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Football’s new frontier: Bellingham and Bonmati overshadowed by a big shift in 2023

It was an offhand line from a senior European football executive, but one that has been echoed a lot over the last 12 months. “Well, we’ll take them to court.”

It is a threat as potent in modern football as any Jude Bellingham burst, any Erling Haaland finish or any Aitana Bonmati pass. These three players marked themselves out as the stars of 2023, but there has been an element of producing relatively disposable moments in an increasingly predictable sport, before we get to the really meaningful action of what happens off the pitch.

This was after all a year when a King’s Counsel literally had a banner made about him, royals from autocracies were thanked and huge clubs made videos celebrating a court ruling as if it was the signing of Kylian Mbappe.

This has been the legacy of 2023 for football. It was the year when a series of factors and fault lines converged to move the most influential action off the pitch finally.

You only have to run through the major achievements of 2023, before you even get to the really big storylines.

Manchester City became the second English club to win the treble, as Pep Guardiola also won a personal second to crown a third successive title. This wasn’t discussed as the defining achievement it would usually have been, though, because of a host of off-field issues.

There is first of all the manner and meaning of all this. City’s success was a consequence of a state project of unprecedented scale, where the club’s Abu Dhabi owner has invested as much money as possible, to have the best of everything and make their superiority an inevitability.

There is then the development that sparked a resolve in Guardiola’s players and made them determined to “show it on the pitch”. City’s domineering late-season run was preceded by the news that the Premier League had charged the club for 115 alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.

Given the scale of the case and potential punishments, the uncertainty weighs over the entire game. It is no exaggeration to say it could be an existential event in modern football, such is the strength of feeling. Again, it will come from meeting rooms rather than matches. What happens on the pitch is now influenced to a far greater degree than ever before.

Manchester City won a glorious treble in 2023

That has now been compounded by a similar investigation into Chelsea from the Roman Abramovich era, as well as Everton’s 10-point punishment for breaching the retitled profit and sustainability rules. These are the sort of records that 2023 was responsible for. It’s little wonder that Premier League meetings are now described as primarily “consisting of club lawyers making speeches”.

It goes way beyond England of course. One of the year’s set-piece events, in Australia and New Zealand, almost summed it all up. There we had the England women’s team achieving a historic landmark in getting to a World Cup final, only to be beaten by a Spanish team goal of divine quality. It was football at its best, imbued with profound human emotion given the sad passing of Olga Carmona’s father, before the Real Madrid star scored the winner.

It immediately evolved into the sport at its worst. Then Spanish federation chief Luis Rubiales ended up dominating all of the aftermath with a boorish display, where he forcibly kissed Jenni Hermoso on the lips to her obvious displeasure. It eventually led to the player filing a criminal complaint and the executive’s long-overdue resignation.

Spain players celebrate after the team’s victory in the Fifa women’s World Cup

While the story was ultimately about long-term issues in Spanish football as well as power dynamics in the game as a whole, it similarly reflected broader issues with football governance. Rubiales’ obstinance raised necessary questions about some of the figures who get into the game’s administrative roles and how much power they are afforded.

Many other people in football recognised how difficult it is to bring power change. The game has a serious governance problem and a crisis of leadership, compounded by a complete lack of accountability.

Look at the major decisions this year, even beyond those in the Premier League. Aleksander Ceferin was re-elected as Uefa president without any opposition, to go with his Fifa counterpart Gianni Infantino doing the same last year. Both meanwhile oversaw bidding processes that involved single candidates for the major tournaments in 2028, 2030, 2032 and 2034.

The UK and Ireland will enjoy benefits from this, as the hosts of Euro 2028, but the lack of surprise ensured this didn’t feel like landmark news.

Luis Rubiales overshadowed Spain’s victory in Sydney

It certainly paled next to some of the year’s legal rulings. Fifa and Uefa faced four different cases, three in the European Court of Justice and one in the UK due to agents challenging the global body’s attempt at reform. While there was merit to many of Uefa and Fifa’s positions in these cases, the number of them doesn’t speak to healthy governance.

The decisions displayed that the wide margin of discretion the governing bodies used to be afforded has gone. It is why the UK government made a genuine landmark decision by creating an independent regulator. Football has shown it can’t govern itself, not when it’s grown to this size. The reason so much influence has moved off the pitch is because of the number of external actors and interests that the sport’s authorities have willingly allowed into the game, from autocracies to investment funds. Those who run the game warrant much more transparency and objectivity.

One of the most surprising aspects of the most prominent of those court cases, regarding the Super League’s challenge, was that Uefa actually held a press conference afterward. They don’t tend to explain much anymore. They don’t feel they need to. The ruling from that case has largely preserved the status quo, and it should be acknowledged that it is better for football to not just be handed off to the most self-interested clubs. Real Madrid and Barcelona are after all railing against a world they created.

One of the consequences of that is 2023 saw the last of the classic 32-team Champions League structure, to be replaced by what looks a lot like an institutionalised Super League.

This is a crucial point regarding the power battle that dominated the penultimate week of the year. The game shouldn’t just be handed over to self-interested clubs because that can’t be reverted, and there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t be sold off further.

The governing bodies can still be reformed, by contrast, but 2023 made it clear they are in dire need of that. The executive presidential model – where heads of authorities are bestowed huge power without many democratic checks – just doesn’t work for the sport.

It has clearly left football subject to forces beyond its control. Ceferin made some bizarre comments about problems like multi-club projects and the rise of the Saudi Pro League, which fed into a sense of powerlessness about Qatar potentially buying Manchester United.

Gianni Infantino with the trophy during the ceremony after the Club World Cup final

That didn’t happen due to the Glazers’ intransigence, summing up how in thrall the game is to Western capitalism, too. It has allowed Chelsea to attempt what amounts to an unprecedented experiment. Both clubs of course remain key to the European Club Association, which is now headed by Qatar’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and has a very strong relationship with Uefa.

Meanwhile, Fifa is enjoying a burgeoning relationship with Saudi Arabia. That was visible in Infantino dancing around the Riyadh pitch to pose for photos in his white trainers at the end of the Club World Cup final last week. His presidency has now ensured the Kingdom will get the greatest prize of all, staging the men’s World Cup itself, in 2034.

It was also in Riyadh that Infantino announced the details for the newly expanded Club World Cup in 2025. While this will take place in the USA, the Saudi Pro League is putting a huge focus on it. This is because, without access to the Champions League, there is a belief it can be made into a superior global equivalent.

It could well be the real stage for most of the stars the competition has tried to sign, in what was one of the year’s most disruptive developments. The extent of Saudi spending also posed new questions about the growing problem of multi-club projects and the potential for conflict of interest. Other Premier League clubs are known to be extremely exercised about it with regards to Newcastle United, as a split grows with state-owned clubs on the other side.

Unlike Jordan Henderson, who seemed to create critical headline after critical headline, Mbappe and Lionel Messi were two players who resisted the lure of the Saudi Pro League.

These were seen as spirit-affirming stories, which maybe shows how much the game has shifted, given both were at Paris Saint-Germain. Messi’s move to Inter Miami might still further shift the game’s gravity.

Lionel Messi has been a revelation in Miami

He remains a joy to watch, even in a forgiving league. It’s usually at this point of such reviews that there’s an elaboration about why we’re all here. And it would be wrong to be churlish about that.

The game, as it is played, remains a joy. Bellingham has enjoyed one of the quickest rises from real prospect to proven world-class star and puts England in a confident mood ahead of Euro 2024. They can learn from Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses, who displayed impressive tournament resolve.

The Luton Town story is what the pyramid should be about, just as the Super League tried to leave it. West Ham United winning a trophy produced a feeling more clubs should get to enjoy, even if it should be some source of regret it had to be a Europa Conference League that was specifically set up for clubs from lower-ranked leagues.

That is the way football has gone now. It’s no longer quite a case of “see you out there”. It’s “see you in here”, behind closed doors.

Summary

The article discusses the influence of off-field issues on modern football, highlighting the legal threats and investigations that have overshadowed on-pitch achievements. It delves into the impact of financial irregularities, the power dynamics in football governance, and the relationships with external actors and interests such as investment funds and autocracies. The piece also addresses the need for reform in football governing bodies and the challenges associated with maintaining the integrity of the sport in the face of self-interested clubs and global events.