagement plays in the product,” he explains, “the bigger the risk of a catastrophic loss of trust.”

Hats, having been essential to keeping warm, became largely decorative and so their symbolic significance became more apparent, particularly to a generation whose wartime service had made them resentful of the status they conferred. It becomes far easier to reject those tokens of rank when your head’s not cold and lots of other people are also rejecting them.

Could something similar happen to football? Consider this World Cup. There is disgust at Fifa’s corruption, at the sense of greed, at the perception of the game being used as propaganda.

If the football is poor (and given issues of fatigue and lack of preparation time that is a clear possibility) and the experience on the ground – the expense, the absence of games from local television, the lack of recreational options in a city crowded with visitors, intrusive policing – no fun, might that temper enthusiasm for attending tournaments? Could a lack of atmosphere, drabness on and off the pitch, then lower TV audiences and thus broadcast revenues?

A Wales fan wearing a bucket hat with pin badges.
A Wales fan wearing a bucket hat with pin badges. Photograph: Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images

Perhaps, although it seems a long way off. But then if Conmebol nations are, as has been suggested, admitted to the Uefa Nations League in 2024, there would be a clear alternative to the World Cup, a space to migrate to.

In the club game, the case the European Super League three have brought against Uefa under competition law represents a potential risk. If Uefa’s position is found to be a monopoly, could there be a splintering into multiple jurisdictions akin to boxing? Then there would not only be spaces for fans to migrate to, but a dilution of the product – and however dubious the way the modern Champions League distributes wealth and enriches the already wealthy, the product itself in its latter stages is of undeniably exceptional quality.

Any threat to football feels improbable, but that’s the nature of thermoclines: when the temperature drops it does so abruptly. The current hegemony should not be taken for granted. Football remains extraordinarily popular but this World Cup may test that. And no cultural mode can afford to ignore the fact that men do, sometimes, stop wearing hats.

Uefa hits out with damning critique of European Super League’s status | Uefa

The impeccably groomed world of football administration was host to an intemperate spat on Tuesday, after Uefa accused the company behind the European Super League of “disrespect” and having fewer supporters in 2022 than the UK has had prime ministers.

In an unmistakably forthright communication, European football’s governing body hit back as its meeting with A22, the business formed to deliver the Super League, ended in a flurry of critical statements.

The meeting had been requested by A22, which hopes to revive the Super League idea and is pursuing a more up-front approach than the skulduggery that ended in failure last spring. A22’s new CEO, Bernd Reichart, expected to meet Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, to discuss the topic but instead was received by at least a dozen football luminaries, including representatives from the Premier League, La Liga and PSG’s president, Nasser al-Khelaifi.

In an initial statement, Uefa said it and its “football stakeholders” had used the meeting to restate their commitment “to the foundations of European football, which are based on openness, solidarity and meritocracy … rather than on privilege and self-entitlement”.

A22 argued that its “takeaway” from the meeting was that “the status quo is satisfactory to Uefa”, noting it had met a “large group of … executives”. It went on to ask that any “ongoing dialogue” with clubs about the future of European club competition “must be carried out in an environment free from threats and other restraints”.

Uefa then took the unusual step of replying to A22’s statement. It set off as it meant to continue, saying: “The ‘other executives’ [A22] refer to were not faceless bureaucrats but senior stakeholders from across European football, players, clubs, leagues and fans; people who live and breathe the game every day. To fail to recognise that is disrespectful.”

The rebuttal continued: “If there is a ‘takeaway’ from today, it should be that the whole of European football opposes their greedy plan, as was clearly communicated in our media release. European football has constantly demonstrated its openness to change but it must be for the benefit of the whole game not just a few clubs.

“A22 wanted dialogue so we gave them 2.5 hours of time from all of the game’s stakeholders and each one rejected their approach. As the Football Supporters’ Association said, the UK has had as many prime ministers in the last two months as they have supporters of their plans.”

When you’re being compared to the UK government, it could be argued that things really have come to a pass.

As football slips into the mire, it must remember it is first and foremost a sport | Football

It’s been another fine week for the people’s game. The Super League Three – two of whom will probably be eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage despite the enormous advantages they enjoy both financially and via the coefficient system – continue to agitate for a competition that would make them even more money.

Fans chant disgracefully about tragedy and find their club not merely not condemning them, but blaming the manager of the other side for having made an entirely reasonable observation about the financial advantages enjoyed by state-run clubs. That manager, on the very weekend local referees had gone on strike to highlight the abuse suffered by officials, is sent off for abusing an assistant referee. Team buses are attacked, social media becomes a battleground of the basest insults, managers who are the de facto agents of authoritarian states lecture others about touchline behaviour.

Preparations continue for a World Cup in a country whose human rights record remains highly questionable and which has imposed extraordinary restrictions on media covering the tournament.

The schedule remains ludicrous. Before the World Cup in four weeks’ time, there are still three rounds of the league, two of the Champions League and one of the EFL Cup to come. Injuries are already mounting and any further knocks in the next three weeks could rule a player out of the tournament. Fatigue and a lack of preparation time will almost certainly have a negative impact on the quality of football played in Qatar.

One of the game’s great stars storms off the bench in a huff, while another denies having threatened to leave because he wasn’t being played in exactly the right way.

Further details emerge of the chaos at the Champions League final. Uefa appears an increasingly shambolic body, beholden to the wealthiest clubs, unable to challenge the financial might of the elite clubs, unable even to stage football matches safely. The Swiss system the Champions League takes on from 2024 will be a mundane slog largely devoid of even the slight jeopardy still delivered by the present format.

Liverpool fans show their tickets as they are locked out of May’s Champions League final
Liverpool fans show their tickets as they are locked out of May’s Champions League final, amid authority-led chaos in Paris. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

Catastrophic inequality means most European leagues are effective monopolies. Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president, supposedly has evidence that young people are drifting away from the game (although he has never released it) but his proposed solution to that problem is to increase the inequality.

Football hasn’t quite gone the way of English cricket, disdaining its traditional audience in the lust for growth, but with three-quarters of Premier League clubs owned overseas, nothing is certain.

Arrests at Premier League games are up 68.5% on pre-Covid times. Costs are becoming prohibitive. And the collapsing West Coast mainline means that, in England at least, it’s almost impossible even to get to certain games, the grim mantra falling softly over the waste land: Avanti, Avanti, Avanti.

So what then to do, if the status quo is unappealing and the future apparently worse? Bernd Reichart, the new CEO of the company backing the Super League is clearly on a mission to charm after the disastrous attempt to launch the competition in April 2021. “We want to reach out to stakeholders in the European football community and broaden this vision,” he says. “Even fans will have a lot of sympathy for the idea. It is a blank slate. Format will never be an obstacle.”

That “even” before “fans” raises immediate concerns – what, you’re actually going to consult the people who watch your product? My, how you indulge us – but let’s take him at his word. If there were a fresh start, how would we build football? It’s easy to complain, far harder to lay out a blueprint. What are the first principles? What should football at its most basic level be?

And that, perhaps is not such a difficult question to answer. A competition, ideally, as the word suggests, would be competitive. Does anybody doubt that? Does anybody really derive satisfaction from watching some superclub stroll up and smash half a dozen past some patsies every week? Teams should be rewarded for success, but not to such an extent that their domination becomes permanent. Every game should be a challenge; every team should be able to dream that, one day, with a fair wind, they could at least challenge somewhere near the top.

That means one of two things: either a closed system and a franchise model, which cuts against the sense of a club as an organic part of its environment, the democratic spirit of English football that meant a Huddersfield, a Burnley or an Ipswich could take on the big city clubs; or some proper form of redistribution – as existed until 1981. But that would require elite clubs to consider the game as a whole, and it’s a long time since anybody in football thought about anything beyond their own interests.

Measures to restrict spending – salary caps and financial fair play regulations – have proved essentially unworkable, not least because they are effectively unenforceable when clubs have such wealth they can stymie investigations with endless legal challenges.

You would almost certainly want some fan representation on the board, with a golden share to prevent the takeover of clubs by those whose primary concern is not the health of the game – although given the way fans race to prostrate themselves before the nearest passing billionaire, desperate to sign over their birthright for new signings, suggests that is no guarantee of anything.

Because the problem is that nobody sees football as a sport any more. It is a business, it is an entertainment product, it is content. Some clubs plot Entourage-style dramas around their daily affairs, while others seem to value social media engagements above matches or trophies won. Everything is about money and greed and growth, the game itself, or the club’s place in its community, an afterthought.

But football isn’t, at heart, either a business or an entertainment. It certainly shouldn’t be a tool of state propaganda. It is a sport and, until that is remembered and prioritised, it’s hard to have any hope for the future. Or, indeed, the present.