This is a special winter break edition of The Beautiful Game, in which I will touch on a few major events in the soccer world that happened while we were away over break.
Soccer, as the most popular sport on the planet, has a reputation for bringing people together. Logically, one would think the game has a unified governing structure. Well, that’s not exactly the case, given the reputation of soccer’s international governing body, FIFA. Just the mention of the organization around soccer fans provokes intense debate. Many dislike the organization for its past corruption scandals and preference for profit over sport at times.
This time, though, it’s not a scandal that has FIFA in the headlines, but the organization’s decision to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams in 2026.
Supporters say the decision allows for more countries to join the event, yet critics assail the idea, saying it will dilute the quality of the tournament. It is also important to note that the group stage will grow to 16 groups of three teams each, extending the length of that segment of the tournament.
The expanded group stage at the 24-team European Championship this past summer led to more conservative soccer, as managers did not need to take risks if several ties could get them to the next round. In fact, eventual champions Portugal tied their three group stage games, qualified for the knockout stage and then won all their remaining games to win the trophy.
My view is that it will likely not be worth decreasing the quality of the tournament in order to let 16 more countries experience it, but I am willing to give it a chance. Frankly, the 2022 Qatar World Cup and the questions surrounding it will pose more trouble for FIFA than this decision.
Another major soccer story of December was the downfall of Bob Bradley at Swansea. Bradley — the club’s manager for most of this season and the first American manager in Premier League history — was fired in December. The Welsh club’s American owners were keen to give an American a chance in English soccer, but it did not go well for Bradley.
In my opinion, Bradley was a fish out of water in England; he simply is not experienced enough for a role as a top-flight soccer manager. He did manage the United States national team for a successful spell, but club management is very different from national team coaching, and his club career consists of unremarkable stints in Egypt, Norway and the French lower leagues.
Swansea should have shied away from appointing Bradley with the club in the thick of a relegation fight, and their new boss Paul Clement is now tasked with tidying up Bradley’s mess. Now on to their third manager of the season in Clement after Francesco Guidolin was in charge at the start of the year, the Premier League’s lone Welsh representative faces a fight to retain Premier League status for next season.
To wrap up my winter break soccer column, what better topic than winter breaks in soccer? In many top leagues in Europe, including Spain, Germany, Italy and France, teams take a month or so off around the holidays. While fans are certainly inconvenienced from this lack of sport, it allows players, coaches and staff to relax, spend the holidays with their family and recharge for the draining second half of the season. This arguably produces better soccer in the spring, with fresher players.
In England, on the other hand, not only do players have continuous games over the holidays, but they also generally play more frequently than usual. This keeps international players away from their families over the holidays. Players are more fatigued from the extra games and make uncharacteristic mistakes. As much as fans enjoy the chance to watch Premier League football on Boxing Day and New Year’s, it would be better for the players and staff to be allowed at least a few weeks off to recharge their batteries.