Soccer’s Focus Needs to Be Product, Not Packaging

Everything started with a letter. In the summer of 1990, Daniel Jeandupeux, a young Swiss coach, was bored. More precisely, he was bored by that year’s men’s World Cup. The romance of Toto Schillaci, the joy of Roger Milla, the swelling aria of Nessun Dorma: None of it could quite dislodge his sensation that it had been, by and large, a deeply “ugly” tournament.

That thought inspired Jeandupeux to explore why that might have been. As he described it to the estimable Dutch news outlet De Correspondent, he used an early example of soccer analytics software, a platform called Top Score, to examine what form the game took, particularly in matchups in which one team took an early lead.

The answer, as he found it, was that the game essentially stopped. In some cases, the winning team’s goalkeeper had “10 times as many touches” as all of the other players combined. The best way to win in soccer, Jeandupeux had discovered, was to ensure that as little soccer as possible was played.

He sent his findings in a letter to an old friend, Walter Gagg, a functionary in FIFA’s technical department, the part of soccer’s world governing body that looks after the actual soccer. His warning was stark. “Such possession is bound to kill the game,” he wrote, unless there was rectifying action. Jeandupeux had an idea of what that might be.

His timing, it turned out, was immaculate. FIFA had been worrying about an epidemic of time-wasting for about a decade, but had always found the International Football Association Board (IFAB) — the British-dominated body responsible for the game’s rules — reluctant to change. There was one person at the top of the organization, though, determined to break the stalemate. Rather inconveniently, that person was Sepp Blatter.

A few months after that World Cup, Blatter had created what he called Task Force 2000, which is precisely the sort of name that Sepp Blatter might come up with for something. Led by Michel Platini — again, in hindsight, a little problematically — it was given the job of identifying ways to make the game more appealing, more dynamic, more dramatic.

Jeandupeux’s letter, passed to Platini and his fellow Task Force members, crystallized many of their thoughts. Now they not only had empirical proof that soccer had grown slow, cautious and dull, but a recommendation as to how to change it. Jeandupeux had suggested that the most egregious form of time-wasting — one that had been a soccer cornerstone for decades — be outlawed: Goalkeepers, he said, should be banned from rolling the ball to a teammate, getting it back, and picking it up again, only to repeat the process a few seconds later.

The Task Force decided that proposal did not go far enough. Instead, its members decided that goalkeepers should no longer be able to use their hands to receive a pass from any teammate. Within a few months of Jeandupeux’s submission to Gagg, they had invented what would become known as the backpass rule.

Everything in modern soccer flows from that single change. Without that letter, without that Task Force — and, yes, sadly, without Blatter — there is no tiki-taka, there is no gegenpressing, there is no Arsène Wenger or Pep Guardiola or Jürgen Klopp. There is no game as we currently see it.

It is easy for fans of a certain vintage to scoff at soccer’s tendency to treat 1992 as some sort of Year Zero, to bristle at how easily everything that happened before the dawn of the Premier League and the Champions League — an entire century — is dismissed as an irrelevant prehistory.

But 1992 was not just a rebranding exercise. It also brought a substantive shift in the nature of soccer itself. That summer, two years after Jeandupeux sat down and wrote his letter, the backpass rule came into force. It is a legitimate before and after: The soccer that would follow was not just fundamentally different from what went before, it was better.

It is important to remember that as, once again, the sport finds itself discussing change. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has already rubber-stamped a new format for the Champions League. This week, it confirmed that it would reserve two places in the tournament for teams that qualified on what has been called, a little euphemistically, “historical merit.”

Even that, though, did not go far enough for Nasser Al-Khelaifi. In his role as chairman of the European Clubs’ Association — rather than president of Paris St.-Germain or chairman of BeIn Sports or chairman of Qatar Sports Investments or vice president of the Asian Tennis Federation — Al-Khelaifi has other changes on his mind.

They range from the rather vague — amounting essentially to a list of Web3 buzzwords like “metaverse” and “NFTs” — to the more concrete. Al-Khelaifi believes it is worth exploring the idea of an expanded European Super Cup, turning a semi-serious showpiece into a tournament in its own right, one that may be played outside Europe. He would consider a Final Four-style tournament for the Champions League. He would, reading between the lines, contemplate changing kickoff times to suit television markets in the United States and Asia.

Despite the very obvious self-interest of their source, despite the fact that not all of these ideas are his, and despite the circumstance — almost exactly a year since the sudden launch and swift death of the European Super League project — these ideas should not be rejected out of hand.

They are not, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect, but nor are they entirely devoid of merit. Soccer would do well to remember that, at first, it was assumed that the backpass law would simply encourage goalkeepers to launch the ball at every given opportunity; nobody imagined that its ultimate consequence would be Éderson.

Expanding the Super Cup is, on the face of it, a reasonable idea. It is possible that the benefits of staging the semifinals and final of the Champions League in a single location — the sense of occasion, the drama of a one-and-done knockout — would outweigh the undoubted complications in security, logistics and the loss of revenue and, crucially, atmosphere generated by semifinals on a club’s home turf.

Even the concept of teams’ being given a pass into the Champions League despite not qualifying domestically is not quite as absurd as has been presented: Though such a proposal would, doubtlessly, increase the inequality that remains the game’s greatest challenge, there is at least some logic in the idea that how you perform in the tournament itself should be rewarded.

There is no reason to reject Al-Khelaifi’s ideas, then, simply because they represent change. Change, as Jeandupeux would testify, can sometimes bring improvements, and in ways that are not immediately apparent. The problem, in fact, is the opposite; these ideas do not represent change enough.

It was striking, for example, that Al-Khelaifi should cite the Super Bowl as an example of the sort of things soccer should be doing. Why, he asked, was the final of the Champions League not more of an event? Why was it not more of a show? Why was there not a litany of the world’s biggest musical acts lining up to play at the world’s biggest annual sporting fixture?

These are all questions that soccer executives ask with alarming frequency. (The answer to that last one, for what it’s worth, is that the world’s biggest musical acts know full well that they would be jeered if they played the Champions League final, because all of the people in the stadium are there to see a soccer match, not a concert.)

Nobody, anywhere, is quite so obsessed with the Super Bowl as the people who run Europe’s soccer teams. None of them ever seem to stop to consider the fact that the global audience for the Champions League final dwarfs that of the Super Bowl, or the reality that soccer is more popular by an order of magnitude worldwide than the N.F.L., and that it has achieved all of that despite not having a halftime show. It gives the impression that soccer’s leaders have startlingly little confidence in the sport in which they have invested.

That is not the case, of course; the reasoning is a little more subtle. The game’s power brokers propose these things — fireworks, dance troupes, rebranded competitions, format changes and all the rest of it — because, while the changes that would have the most effect are far simpler, they are very much not in their interests.

The way to make every game “an event,” as Al-Khelaifi put it, is not to invite Maroon 5. It is to increase the competitive balance between the two competing teams so that the result does not feel like a foregone conclusion. The reason the group stages are not “compelling” is not because there is no Jean-Michel Jarre-style light show before kickoff; it is because it is a group stage, and so there is no genuine sense of jeopardy.

Anyone with even a modicum of understanding of soccer — of sports — understands that: Memories only need to stretch as far back as last week, and the playoffs for the World Cup, to realize that drama is not generated by the staging of a game or even the quality of it, but the meaning and the content.

Al-Khelaifi, of course, is not going to propose any change that radical, any change that meaningful. Addressing the chronic lack of competitive balance would not benefit P.S.G. or the rest of the cabal of superclubs whose agenda continues, even after the Super League debacle, to dominate UEFA’s thinking.

Instead, he and his peers will continue to believe — and to insist — that soccer’s route to growth lies in improving the packaging, rather than the product. Like Jeandupeux, all those years ago, they very clearly sense in some way that things are just getting a little boring. The difference is that they are holding on to the ball, and they will do all they can to not give it back.


Sitting in the stands at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, it was very difficult to have any sympathy with the idea that the Champions League needs to change at all, other than perhaps by introducing some sort of rule that Karim Benzema’s presence should be compulsory in all matches.

The previous evening, spent watching Manchester City try to break Atlético Madrid’s fearsome resistance, was not quite as entertaining. That is not because Atlético should not rely on grit and grizzle more than flash and flair, but because a cornerstone of any great defensive performance is some sort of attacking threat.

And you may not have noticed, because FIFA has not been keen to publicize it, but it turns out we are not getting a biennial World Cup after all. Even the expanded Club World Cup seems to have faded from view somewhat. This happens a lot to Gianni Infantino’s big ideas, when you think about it.

In good news for Alan Goldhammer, but bad news for both FIFA and the many and varied sports-washers of the world, we can now say with some certainty that he is far from alone.

The audience for this newsletter is a self-selecting demographic, of course — one defined, let’s be clear, by its impeccable taste — and so cannot be treated as a broad sample. But it would appear that there are quite a few of you out there, like Alan, who do not intend to bless the Qatar World Cup with your attention.

“I refuse to lend my eyes to an event which is designed by a nasty regime to bolster its image,” wrote Nathan Wajsman. “I also skipped the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the recent Winter Olympics in Beijing. It may not mean anything to the organizers, but it means something to me.

Sjaak Blaauw has come to the same conclusion. “With 6,500 people having lost their lives, and many workers not having been paid what was their due, I cannot condone this,” he wrote.

Some are a little more conflicted. “I am getting closer to Alan Goldhammer’s sentiment, but it is taking more time and thought for me,” wrote Rashmi Khare. “I feel more and more like I am being manipulated. If I participate, my eyeballs and my dollars will be used to justify the corruption that led to this tournament. If I do a full blackout, it’s just one less eyeball/dollar from billions.”

And others still offered a different perspective. “Good on Mr. Goldhammer,” wrote Nick Adams, before acknowledging that rather than not watch, he would “put my mind to thinking how to make Qatar safe for all visitors, how I would voice a protest, and how I would do something to change the corrupt decision-making process” that led to the tournament’s being held there in the first place.

There were many more submissions, all of them just as sincerely held and articulately expressed. Thank you to all of you who emailed, and please keep them coming. The correspondence on that subject has been rivaled only by the continued debate about deep dish “pizza,” including an assessment from Bart McKay that I enjoyed enormously. “Deep dish pizza,” he wrote, “is just casserole with better P.R.”