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Football in 2021: The key issues facing the beautiful game

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f a reminder was needed that 2021 will not wipe the slate clean and immediately return football to a state of normality, it comes in the prospect of the New Year starting with no football at all.

Deciding the short-term fate of the English professional game is the most immediate challenge of the New Year but it is far from the only major issue to be resolved in 2021, in what promises to be a defining year for football.

Dan Kilpatrick took a look at the challenges facing the sport next year…

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Clubs are awaiting the day fans can return

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The absence of fans has been a hammer-blow to the game at every level, from English football’s governing body, the FA, to the lowliest non-League club. Even the Premier League, largely insulated from financial strife by billion-pound broadcast deals, is feeling the strain.

Finding a solution for the mass return of supporters remains the game’s most significant challenge in the 2021. The Premier League is part of STIG – the government’s Sports Technology Innovation Group – which is exploring innovative ways to welcome back fans. There is optimism that the use of rapid-turnaround testing, coupled with widespread vaccinations, will ease the situation by spring and pave the way for a home European Championship in nearly full grounds.

The alternative, a Euros behind-closed-doors, feels bleak and Uefa is expected to make a decision on whether the Europe-wide tournament can continue in its current format early next year. It is equally important, however, to find solutions at the bottom of football’s ladder, where gate receipts are essential to clubs’ survival.

The new structure of the English and European games

“Change is coming,” promised Premier League chief executive Richard Masters in November, with the top flight’s “strategic review” into English football expected to be complete by the end of March. All 20 clubs are committed to the review, which aims to address the massive funding gap between the Premier League and the rest of English football and was launched in the wake of the failure of ‘Project Big Picture’.

The pandemic has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots and exposed many of the English game’s most fragile fault-lines, so it is vital the review offers a fair and sustainable model for the future of the sport. 

Change is also coming in Europe, as UEFA prepares to announce a total reform of European club competitions, including an expanded Champions League, in a bid to quell the lingering threat of a breakaway European SuperLeague. The fear with both models is that they will only concentrate power and wealth with a handful of leading clubs, further dampening the game’s magic.

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QPR duo Ilias Chair (R) and Bright Osayi-Samuel take a knee against Millwall at The Den

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English football took a more active role in the fight against racism in 2020 and players across the Premier League are continuing to take a knee before matches to highlight inequality. At every level, there is still work to be done and the challenges for 2021 include persuading social media companies to do more to safeguard against abuse on their platforms.

The appointment of a new FA chairman, expected at the end of March, could be a landmark moment for the English game following Greg Clarke’s shameful resignation. The governing body is leading way in reforms, partly thanks to its new diversity code which has been signed up to by all Premier League clubs.

The top flight also appears committed to programmes for enacting change but the attitudes of UEFA and FIFA, the global governing bodies, to tackling racism remain woefully inadequate.

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Nobby Stiles, who passed away in 2020, ived with dementia

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The death of Nobby Stiles, England’s World Cup winning midfielder, in October helped prompt a fresh wave of introspection and anger about the link between football and dementia.

Stiles lived with the disease, which has ravaged England’s greatest-ever squad. His former teammate, Sir Geoff Hurst, is among those to call for a ban on heading in training and in young children, which will be a leading consideration for the authorities in 2021.

The FA and players’ union, the PFA, are under pressure to continue to fund research into the links between football and dementia to ensure current and future generations are protected from the same fate as Stiles and Co.

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VAR remains a polarising topic

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The application of VAR remains one of the most contentious issues in English football and there are still significant changes needed to the technology, particularly with a slew of major international tournaments on the horizon.

The record number of penalties for this stage of the Premier League season underlines just how warped the game has become, and there remains widespread dissatisfaction with VAR’s interpretation of the offside law. 

With technology having already had a significant impact on players’ habits – and emotions – it is also impacting supporters’ behaviour, and there feels a genuine possibility that some fans could be turned off the game if the authorities do not make VAR’s implementation more palatable.

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