Soccer wishes for 2019: UEFA and FIFA work together, VAR is improved, fight against racism continues
The New Year brings some new wishes as well as some old ones. We all want better and with the changing of the calendar comes a desire for renewal and a belief that, at least in these first few days of January, even improbable hopes can come true.
This is my sixth year doing this -- check the years for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 editions -- and I wish we didn't have to repeat things, but that's the nature of the struggle for a better footballing world. Things take time.
1. That even as UEFA and FIFA squabble among each other, they continue to work together to counter perhaps the single biggest shift the game has ever seen: polarization. The wealth and power of the very top clubs -- who are as much lifestyle brands and entertainment companies as they are football teams these days -- has turned the landscape into something resembling a banana republic, where the richest 0.1 percent own 70 percent of the resources. It's going to take some very smart people coming up with some very creative solutions -- luxury taxes, squad limits, loan restrictions, redistribution, all of the above and maybe something we have not yet thought of -- to address this. But it must be done, somehow.
2. That reason prevails and we come up with some sort of Club World Cup that works better than the current inanity in the Gulf. Gianni Infantino's mysterious $25 billion SoftBank shenanigans have ended up slowing much-needed reform. Find a way to fix it.
3. That we realize that a 48-team World Cup in Qatar is simply an unnecessary logistical nightmare in a country of that size. Either you work out a deal whereby some of it is shared with neighboring countries, which appears hugely unlikely given it's a political mess (some of Qatar's neighbors have an active blockade going) and administrative nightmare (if you share it, do co-hosts get automatic places?) right now, or you just stick to 32 teams, leaving expansion to 48 until the 2026 edition. Infantino has hinted at a co-hosting situation in 2022 but it remains to be seen if such a thing could work.
4. That the next manager, journalist or ex-pro who moans about European-based players leaving in January to play in the Asian Cup -- or, worse, calls it "Mickey Mouse football" -- gets a swift boot to the head. How about some freaking respect? Besides, clubs know players' nationalities when they sign them. It's also funny how they don't moan about it when they chase Asian sponsorship or investment.
5. That the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, the first to be held in the summer months, goes off without a hitch... even though it kicks off in less than six months and we still don't know where it will be held. African football, and African football fans, deserve better.
6. That the runaway success of the UEFA Nations League -- in terms of revenue, audiences, competition and entertainment -- continues to give the international game a shot in the arm in off-years as well. And that, perhaps, a few people learn not to have knee-jerk negative reactions to anything new in football.
7. That somebody provides some clarity when it comes to Football Leaks, particularly if documents were stolen or hacked rather than leaked by whistleblowers. I'm all for transparency and there are situations where you can make a "public interest" argument even with stolen materials, but the thought that someone can march into any server, take whatever he wants and leave a German magazine as the sole arbiter of what is right, proper and newsworthy makes me uncomfortable.
8. That as VAR is increasingly rolled out and accepted as a positive change by most, it gets accompanied by a bit of transparency. It doesn't require much. Just a simple tweak: shortly after the game (if not during it), reveal what the VAR officials and the referees discuss when making or not making a decision. The more folks understand it, the better it will work.
9. That FIFA's stakeholder committee, headed by CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, continues its work and makes meaningful change, particularly in addressing conflicts of interests, regulating agents and creating a level playing field. We've long had certain super agents wielding huge amounts of power over some clubs but at least it was on the sly. Now we have a club owner (Wolves' Guo Guangchang at Wolves) who also owns 20 percent of an agency, GestiFute, which in turn represents a number of players at the club as well as the Wolves manager. That's pretty much the definition of conflict of interest. In what world is this normal?
10. That agents not be demonized en masse but are instead given rules (followed up by enforcement mechanisms) so they can do their job in a way that benefits the game. And yes, honest, competent agents do benefit the game: by protecting player interests, by creating a more open marketplace and by helping clubs operate more efficiently. It's the crooks among them, and their enablers at clubs, that we need to worry about.
11. That the fight against racism -- but also sexism, homophobia, religious or territorial abuse -- continues. Ideally, it would be the authorities stopping the game, but if it takes a manager to yank his team off the pitch -- as Napoli's Carlo Ancelotti pledged to do after Kalidou Koulibaly was abused against Inter on Boxing Day -- then so be it. Where there is racist abuse, there should be no football.
12. That the Kathryn Mayorga case reaches some sort of clear-cut resolution, one way or another. She deserves it.
13. That Hakeem Al-Araibi not be forgotten. He may or may not have a case to answer, but effectively being kidnapped while on holiday does not amount to due process.
14. That the 2019 Women's World Cup gets its well-earned time in the spotlight. Let it serve not just as an inspiration for young girls, but also as a way to find more resources to ensure that those who want to play the game -- regardless of where they are in the world -- get a chance to do so.
15. That Jose Mourinho reflects on what went wrong and why, not just at Manchester United but at his two previous jobs as well. And that he learns from it and comes back stronger than before.
16. That the next Manchester United manager, whoever he may be (maybe even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer), restores a sense of fun and excitement to the club after five and a half years of relentless negativity. That effort might even be more important than the actual results.
17. That folks realize that letting managers make all the personnel decisions isn't wise. Exhibit A: my colleague Raf Honigstein reporting that Jurgen Klopp didn't want Mohamed Salah, preferring Julian Brandt instead. A clever manager won't whinge about not getting his way but will know when to trust those around him and work with what he is given instead.
18. That this garbage ends. Yeah, I've posted it many times before, but it just won't go away. Raheem Sterling doesn't deserve this level of idiocy and hate aimed at him.
19. That Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi keep on keeping on. The pair scored 100 goals between them in 2018, and yet we take it for granted. We'll miss them when they're gone.
20. That Mauricio Pochettino not be labeled a traitor (if he leaves Tottenham Hotspur) or unambitious (if he stays). He's an adult, he has a contract, he has a family, he has emotions and dreams and loyalties. Let him figure it out for himself and respect his decisions. (Oh, and may the next guy who says "but he hasn't won anything" get a boot to the head.)
21. That Gareth Bale either gets fit, and stays fit, or gets out of Madrid. He's not the problem at Real but it's not clear that he's the solution either. He has started only 60 percent of the club's Liga matches since arriving at the Bernabeu and there's a portion of the media and fans that seems to revel in counting the number of injuries he has suffered. It's not a helpful situation for anyone.
22. That more people realize that while Sergio Ramos and Sergio Busquets might be guys you love to hate when they are playing against you, they are exactly the sort of players you want on your team. In fact, over the past decade they may have been the most important players not named Cristiano or Lionel at Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively.
23. That Diego Simeone continues with his contrarian brand of football. No top side in the world plays the way Atletico Madrid do. No top manager is as intrinsically tied to a club or a footballing idea as he is. That's special, and that variety is part of why we love this game.
24. That Juventus not be lulled into a false sense of security, but instead heed Max Allegri's warnings: they can and must do more. Yes, they topped their Champions League group and are running away with Serie A (again). But in 14 of their 25 games, they've either not won or won by a single goal. Allegri is right: they need to find those extra gears.
25. That Kylian Mbappe continues to soar. By the time he turned 20 last month, he had amassed 63 goals in all competitions... and won a World Cup. That's 10 more than the 53 Ronaldo and Messi had combined before they turned 20. (Oh, and their total includes Messi's goal for Barcelona C and Barcelona B.) What chance that after these two GOAT candidates he'll be the next one?
26. That a bit of soul-searching and humility be part of Bayern Munich's self-examination when they look at what went wrong over the past 18 months. And maybe, that some untouchable icons -- yes, Uli Hoeness first and foremost -- also evaluate what they could have done differently. Sometimes believing your own PR is the worst thing you can do.
27. That Gregg Berhalter achieves enough as U.S. national team boss that we can read about him without reading about his brother Jay who holds a senior commercial role at U.S. Soccer and helped hire the guy (Earnie Stewart) who ultimately appointed him. Yeah, it's not a good look but if he gets the job done, it won't matter.
28. That long-suffering Milan fans realize they're firmly on a brighter path. I get it: while it's hard to root for a hedge fund, especially one that is pretty explicit in saying it's in it for the money, with a "three- to five-year exit strategy," it's miles better having them in your club than the snake oil salesmen and charlatans who were there this time last year.
29. That Arsene Wenger gets one last crack at a job somewhere. I don't want younger fans to think that the past few years at Arsenal defined who he is and what he brought to the game.
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. (Yep, I've had this one before. It's worth repeating.)