T.Here is a concept in web design called the Infinite Scroll that you will be familiar with if you’ve ever used Twitter, Facebook, or any other popular social media site. Essentially, it’s code that automatically adds new pages when you reach the bottom of the old ones so you can keep scrolling forever.
The Infinite Scroll of Football was longer in pregnancy, but its effects are broadly similar. It was announced last week that every game in the Premier League will be broadcast live until fans can return to the stadiums. This will create a largely unbroken chain of football on television that will stretch from the restart in June last year to at least May. On one level, this is a celebration of football as we have never seen it in our lives. But for what purpose?
The problem isn’t so much the volume of the football – as always, you can see what you want. Rather, it is the thinness and omnipresence, football has flattened and reconstituted and distributed everywhere like meat. The time that we used to spend anticipating or reliving football is now simply filled with more football: playing a car, mutating, manspreading. Even now, the flavors are largely indistinguishable from one another: Barclays to Carabao to Gazprom, the usual rhythms and rituals of the week have been replaced by a kind of football insomnia. You can never really sleep, but you will never be fully awake either.
I love football and have spent most of my career writing about it. But it feels increasingly illegible: a confusing, decontextualized stream of content played by various savvy press teams in front of large plastic sheets as commentators remind you of the game, which starts in an hour, and the latest team news from Villa Park. (There is always team news from Villa Park.)
It is tempting to think of all of this as a pandemic-forced nostrum, a temporary condition. However, this would mean ignoring the longer-term trends in European football, for which the current content overload is a dress rehearsal.
Europe’s top clubs are discussing major changes in the Champions League that would result in the group stage being expanded from 32 to 36 teams with 10 games each. Three spots could be reserved for clubs that did not qualify but have done well in the past: essentially a safety net that would prevent the big European clubs from ever being eliminated from the competition.
This is an idea that has been around for a few years in some form, which is why it seems so easy to ignore. Growing inequality, the greed of the richest clubs: yes, yes, terrible stuff. There comes a point where you just get tired of things that you can’t control. But that is what makes the present moment so dangerous: the feeling that a disheveled, distracted game is turning into seismic and irreversible change, that the confusing flow of football is obscuring a terrible abyss.
Let’s cover the practicals first: 100 extra games on a schedule that’s already screaming at the joints and ligaments. “I think it might be possible to add four more dates to the calendar,” said Lars-Christer Olsson, the leader of the European League, with the insignificant magnanimity of a 16th century pope.
Most of all, it’s the feeling of an impregnable cartel that is slowly walling itself up and making the rest of us gawk from afar. There is an annoyingly prevailing view that this season’s unpredictability was some sort of natural correction to the established order. Paris Saint-Germain are third in Ligue 1. Juventus will almost certainly be dethroned in Serie A. The two Spanish giants are in different disarray.
Look under the hood, however, and the post-Covid order is already shaken. Manchester City, the only club in the country that can afford to have £ 250million footballers – you know, just in case – are sneaking out of a worn out Premier League. Smaller clubs like Tottenham, Southampton, Burnley and Brighton burden themselves with debt to hold their own. Championship clubs are instructed to stop awarding goals and renew contracts in order to qualify for a Treasury bailout.
On the continent, the non-Qatar portion of Ligue 1 has lost more than £ 1bn. PSG have just signed one of the world’s greatest managers and either they or City are likely to get Lionel Messi this summer. Bayern Munich have just brought their biggest rivals to their knees by signing Dayot Upamecano from RB Leipzig. Really, how do we think this will all end?
Maybe not. That is the point. No doubt in a few years the biggest clubs will be back asking for something else: more games, bigger squads, fewer rules, the copyright to the word football, who knows. Perhaps it seems disproportionate to fret about the machinations of the European Club Association when most of us wonder when we will see our families again. Perhaps, like most seismic changes, this will happen while we are all looking the other way: too glassy to care, too tired to protest.
As football continues to fall around our ears like confusing digital rain, we look closer and closer into the void, trying to discern the semblance of a pattern: Leeds and Chelsea Tuesday, City and Real Wednesday; Europa League Thursday. But it makes even less sense and so we look harder. But it blurs a little and so we scroll on.