Has football gone stale? With no fans in stadiums, daily reports of a new European Premier League, and a diminishing number of traditional playmakers, it certainly feels that way.
Growing up in the 1990s with a tennis fanatic mother, I often found myself glued to the television during Wimbledon fortnight. There was something so intriguing about the tournament, a mystique that drew me in year after year.
As time passed, football began to claim my heart, and the allure of tennis wore increasingly thin. For that, I had one man to thank: ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras.
Sampras sucked the joy out of tennis. His utter dominance in the ‘90s was tedious enough, but it was the manner in which he won that was so off-putting. Sampras’ game was built on a monstrous, almost mechanical serve.
Games were no longer won by stunning lobs or deft drop shots, but by aces and a brutal serve-and-volley double act. Seeing points last little longer than a split second was a massive turn off. Fans watch tennis for its artistry, not ruthless efficiency.
And so, following the news Mesut Özil has been omitted from Arsenal’s Premier League squad, I found myself wondering the same thing I did all those years ago, watching Tim Henman’s Slazenger racket helplessly flailing on the other side of the net: isn’t this meant to be fun?
At its core, football, as with any sport, is about entertainment. Players performing acts of magic that get you off your seat, tricks that leave you dumbfounded, first touches that make you purr, and curling efforts that kiss the stanchion on their way in.
Özil’s absence is not just a loss for Arsenal but a loss for football. His seamless ability to glide across pitches and execute passes you couldn’t even see, let alone make, were a sight to behold.
But elite football has moved on. Individual ingenuity has been usurped by collective organisation, jinking solo runs by robotic pressing triggers. We live in an era where sports science and data analytics scrutinise performance to the nth degree, leaving little room for acts of off the cuff magic.
It’s one of the reasons James Rodríguez and Everton have captured the imagination this season. The Colombian is something of a throwback, an entertainer who trades currency in no-look passes, not kilometres covered.
Even Rodríguez, though, recently conceded traditional number 10s are a dying breed. “Now everyone plays 4-4-2 or 4-3-3,” he remarked. “Hardly any kids want to be a number 10 because there aren’t any. They’re being left out by managers because they only want fast players who have one-vs-one skills.”
The joy number 10s provide plays a critical role in football. They create talking points, something to wax lyrical over well after the final whistle has blown. Their diminishment from the game instead leaves us with more time to focus on football’s negatives. An opportunity many seem to be grabbing with both hands.
We’d sooner go overboard condemning a Jordan Pickford challenge than we would celebrate a Manuel Lanzini wonder strike. We’ll berate the rapacity of pay-per-view matches but give little praise to Newcastle fans who instead chose to raise over £20,000 for a local food bank in protest.
Is this down to an absence of number 10s? Not entirely, but it does speak to a wider trend that football is starting to feel a little less fun. It’s an escapism for many, a chance to forget about your real-world problems for 90 minutes, but those societal traits we run from are progressively seeping their way into the game.
Want to turn off from reading about Boris Johnson’s disdain for the north of England? Tuck into some news about a European Premier League instead. Marcus Rashford scoring a midweek winner at the Parc des Princes? Forget that, he’s got a bigger battle on his hands against child food poverty.
It all feels deeply problematic. We can no longer vacate our homes and seek solace in stadia, so alternatively we’re left on our sofas, watching a rather lifeless product on TV, occasionally picking up our phones to scroll through depressing news feeds or rant about why our fantasy football captain hasn’t scored a hat-trick yet.
In times like these, we must focus on the positives and remember why we fell in love with football in the first place. For every bone-crunching tackle, there’s a moment of isolated brilliance. For every headline highlighting corruption, there’s one showcasing good will. For every Pete Sampras, there’s a Roger Federer.
So, when Rodríguez next produces a step over, leaves his marker for dead, and whips in an inch-perfect cross for Dominic Calvert-Lewin, revel in it. Because while a cloud of misery currently looms large over football, it’s important to remind ourselves why we tuned in in the first place.
The pandemic has already robbed us of so many things, let’s not let the joy of football be one of them.
Follow Charlie on Twitter @CharlieJC93
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