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January 21, 2014 2:57 pm
Football, for most of its history, was not a thinking sport.
Just as oil was part of the oil business, stupidity was part of the football business. The men who ran clubs did what they did because they had always done it that way.
However, in recent years the game has become smarter.
It has drawn inspiration from the “data revolution” that began in baseball before sweeping across all sports. Rising TV revenues also encourage a more professional approach. We can expect further advances on and off the field in 2014.
The domain with least scope for improvement should be tactics.
Football’s rules have changed little since they were codified in 1863. Most tactical possibilities have already been tried.
Nonetheless, the game’s most innovative coach, Josep Guardiola, keeps finding new ones. At Barcelona he refined his team’s positioning without the ball.
Now, at Bayern Munich, he sends his fullbacks into central midfield whenever his side has possession. That allows Bayern to swamp its opponents in midfield, and when Guardiola’s team loses the ball, it usually wins it back deep in the opposition’s half.
Coaches worldwide will continue to look to “Pep” for inspiration.
However, the greater advances in 2014 will be physical. At the 2006 World Cup, Jürgen Klinsmann, Germany’s then manager, showed how much fitter footballers could be if trained according to the cutting-edge methods of American sports.
Players’ fitness and speed have kept improving since. Nowadays, clubs have far more physical data on their employees than even five years ago.
Big clubs test, almost day by day, each player’s muscle weaknesses, the movement of the eyes, changes in breathing and many other obvious and less obvious indicators. Players wear GPS devices in training.
Thierry Marszalek, analyst with France’s national team, explains: “We can say that we’ll stop that player because he’s done too much, or that another one hasn’t worked enough and needs to do specific work. What’s interesting is the individualisation of work.”
Already teams such as Bayern play at an unprecedented pace.
A coach such as Chelsea’s José Mourinho expects even the dribbler Eden Hazard to exert himself in defence.
Increasingly, every player participates every second. Physical advances will continue to change the game in 2014.
Growing professionalisation on the pitch will be driven by growing professionalisation off it. It is often said that the football economy is now a bubble. Many pundits cited Real Madrid’s signing of Gareth Bale from Tottenham in September for a reported fee of £85m as the peak of madness.
Yet the critique of football’s increasing spending ignores the game’s rising revenues. Income from TV in particular has soared, chiefly because subscription channels have brought European football to ever more countries.
Football has powered through the global economic crisis. European clubs’ revenues have risen by about 5 per cent a year since 2008. In 2011-12 they hit €19.4bn, says Deloitte, the business advisory firm.
That growth should continue in 2014. The game is only starting to penetrate China, India, the US and Indonesia, which between them account for about 45 per cent of humanity.
The English Premier League currently earns only about 3 US cents in TV rights per Chinese person, compared with about $56 per Singaporean, according to Sportingintelligence.com, the business website. That represents room for growth.
Deloitte predicts that the global value of premium sports TV rights – chiefly the five biggest domestic European football leagues, the Champions League, and the four major North American sports leagues – will rise another 14 per cent in 2014 to £16bn.
Meanwhile, the World Cup in Brazil should be the biggest media event in history, as measured by number of viewers. Its geographic reach will be unprecedented.
When the US team plays a big game in Brazil, American viewing figures should dwarf average US audiences for games in baseball’s World Series or basketball’s NBA finals.
The football industry has got savvier, but so have its consumers.
The Brazilians are the first nation to have caught on en masse to a fact long known to sports economists: hosting a World Cup does not make you rich.
Typically, the host country pays the costs, while Fifa, the global football authority, pockets the benefits – chiefly TV rights and sponsorship deals.
Protesters in Brazil last June waved banners with slogans such as “We have world-class stadiums. Now we need a country to go around them.”
The European football authority Uefa, reluctant to land any country with such a costly burden, has decided against appointing a single host for the European championship of 2020. Instead, in September it will choose 13 host cities in 13 countries.
Fifa, too, will have drawn a lesson from the Brazilian demonstrations: to stage a World Cup in a democracy is to invite protests. Much safer to choose countries that do not tolerate dissent, such as Russia (host in 2018) and Qatar (2022).
Alternatively, Fifa could give the tournament to a wealthy democracy that does not need to build stadiums or infrastructure because it already has them in ample supply.
The US, host country in 1994, is winding up to bid for 2026.
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