David Owen

On Christmas Day 1925, Hughie Gallacher, Newcastle United’s recently-acquired Scottish centre-forward, struck a Football League hat-trick against Liverpool at Anfield - he scored another goal the next day - Boxing Day - when the return fixture was played more than one hundred miles away at St James’ Park in the Tyneside city.

It is worth bearing this in mind when considering the interminable bickering over football’s hopelessly overstuffed calendar - a state of affairs that is set to get even worse next year, a World Cup year, as a consequence of the latest COVID-19 flare-up.

The sport has had an insane schedule for much of its history.

And yet it has always muddled through.

Better than that - in spite of sometimes lamentable management, feast-or-famine finances and convoluted structures, association football remains the only team-sport that can truly claim to have colonised the world.

I thought of this last week while studying details of the National Football League (NFL)’s International Home Marketing Areas programme, an initiative that will see 18 gridiron teams, from Miami to Minnesota assigned marketing rights across eight different countries, including Brazil, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Germany.

It is an interesting idea and I will be intrigued to see how it goes, especially the Los Angeles Rams’ five-year association with China.

But it occurs to me that such co-ordination is only really possible in a situation in which the teams concerned, and the players, take part essentially in only one competition. This means that their interests and those of the league are likely to be closely aligned - at least when it comes to revenue generation.

Football's popularity shows no sign of waning despite disagreements over the sport's congested calendar and threats of breakaway leagues that could disrupt its current structure ©Getty Images
Football's popularity shows no sign of waning despite disagreements over the sport's congested calendar and threats of breakaway leagues that could disrupt its current structure ©Getty Images

Compare this with the assorted commitments of top soccer clubs which play routinely in three domestic and at least one international competition per season, in addition in recent times to competing in the fast-developing women’s game.

On top of this, a high proportion of players must juggle appearances for their respective international sides, a set of circumstances that often confronts some of them with ridiculous - if luxury-class - travel itineraries.

In spite of this, it is American, not Association, football that is playing catch-up in international terms - as is every other sport on the global stage. If anything, soccer’s worldwide dominance appears, year-by-year, to be increasing.

You can only really explain this by acknowledging that soccer is simply a brilliant, and brilliantly simple, game to which almost no territory on earth has proved wholly impervious.

It must all be a source of immense frustration to the people in suits, the most imaginative of whom are well capable of conjuring up a vision of the supreme game - soccer - handled with NFL-like structural simplicity and management focus.

It is no wonder that projects such as the Super League are a recurring fantasy for some: the potential financial rewards are so stupendous that it would be foolish to think even now that some sort of elite breakaway, or partial breakaway, could never happen.

For the time being though, the ultra-rapid capitulation of that 2021 Super League project suggests that current football structures are too deeply embedded in national cultures, at least in Europe, to be overturned for anything as vulgar as the profit motive.

And so, the endless bickering, the self-serving claims, the onerous demands on players, both those who are multi-millionaires and those who are not, may be expected to continue beyond the pandemic, beyond Qatar 2022, and certainly beyond yesterday's portentously-entitled FIFA Global Summit on the Future of Football.

Tiresome as it may be, just try to bear in mind that these are symptoms of soccer’s strength as a genuinely worldwide cultural phenomenon, not of its weakness.