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Soccer’s Endless Season

Before the start of Euro 2020 and amid talk of biannual World Cups and expanded Champions League formats, it’s time for soccer to consider embracing scarcity

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I got a new toothbrush the other day. It’s too much. It looks like an alien’s middle finger. It’s just your basic CVS toothbrush, but at some point corporate brinkmanship in the personal-hygiene sector pushed even entry-level dental-care aesthetics beyond the brink of madness. This thing has multiple, flexible segmented knuckles, each with its own lozenge of lavender armor plating. It has three different colors of bristles, which correspond to three different strand lengths, and the outer bristles angle sharply inward to a saw-like semi-serrated border. It has a hole in the handle; I assume this is so the toothbrush can be affixed to the end of a rifle barrel in the event of an unexpected close-quarters encounter with the enemy. Katniss Everdeen had her bow. I have my Oral-B. It has additional plush lavender texture pieces running down the handle in a lunular tire-tread pattern, presumably to facilitate a good grip—a wise safety precaution given that this toothbrush, accidentally flung through the air, could bring down a military helicopter.

At some point, without us even noticing, the relentless march of civilization brought us to this point. We now live in a world where the answer to the question “What should a toothbrush look like?” is “Say H.R. Giger and the Easter Bunny launched a sex toy together on Kickstarter—it should look like the bonus gift.”

Friends, it’s no easy thing for a man to admit that he’s frightened of his own toothbrush. Yet here I stand before you.

I’ve been thinking about toothbrush design lately because—well, mostly because I think mine might be watching me while I sleep. But I’m also thinking about it because Euro 2020 is about to start, and that makes this a good time to contemplate simple things that are rapidly becoming excessive. I refer, of course, to the spiritual toothbrush that is the European soccer calendar.

The basic form of the European soccer calendar is simple, time-tested, and easily accessible. You have your domestic league seasons—England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga—which play out from late summer to late spring, essentially overlapping with the American school year, as if God invented Arsenal and immediately got the idea for math homework. Concurrently with the domestic leagues, there are domestic cup tournaments—your FA Cups, your Copas del Rey, your DFB-Pokals. During roughly the same span, there are the international club cup competitions—the Champions League, the Europa League, and so on. National teams play qualifying tournaments in short bursts throughout the year; every other summer, when the domestic leagues are quiet, the best national teams compete in the two big international tournaments open to European teams, the UEFA European Championship and the FIFA World Cup.

Wait, you know what? The European soccer schedule is not simple or accessible at all! It’s actually wildly arcane. Keeping track of the ins and outs—how teams are allotted to qualifying groups, who exactly plays in the FA Community Shield, why the name “DFB-Pokal” seems so insistently to conjure up the image of a plaid sport jacket hanging in a Poughkeepsie men’s store in 1978—is a full-time job. I know this because I’ve been covering soccer professionally at least part-time for 14 years, and at some point every season I still have to Google “Do some Champions League teams parachute down to the Europa League after they lose, and how does that, like, work?”

It almost goes without saying that this tangled web of semi-overlapping leagues and cups and Pokals generates a vast quantity of soccer. The top players, who tend to play for clubs that make deep runs in multiple competitions each season and also feature prominently for their national teams, play in somewhere between 45 and 12 billion matches per year for club and country. With such a crammed schedule, fatigue management becomes almost as big a problem as set pieces and tackling. One of the biggest advantages very rich clubs enjoy over their rivals is not that they can afford better players, but that they can afford more better players; a superrich team like Manchester City can effectively field multiple top-tier squads, allowing their best players plenty of rest as the match hours pile up. The edge granted by well-rested stars has never been more apparent than this year, with the schedule compressed by the pandemic. By the end of the domestic season, half the players in the Premier League looked jaded; with Euro 2020 set to start barely two weeks after the end of the Europa League final, there’s a nontrivial chance that Bruno Fernandes will dissolve into atoms in the 37th minute in Portugal’s first game against Hungary.

Money, however, never sleeps, which is why the game’s brain trust—the same council of the wise that gave us “Qatar: Well, as long as the stadiums get built somehow”—has decided that now is the perfect time to beef up the schedule with more soccer. Why make a regular toothbrush when you can slap a row of ultramarine fins on the handle and call it “ComfortLok Technology™”? Starting in 2024, the Champions League will expand from 32 to 36 teams; each team that qualifies for the competition will play at least 10 games, up from the current minimum of six. Starting next year, UEFA is adding an entirely new continental club tournament, which will be contested annually by midlevel teams that fail to qualify for the Europa League. This tournament will be called the UEFA Europa Conference League, because when you are starting a new third-tier soccer competition in a crowded market, you want to give it a name that fires the imagination of fans.

The list of expansions goes on. The FIFA Club World Cup, a tournament no human being has cared about since it was founded in 2000, is swelling to 24 teams and adopting a quadrennial format. The UEFA European Championships boosted its roster from 16 to 24 teams before the 2016 competition and is keeping the same format for the current tournament. The biggest tournament of them all, the FIFA World Cup, is expanding from 32 teams to a gargantuan 48 teams starting in 2026. FIFA is currently studying the feasibility of holding the World Cup every two years instead of every four. Arsène Wenger, the legendary Arsenal manager who’s now running global development for FIFA, has advocated holding the Euros every two years as well. Whether it is possible to add a third lung to the human body is a question soccer scientists have not yet addressed.

I seem to spend a lot of time these days feeling sad for star players’ joints. The logic behind the decision to pump more air into the soccer bubble is pretty straightforward: More games equals more money, at least until the product is diluted to the point that the system collapses. There are also motives for clubs and nations themselves to push the governing bodies for expansion. The new Champions League is the brainchild of would-be Super League clubs who want protected spots in the world’s most lucrative club competition in case they, the world’s best and richest teams, can’t make the top four in their domestic leagues; the expansion of the Euros works out for smaller nations like Scotland that might struggle to qualify in a 16-team field but can usually reach the top 24.

The problem is that playing more matches means more wear and tear on players’ bodies, less recovery time, more injuries, and more grinding fatigue as the endless season wears on. Debt-straddled big clubs might be happy with expanded tournament fields, but players and managers look at them and wince. Thomas Tuchel, the manager of the newly crowned European champion Chelsea, has been scathing about the changes. “There’s so much new stuff,” he said in April. “So many more games and more teams in the European Championship in the summer. More, more, more games. Not more quality, just more games. They push you to play more games and at the same time we have three substitutes in the Premier League and domestic competitions. I’m not happy about these competitions, not at all.”

As we head into these COVID-delayed Euros, after the ordeals of this too-long, too-short season, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong sense of soccer as a runaway freight train—everyone needs to play more games to sell more ads to make more money to service more loans to buy more players to play more games, and so on forever, until Harry Kane’s legs detach from his body in the middle of a Conference League match against Trabzonspor and hold a brief press conference announcing their retirement. The irony is that it’s simplicity and scarcity that makes competitions exciting for fans, not ubiquity and complexity. Can anybody honestly look at the intricate regulations governing the entrance of losing teams from the Champions League and the Europa League—“Second qualifying round: 20 losers from Champions League qualifying enter; Playoff Round: eight losers from Europa League third-qualifying round enter”—and argue that this makes the game more fun? Will anyone remember that 10 losers from the Europa League playoff round enter the Conference League at the group stage, but eight third-placed teams from the Europa League group stage enter the Conference League at the knockout stage? Who wants this?

FIFA and UEFA are betting that the appetite for soccer games is so insatiable that no amount of bureaucratic formatting and calendar-stuffing will serve to weaken it. Even if they’re right, though, the game’s best players are a finite resource. You can put wind flaps on a toothbrush and call it progress, but wear out Kylian Mbappé before the seventh transfer round of the Club Auxiliary Super-Regional Runners-Up Cup and soccer starts to seem about as fun as a trip to the dentist.