It’s not remotely original to say that 2020 can’t end soon enough. Most of us have experienced the single biggest collective disruption of our lives. Many of us have lost loved ones. Some have lost livelihoods. We know better than to believe that just because the Earth has made another (imperfect) revolution around the Sun doesn’t mean anything is likely to change substantially at the stroke of midnight. But that doesn’t make the sense of renewal that a change in the calendar brings any less real.
If you’re reading this, football is part of your life, however big or small a slice you devote to it. And that means it too carries with it wishes for something brighter and better. I’ve shared mine below, as I’ve been fortunate to do each December for the past seven years.
Roll on 2021…
Gab’s wishes from: 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014
1. That we reflect on the enforced hiatus from the game back in the spring — and the continued absence of supporters in most grounds — and use it to guide us. What did we miss? What matters? What matters less? Professional football is a relentless, commercially driven 24/7 operation that sits somewhere between collective spirituality and escapist entertainment. It is not set in stone. We — or, at least, the institutions at the top — can mold the future.
2. That the legacy of players feeling empowered enough to take a knee, and other forms of protest, not be dissipated by the passage of time. That was — and is — about systemic racism; others may be about the environment, human rights abuses, whatever. Players have a platform. It’s at once a privilege and a responsibility. Let them feel empowered to use it when they feel it is necessary.
3. That Euro 2020 takes place, even in 2021. Even (if necessary) in another form, in different venues, with different formats. I miss international football tournaments. For many of us, they’ve defined every other summer for our entire lives.
4. That FIFA’s new regulations on agents and transfers are approved and, just as important, are applied with uniformity and integrity. Agents and intermediaries serve an important purpose but they, and the clubs that empower them, shouldn’t be allowed to operate in darkness and without regulation.
5. That we get clear rules on who can own a club and under what conditions, and that decisions be swift and transparent. No more of this nonsense that saw Newcastle’s takeover bid being strung along for months by the Premier League without explanation.
6. That, while we’re at it, we also start having a conversation about what owners can and cannot do. Among the “cannot-do list,” I’d include stuff like piling on debt irresponsibly, taking out cash for their own purposes, being entirely beholden to intermediaries and generally not being good stewards. A club, ultimately, is at the heart of a community. Whether it’s a community of a few thousand supporters in a provincial team or a few hundred million dotted around the world, that has to come first.
7. That the single biggest decision to come in the next 12 to 18 months — the reform of the International Match Calendar — not be guided by greed, power games or a handful of self-interested clubs. The year 2024 is the witching hour, when the FIFA calendar that governs virtually every aspect of club, international and youth football has to be agreed, and the stakes are huge. We could see more games, we could see Champions League games on weekends and internationals relegated to a single window every year. Everything is in play, and these reforms will dictate how the game develops for the next decade.
8. That all the breakaway European Super League talk remains just talk, unless it’s based on something other than greed. We’ve had more than 120 years of the European game existing on a pyramid structure with promotion and relegation between the various tiers. It has worked remarkably well, too. If we’re going to talk on the basis of growing the game even further and making it more sustainable, fine. But if it’s going to be — as it appears to be of late — primarily driven by some clubs’ avarice and other clubs’ need for fresh revenue after overspending or suffering economic damage because of the pandemic, no thank you.
9. That fans and media — especially those who focus on big clubs and big leagues — don’t deride and ignore the UEFA Europa Conference, which launches this summer, as just another big joke. One of the side effects of the big leagues’ flexing has been to push out the rest of football and ensure that the Champions League is stocked with clubs from the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga and Ligue 1. This competition gives others a chance to play.
10. That while it’s great that rich folks from Asia and North America (and the corporations they control) pour money into Europe’s elite clubs, at least for the clubs themselves, we create the right conditions for them to invest locally and, indeed, in the rest of the world. Otherwise, we’ll always have an uneven playing field.
11. That the world outside Europe and South America realize what worked there might not necessarily be what works elsewhere to best grow the game. UEFA and CONMEBOL have a 100-year (or more) head start. Maybe that talked-about merger of LigaMX and Major League Soccer makes sense. Maybe the Gulf nations, where there’s plenty of money, could use a regional league of their own. Maybe the notion of a pan-African league isn’t that far-fetched. Let’s be open-minded. It’s not one-size-fits-all.
12. That the concussion protocol be taken seriously. That means temporary substitutions and independent assessments pitch-side. Until then, it won’t be.
13. That we at least explore the possibility of making the five-substitution rule permanent. Looking at the league tables in France, Germany, Italy and Spain — where, unlike England, it has been adopted — that doomsday scenario about bigger, wealthier clubs dominating doesn’t quite seem to have materialized, does it?
14. That Lionel Messi stay at Barcelona. Yes, this is a personal wish. Sorry, but I love the idea of a legend spending his entire career at one club.
15. That Barcelona make themselves a club that Messi finds worth staying at. This might take a bit more work given the dumpster fire in which they find themselves — some of it self-inflicted, some of it out of their control — but elections are coming up. Believe it or not, Barcelona fans have been through far worse times and not just survived, but thrived. They’ll be back, and hopefully quickly enough for Messi to stick around.
16. That Cristiano Ronaldo keeps defying gravity and reinventing himself. We first defined him as a quick-as-a-whip winger unleashing whup-ass with an intoxicating array of tricks. Now among his signature moves is the Jordan-esque hang time on his far-post headers.
17. That Juventus fans and critics understand that what they’re going through this season with Andrea Pirlo at the helm is necessary. The attacking football, the belief in young players, the high line, the counterpressing, the possession game… yeah, it’s a seminal philosophical change. And maybe Pirlo, in his first senior gig, might not have the tools to deliver it. But somebody had to do it, because their previous model was unsustainable in the modern game. And even if he fails, it will make the job of his successor that much easier.
18. That Eden Hazard stay fit. Not so much for Real Madrid’s sake — they’ll find a way without him — but more so for his sake and for the sake of all of us who loved his mazy, low-to-the ground runs, his eyes-on-the-back-of-the-head awareness and pinpoint finishes. (Oh, and because Belgium project to be among the favorites at 2021’s rescheduled Euros.)
19. That even if Marcus Rashford doesn’t develop into the world-beating superstar his precocious success suggested, everyone will remember what he has already achieved as a caring, selfless individual in public life. Inspiring others by taking a public stand isn’t for everyone, and he does it with passion and dignity. From what we can tell, he’s a better person than he is a footballer. And that’s high praise.
20. That people realize that Marcelo Bielsa plays the way he does because he believes it’s the best way to win. He’s not on some philosophical mission to entertain, he doesn’t enjoy giving away cheap goals, and he truly believes that this is the best way for him to get the best out of his players at Leeds United. And guess what? It’s working, and it’s entertaining. Next guy who calls him naive gets a boot to the head. Bielsa knows what he’s doing.
21. That this generation of young American talent — Giovanni Reyna, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and others — go on to lift the sport as a whole in the United States. Why? So that one day we can laugh at that old joke “soccer is the sport of the future in America… and always will be.”
22. That Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira find some place to play when their contracts expire next June. Both joined Real Madrid a decade ago, both have been shut out for most of 2020 in part because of their enormous contracts and because they couldn’t be moved on (and did not want to take a pay cut). I don’t want to remember these two World Cup winners as sad-sack figures training by themselves while being called greedy.
23. That Kai Havertz finds a place to play on the pitch at Chelsea even if it takes time. Especially when you see him in person, you realize what a singular talent he is. But equally, how accommodating him at this stage of his development is far from easy. He’s young. Be patient.
24. That Jurgen Klopp sees out his contract with Liverpool. Yes, he has already delivered the Premier League and Champions League. Yes, he has built a team that is once again top of the league. So if someone comes calling, sure, few would begrudge him leaving despite having committed himself to the club through 2024. But what he’s doing is pretty special and the Premier League is richer for having him around.
25. That Manchester United find their mojo, with or without Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It’s true that it was good for other clubs to emerge after the hegemony of the Sir Alex Ferguson Era. But it’s been a long time since United ruled, and what’s most perplexing is the sense of perennial drift that’s been around since then. Managers have come and gone, but the decision-makers above them have stayed the same. And yet it still doesn’t feel they’re building toward anything. It can’t all be down to the manager.
26. That Paul Pogba regains his smile, whether it’s at Old Trafford or elsewhere. The punditocracy — mostly ex-pros, mostly ex-United “Golden Era” players who seem hellbent on holding everyone to the standard they set (or that they think they set) — appears to take great delight in pointing out his every flaw. He’s not perfect, but he’s supremely talented and fun to watch. And that word “lazy” gets thrown around far too much when it comes to Pogba.
27. That all three of Milan’s high-profile free agents — Gianluigi Donnarumma, Hakan Calhanoglu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — stick around after their deals expire in June… but if it’s going to be too expensive, there’s no question who you prioritize. (It’s Donnarumma, by far the youngest of the three.) All three have played a big part in Milan’s renaissance and Scudetto challenge this season, but none of them is indispensable. The system that has been built and the young players that have come on board… that’s what will drive Milan going forward.
28. That Neymar stays fit and stays productive. I feel like I say this every year. He’s not in the Messi/Ronaldo conversation, and he never will be. But I don’t want to see a guy of his ability somehow be surpassed by the next generation — the Erling Haaland/Kylian Mbappe cohort — either.
29. That Borussia Dortmund keep this crew together for a while and get them the leadership they need to succeed. They’ve gotten plenty of pats on the back as the “smartest guys in the room” for assembling that hugely impressive corps of young talent: Jadon Sancho, Haaland, Reyna, Jude Bellingham and, now, Youssoufa Moukoko, too. They’re also honest in admitting that they can’t retain them long-term. OK. So sacrifice one, get a coach who can squeeze the best out of them and persuade them to win something big — something really big — before they’re sold on.
30. That kids who fall in love with the sport be given the chance, first and foremost, to support their local club before jumping on the big juggernaut/club bandwagon simply because it’s pumped relentlessly onto their screens. Yes, this is cut-and-pasted from last year, but it’s worth repeating. And it’s the one wish over which we have the most control.