Optimism springs eternal as club football rolls back into town

Cesc Fabregas will strut his stuff for Chelsea in the English Premier League which kicks off this weekend. (Getty)

There are plenty of motives to be disillusioned with contemporary club football. But as memories of the 2014 FIFA World Cup recede, I have found two reasons to be cheerful.

I confess that it has not been easy to put the 2014 World Cup behind me and focus once more on club football.
Part of that, of course, is that the party happened on my (adopted) doorstep, and I had a grandstand view. But there is something else.

Nationalism can be a dangerous force. But in the heat of a giant tournament there is so much to celebrate in national team football. It is not so much 'my country is always right.' It is more a case of 'my country fitting into a global context' – a much more healthy way of looking at the world.

I enjoy the power of representation that national team football engenders, and love the fact that this is a forum where the likes of Uruguay and Costa Rica can be competitive. It is striking how in the world of national teams the playing field is levelled. True, the last two World Cups were won by Germany and Spain, countries with powerful domestic leagues. The same, though, is not really true of Algeria, which pushed the Germans hard in that second round match in Porto Alegre. Many of the Algerian squad, though, have grown up in France, where they have benefited from a welfare state and from local facilities and coaching.

This dynamic in national team football is the opposite of what happens in the club game, where the process of concentration means that increasingly the world's best players are gobbled up by a handful of giant 'super-clubs.'

The finances needed to compete at this level have turned some of those clubs into millionaires' playthings. The gaps which have opened up between the giants and the rest undermine the competitive balance of the domestic league in these countries, and end up reducing the quality of clubs elsewhere around the world, which are continually selling their best players to Europe.

South America's Copa Libertadores, for example, has just been won by San Lorenzo of Argentina. But come the second leg of the final, it was already without its two most dangerous players; young support striker Angel Correa had been sold to Spain before the semi-finals (though he would have missed the concluding stages anyway, as his medical exam revealed that he had a tumour on his heart) and canny left-sided midfielder Ignacio Piatti signed for a side in Major League Soccer and was forced to miss the decisive match of the campaign.

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It is unimaginable that such a situation could befall one of the European giants towards the closing stages of the UEFA Champions League. But, barring the injection of a millionaire's money, it is very hard to see how second string European clubs can climb high enough to reach the top table. The case of Southampton in England is emblematic; under Argentine coach Mauricio Pochettino it was a breath of fresh air for 18 months, playing some enterprising football and developing a highly promising group of players. But the club has now become victim of its success, losing coach and players to bigger rivals. It would have been fascinating to see how far Pochettino and company could carry the team – financial realities mean we will not have the chance.

There are, then, plenty of motives to be disillusioned with contemporary club football. But as memories of the World Cup recede, I have found two reasons to be cheerful.

One is the pursuit of excellence. The World Cup is great, but it does clearly suffer from today's over-cluttered calendar (which, I suppose, is primarily the fault of the club game). The sad reality, evident once more in Brazil a few weeks ago, is that come the end of the season the top players have little gas in the tank at the closing stages of international tournaments. If you want to see them at their best, then the place to do it is with their clubs. In terms of the standard of play, the Champions League is these days better than the World Cup.

This, though, only applies to the elite strata of the game. But there is something else which, at this time of the year, is relevant to football at much lower levels – the magic of the big kick off. All over Europe (and, on my side of the Atlantic, in Argentina a few days ago and Uruguay this last weekend) the league season is getting started.

After a few months away from the stadium, the supporter is desperate to get back inside and cheer on his team. And however big or modest the club in question, the fan always thinks, deep down inside, that maybe this could be the season when his team springs a surprise. Whether it is winning the Champions League or just survival in its division coupled with a nice little domestic cup run, this optimism is at the heart of the magic of being a fan. It needs a few months to sprout after the disappointments of the previous campaign, but very time at this year it sprouts again.

This, of course, is the way that most fans experience the game. It is the essence of football, this magic of fandom, containing within it the purity necessary to recharge the batteries and look forward to the long club season.