THIS IS a season like no other. Don’t believe the hype. Believe the calendar. This isn’t a slogan dreamed up by bearded creatives sitting on beanbags, but a reality imagined by a tiny nation desperate to be heard on the global stage.
Qatar 2022 makes the upcoming English Premier League season truly unique, an autocracy that is a rule of the oil-rich people, for the oil-rich people and by the oil-rich people.
In simpler times, Boxing Day fixtures between local rivals were typically arranged around the wishes of local police forces, with the Metropolitan Police, for example, keen to get hungover Hammers into stadiums with their North London rivals before the pubs opened.
This season, West Ham United’s Boxing Day trip to Arsenal will be arranged around the sportswashing ambitions of Qatari oligarchs, hoping to bask in the glory of organising the first World Cup inside air-conditioned ovens in a desert. Oh, the World Game, indeed, how it glows in its idealistic splendour.
Previously, EPL managers concerned themselves with Boxing Day transport delays. This year, Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta will fret on the fitness of at least nine first-teamers returning from Qatar 2022.
In the lead-up to Christmas and certainly by Boxing Day, when the domestic season resumes, coaches will gaze upon their dressing rooms like Mad Max surveying the smoky carnage after an oil-driven breakdown of social norms.
In this instance, the Road Warrior might prove to be Erling Haaland, standing alone, a distance removed from the sweaty hellscape, momentarily relieved that his freakish talent was not quite matched by his countrymen. Norway didn’t make the World Cup. The striker gets to spend Christmas alone, cut adrift in Manchester, a scenario not too dissimilar from Mad Max and his apocalyptic nightmare.
Maybe he’ll keep Mo Salah company. The Egyptian didn’t reach the World Cup either. Maybe the two could meet on Lancashire’s No-Man’s Land between Liverpool and Manchester and re-enact the Christmas Day truce of World War I, when sworn enemies put aside their tribal hatred, played football and argued about offside instead.
Perhaps Pep Guardiola envied Jurgen Klopp’s ace up his Christmas sleeve. The Liverpool manager gets to keep his free-scoring Salah - 156 goals in 254 appearances and counting – throughout the festive period. Now Guardiola has a World Cup safety net of sorts, too. He has Haaland.
Others are not so lucky.
Manchester United need a mid-season World Cup like they need Cristiano Ronaldo playing truant. Erik ten Hag essentially loses his entire squad to the circus in Doha.
And this World Cup is a circus. The Qatar branding exercise runs from 21 November until 18 December, hence the Premier League’s earlier start this weekend. The EPL will then pause after 12 November and resume on 26 December (Boxing Day.)
Like an everlasting gobstopper, this Willy Wonka of domestic seasons will come to an end, finally, on 28 May 2023, when clubs take a breather before heading off again on their pre-season PR expeditions.
Qatar 2022 is a Big Top absurdity filled with gleaming white elephants that threaten to turn a genuinely intriguing EPL campaign into a farce.
To use Man United’s example, ten Hag’s loses a full line-up - and subs - to Qatar. David de Gea, Diogo Dalot, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martínez, Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia all qualified with their respective countries.
A new manager still unsure of his attacking composition, thanks to Ronaldo’s petulance, could also lose his entire forward line. Bruno Fernandes, Donny van de Beek, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are all likely to be called up.
Of course, the trickle down effects extend beyond the top six, which is why the English Championship also goes on mid-season hiatus. Like Ross and Rachel, they’re all on a break.
England will take at least five from Manchester City alone and another three from Chelsea. Indeed Thomas Tuchel must contend with the prospect of his departing players kicking shades of blue out of one another. Christian Pulisic’s United States might meet N’Golo Kante’s France or Édouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly’s Senegal.
And Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur, currently repositioning themselves as the only viable alternative to the status quo, will not be spared either. Take a breath and inhale this lot. Hugo Lloris, Cristian Romero, Giovani lo Celso, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Son Heung-min, Harry Kane, Joe Rodon, Ben Davies, Rodrigo Bentancur, Ivan Perisic and Emerson Royal are all expected to board planes to Doha.
Conte’s masochistic sessions have turned the vomiting Lilywhites into drilling machines, but can they re-emerge as Boxing Day wrecking balls after a month in the desert?
No, of course they can’t. There will be an acclimatisation period, as jaded footballers readjust to the bleak mid-winter. The congested Christmas fixture list usually throws up daft scores, as the unforgiving schedule contributes to mercurial form. But no one has previously been foolish – or greedy – enough to throw a World Cup into that combustible mix, like petrodollars on an open fire.
So it’ll be a great social leveller, right? They’ll all suffer equally. From the Etihad to the lower reaches of the English Championship, international footballers abound. Every major club will have missing bibs at training. They must adjust. Make do. Keep calm and carry on through the futility of the eternal fixture list.
But the spectacle has to suffer. Fans may pay a literal price, buying tickets and subscriptions for a top-tier product, only to receive a second-tier service as weary footballers fulfil obligations that they had never agreed to (or wanted).
Fans may pay a literal price, buying tickets and subscriptions for a top-tier product, only to receive a second-tier service as weary footballers fulfil obligations that they had never agreed to (or wanted).
Hopefully, this will not be the case. Maybe the World Cup mayhem adds to the entertainment value, as leggy defenders allow for ridiculous scorelines, mimicking the more surreal aspects of the Covid era.
Perhaps Guardiola, Klopp, Conte and even tag Hag will ingeniously manage their squads to successfully overcome the awkward asterisk in midseason. It would be nice to think that.
Oil is paying for this World Cup (just like it paid for the last one). Oil continues to control global power and wealth and most aspects of our daily lives, including something as trivial and meaningless as the fixture list.
So it would be really nice to think that this football season, against all reasonable odds, might still be controlled by the footballers, rather than the oil business.
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