This may come as something of a shock but despite so much doom and gloom – and which aspect of the world’s daily life is free of it? – football enters 2014 in rude, good health. However, the holistic significance of the World Cup in Brazil must not be underestimated.
Never have more people been playing or watching the game around the world and the most commercially dependent sectors (international and league competitions) continue, by and large, to record increasingly advantageous contracts in defiance of the global economic climate.
This is does not mean that the game has to lower its guard in the fight against the attack from critical viruses such as matchfixing, doping and corruption in general at administrative as well as playing levels.
Two important signals were raised over the past 12 months. The first was a wider recognition of the evils of racism within the game: this was flagged up initially by Kevin-Prince Boateng’s walkout during a friendly in Italy last January and – to their belated credit – both FIFA and UEFA woke up to the issue.
Within the European federation, as president Michel Platini has regretfully had to concede, many senior administrators and fans, remain to understand the basic evil. Still, a ramped-up system of warnings and graded stadia closures is starting to have an effect.
Progress will demand years of education (this is a societal more than sports issue) but at least action is being effected within the game and should be acknowledged and welcomed.
The same with matchfixing.
This has been by far the worst and most depressing year in the history of world football as far as results manipulation has been concerned.
At least, once more and if belatedly, the game has woken up to the danger. Combatting fixing, however, is a challenge for which coherence and unity remain at odds.
This is largely because of the nature of the crime: the internet explosion has opened up the world to betting and gambling crime syndicates who can operate from unrestricted territories and feed on the financial and policing inadequacies within (mostly) club football.
Not that federations themselves have been innocent. The Zimbabwe and South African scandals demonstrated how easily the fixers can persuade naïve officials (to be generous) can be persuaded to betray the game in their own back yard.
Financial control is a key factor. UEFA has made a worthy start with Financial Fair Play but, until one of the biggest names is expelled from European club competition then scepticism will remain over its long-term value.
The conundrum is that revenue standards are market led and while the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City & Co keeps pushing up the sponsorship and TV revenue ceilings then competitive pressure further down the chain tempts clubs/presidents/chairman/owners into cutting financial (and legal) corners.
The international players’ union, FIFPro, will doubtless continue to maintain pressure on both theoretical and practical issues.
Newly-returned president Philippe Piat will need to lead with programme proposals to raise FIFPro’s relevance beyond that of a pressure group snapping away at FIFA’s heels.
The world federation itself continued its reform process during 2013, albeit at a snail’s pace.
Various cosmetic administrative changes were approved by Congress but the age/term limits issue remains unresolved and until FIFA bites the bullet on wages transparency then its commitment to reform (as the departing Mark Pieth grew tired of warning) will remain under question.
Probably that one will need a new president – and the coming year will offer further clues as to whether Sepp Blatter will seek to carry on in 2015 or whether Platini will challenge.
Both men have said no thoughts or decisions will emerge – as with the confusion over the date of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – until after the coming year’s finals in Brazil.
In one sense Brazil is the greatest test of the game’s health in the year ahead (The inevitable street protests will be an issue for the host nation rather than the game per se).
The last few World Cups have been low in quality, a poor advert for the game. An over-stuffed finals tournament has lowered the overall quality and dramatic effect. It has also exacerbated the physical and mental pressure on players at the end of a demanding European season.
A grisly final in South Africa in 2010 was the worst possible advert of the game for a record international sports audience.
Not merely FIFA but football in general needs a bright, entertaining, exciting World Cup . . . qualities generated by the players and coaches not through the synthetic pretence of sponsors, advertisers and television companies.
So, as a final thought for 2014, here’s hoping also that the media tells it as it is – not only the bad but also the good.