World

The Premier League Is Back, With Quite an Act to Follow

The Premier League was absolutely, resolutely clear. This was not a bluff. It was not a card to play or a chip to barter or a point to haggle. It was not, and this cannot be stressed enough, on the table. Whatever FIFA did with the World Cup, however the rest of Europe’s major leagues contorted themselves to make way for it, the Premier League would be playing matches on Boxing Day.

That stance must, deep down, have seemed just a little absurd to the rest of the executives present at that summit in Doha in 2015, when the most powerful clubs and leagues in global soccer were informed that the World Cup was being shifted to the winter, like it or lump it. None of the leagues were happy, of course.

But only the Premier League — the richest domestic competition in the world, the one that earns more from its domestic broadcast deals than FIFA turns over in a whole World Cup cycle — seemed so aghast at the very notion of its cherished traditions being imperiled that it drew a red line. The tournament had to be finished, it declared, in time for the fixtures that would be scheduled for the day after Christmas could go ahead.

There were reasons for that stance beyond habit, obviously. What is described so often in England as the “busy festive period” that it really should be trademarked is a key pillar of those television rights sales from which all of the Premier League’s wealth and power flow: All those potential viewers sitting at home, their heads maybe just a little sore and their stomachs just a little full, gift vouchers from uncles they do not like burning holes in their pockets. Like most traditions, Boxing Day soccer is really about selling you stuff.

And, of course, the Premier League is powerful enough to have received its wish. The World Cup, distilled into only 29 days, finished on Sunday. Most of Europe’s other major leagues have given their players a little more of a hiatus, a little more chance to rest and recover. Italy’s Serie A does not resume until the start of January, Germany at the end. Spain and France both have games scheduled this month, but the burden on teams, and on players, is much lighter.

The Premier League, though, will play on Boxing Day because the Premier League always plays on Boxing Day. No, it must play on Boxing Day. It would not be Christmas without it.

Raphael Varane, Hugo Lloris and Ibrahima Konaté will have a shorter break than most players: Their club seasons will resume only days after they played in the World Cup final.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images

At which point, the word hubris lingering ever so slightly at the back of the mind, all we can do is wish everyone involved the best of luck. Did you enjoy the greatest World Cup final in history? The one with what may well have been the best goal ever scored in a final — that sweeping, wondrous move capped by Ángel Di María — and the hat trick from Kylian Mbappé and Argentina winning it once, twice, three times and Lionel Messi, the finest player to have ever graced the game, at last fulfilling his dream and his destiny, as the world watched on with eyes wide?

Well, next up we have Crystal Palace against Fulham. And it’s live.

Before the World Cup, it was easy to wonder what physical impact the presence of the tournament in the middle of the season might have on Europe’s major leagues. (Which is why this newsletter did it, by my count, three times.) Would players return from Qatar exhausted or injured? Would there be a significant advantage for those teams who had fewer representatives at the World Cup? Would the second half of the season just be Erling Haaland, revived by a month of boredom, mowing down weary, disinterested defenses?

At first glance, it would appear that the Premier League has no need to worry. England made the quarterfinals, of course, and those players who formed the core of Gareth Southgate’s team most likely will need a little time to rest and recover before being thrown back into the fray by their clubs. But there were surprisingly few Premier League stars who made it into the tournament’s final week.

Nobody should be expecting to see Emiliano Martínez, Cristían Romero, Alexis Mac Allister or Julián Álvarez any time soon, since all were key members of Messi’s supporting cast. Only two players who started the final for France are currently employed in England — Raphael Varane and Hugo Lloris — and only one more came on as a substitute, the Liverpool defender Ibrahima Konaté.

Likewise, while Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech was a central figure for Morocco, it is fair to say Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech is not a central figure for Chelsea. Mateo Kovacic, his Croatian teammate at Stamford Bridge, is more of a loss, but a tolerable one.

That is not to say that there is not an impactful injury legacy of the World Cup. Indeed, there is every chance that it was in Qatar that the fate of the Premier League title was decided: The medial ligament injury sustained by Arsenal forward Gabriel Jesus was precisely the sort of blow that England’s unlikely leader could not afford, particularly with Manchester City breathing down its neck.

A knee injury sustained at the World Cup is expected to keep Gabriel Jesus out of Arsenal’s lineup for months.Credit…Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA, via Shutterstock

It will take time for the significance of that injury to become apparent. When Boxing Day rolls around, the Premier League may look as if it is at not far off full strength. That, though, was never likely to be the problem. There will be a physical impact on those players who were in Qatar, but it will not manifest until spring, once the miles in the legs have piled up. Even then, it will not take the form of mass absences, but greater vulnerability to minor aches and strains. Those looming concerns may not have much effect on the destiny of most of Europe’s domestic championships, but in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, where an ill-timed two-week absence can prove the difference between glory and disappointment, it may yet be decisive.

The more immediate problem, though, is psychological. It is not just the Premier League’s wealth — and the quality of player and coach that can attract — which has made it soccer’s dominant domestic competition. Nor is it just the aesthetic appeal of its stadiums, or the fame and grandeur of its biggest names, or even the fact that it is all conducted in English. Part of its success is down to its ability to project just how much every single moment matters.

Eight days after a World Cup, that is probably best described as a tricky sell. No other tournament, not even the Champions League, can offer quite the drama, quite the tension of the final rounds of the World Cup. Its secret is its scarcity; every game carries the sense that it is now or never, do or die, once in a lifetime. It is a competition of a different order, a blockbuster in a world of soaps, and one that offers something that most leagues are now far too stratified, far too hierarchical to provide on a regular basis. Every World Cup game has an air not just of jeopardy, but of balance, too. The gap between the strong and the (allegedly) weak is not quite such a chasm has it has been allowed to become in domestic soccer. The World Cup offers regular viewers a dash of something they do not get — but may secretly want — from their more ordinary diet.

That is not to say, of course, that the Premier League, and the rest of Europe’s major competitions, will trudge reluctantly to a conclusion. The stadiums will be full on Boxing Day, because that is what lots of people do on Boxing Day. There are still plentiful stories to transfix fans around Europe: Arsenal and Napoli, genuine outsiders, competing for championships; the ongoing crisis at Barcelona; Liverpool and Manchester United trying to attract new investment, in the wake of the rise of Newcastle United; Chelsea’s attempts to buy every player in existence. In February, the Champions League will be back, too, which means we all have at least three remarkable Real Madrid comebacks to admire.

To ask fans to pick up with those plot lines so soon, though, feels just a little like a misstep. It invites a contrast that, unusually, is not especially flattering for the Premier League, in particular, and risks casting the flaws in European domestic soccer in a rather sharper light than it might like. It will be eight days since what may well come to be regarded as the best soccer game of all time. It is asking a lot of Everton and Wolves to match that standard. Just because you always play on Boxing Day does not, in fact, mean you should.


Up Next: A Break

After a World Cup that can, I think, be fairly described as intense, I’m going to allow myself a one-week break from the newsletter over the holiday period. Think of it as The Times taking the Serie A approach to life, and coming back, fully refreshed, in early January. We already have a month’s worth of correspondence that has gone unattended, but if you have any questions, or thoughts, or observations that you would like to throw into the mix, they’d be more than welcome: Send them along to [email protected]

And if you don’t have any thoughts and would prefer to relax over the next few days, that’s fine, too. I will be endeavoring to have as few thoughts as possible. I hope that those of you who celebrate enjoy the time with family, or friends, or people you know from Twitter, and I hope that those of you who do not choose to celebrate have a wonderful time, too.

All the best,

Rory

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