30 wishes for 2017

Arsene Wenger expressed that the Premier League did not live up to the billing in 2016 and now hopes for a spectacular 2017.

A new year brings a metaphorical chance to start over, as well as hope that things get better and that we’ve learned something and grown. And with that, after similar thoughts ahead of 2015 and 2016, here are my 30 wishes for 2017. 

1. That Arsene Wenger decides his future with serenity and, if he does leave, gets the send-off he deserves. He’s been in charge of Arsenal for two decades and is in a position that is, at once, unique and a rerun of previous seasons. Wenger will walk away when he chooses to, if he chooses to; that’s just the reality. Whether it’s this summer or next, you hope he does it on a high. The alternative might mean the more ignorant out there do not appreciate the phenomenal achievements of his first 10 years in charge.

2. That Tottenham hang on to Mauricio Pochettino. Like it or not, Spurs are a “bubble club” right now: not quite a megaclub, but rather on the cusp. In situations like this, when the club do well, suitors come calling for the manager; it’s the price of success. Spurs locked Pochettino up with a megacontract through 2021 which, at the very least, means that if he walks they’ll get plenty in compensation. Hopefully he stays and finishes his project with this group of players. If something like this cannot be brought to fruition because parts are lost along the way, then the group of megaclubs is much smaller than we imagined. And the 0.1 percenters will have their way with the 1 percenters.

3. That before we get too bent out of shape over future World Cups with 32, 40 or 48 teams, we focus on the fact that there is one coming up in 18 months’ time. It’s funny how FIFA president Gianni Infantino talking about what “might” happen in 10 years’ time seems to be more of a talking point than what is about to happen at Russia 2018, especially in light of the geopolitical backdrop.

4. That we actually have a discussion over the World Cup format and do so with an open mind and without the “dilute the quality” nonsense. If you don’t want to “dilute the quality,” then have an eight-team tournament. Since 2006, 29 different countries have reached the knockout stage. The global landscape is changing; let’s consider facts before making snobby claims.

The ESPN FC crew critique Gianni Infantino’s proposal for a World Cup with 16 groups of three teams.

5. That folks stop calling Pep Guardiola arrogant for playing the way he does. It’s not arrogance, it’s belief in a pattern of play. And it’s one that has earned him tremendous success and that, incidentally, is continually evolving. When he screws up, call him on it, by all means. But don’t chalk it up to arrogance. In my experience among top managers, few engage in as much soul-searching and self-criticism as he does.

6. That Cristiano Ronaldo, who turns 32 in February, alters his style of play and approach so that he can continue to be a difference-maker deeper into his 30s. He’s an athletic freak of nature who has treated his body as a temple and outworks everybody in training. But he’s not a cyborg, and his game is based on a different sort of athleticism to someone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If Ronaldo is to enjoy similar longevity, his role will need to evolve. The good news is that Real Madrid have committed to him and he to them. Now it’s time they work together to get the best fit.

7. That we pause for a minute and think about football governance and diversity. The eight permanent FIFA presidents have been white males, and all but one has been European. And the previous seven FIFA general secretaries had all been white European males until Fatma Samoura was appointed in May 2016. It doesn’t necessarily mean the Senegalese Samoura will be any better or worse an administrator as a female. It does mean, though, that we’re one baby step closer to judging leaders on the content of their character and the value of their work, rather than their gender or ethnicity. (As a side note, since 1951 either the president or general secretary or both have been Swiss. Which is kinda weird.)

8. That enough folks come to their senses about what happened when UEFA sat down with clubs to hammer out their “memorandum of understanding” for 2018-21 and just how close we are to a European Super League with a system totally stacked in favour of rich clubs in rich leagues. Accidents of history and geography mean the playing field is totally tilted in favour of a privileged few. Yeah, I know that’s how the real world works, and has worked for centuries. But don’t we want football to at least try to be better than real life?

9. That Lionel Messi and the other Argentina national team players get the respect they deserve from their federation. Messi’s “retirement” story was ugly but, you fear, necessary for things to improve. Maybe some lessons were learned.

10. That new UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin gives us a chance to figure out what he’s all about. Right now, the guy is an unknown quantity. Sure, he hasn’t been in power long and hasn’t had a chance to do much, and his CV means that few knew much about him when he took over. You can’t hold that against him, but you do hope he speaks up more and settles in soon. Football needs leadership.

11. That we never cease to wonder at the miracle of Leicester City’s 2015-16 season and continue to draw inspiration from it. It was a miracle born out of blood, sweat, tears, professionalism, planning, intelligence, desire and, yes, luck and happenstance. But that makes their Premier League championship no less a miracle. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

12. That FIFA (Ciao, Gianni!) start paying more attention to the Football Leaks revelations and figure out what steps to take. FIFA can’t do it on their own — we wouldn’t want them to — but somebody in authority needs to sift through these data dumps and make some sense of it all. Some of it merely satisfies curiosity (does the size of Cristiano Ronaldo’s worldwide assets really matter?), some of it is crass invasion of privacy, and some of it highlights behaviour that could be illegal and, at the very least, warrants further investigation. And while we’re at it, let’s also remember how this stuff was obtained and the fact that it could be used, potentially, for blackmail and criminal behaviour.

During the holiday season, Brian McBride can only hope Sebastian Giovinco remains in MLS long-term.

13. That folks in Italy occasionally remember Sebastian Giovinco. No, he didn’t fall off the face of the earth and he didn’t retire. And it might even be worth including him in an Italy national team squad at some point, just to get it out of the system.

14. That Chinese football takes a long, hard look at itself and figures out the best way to allocate its vast resources. There are no easy answers and there is no simple formula to turn a nation — especially one with a population of 1.2 billion — into a powerhouse. But I’m not fully convinced that throwing money at a small cadre of players will necessarily bring the progress that some imagine.

15. That players’ unions worldwide do a better job of collaborating with FIFPro, their umbrella organization. It’s frankly appalling that, when FIFPro compile what they call the “biggest ever football survey,” it doesn’t include input from England, Spain, Germany and Netherlands, to name but four. It would have been a tremendous opportunity to really shine a light and get a snapshot of working conditions and the realities of the professional game. Instead, while valuable, it’s incomplete.

16. That those who doubted Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ability to score goals in the Premier League and sneered at his Ligue 1 achievements eat some humble pie. He is on pace to score 25 Premier League goals this season, a total he has surpassed only four times in his career. And he’s doing it at Manchester United, who are sixth in the table and hardly the dominant force that are Paris Saint-Germain, where he notched 30, 26, 19 and 38 goals in his four seasons in France. Oh, and he’s 35 years old. How about we celebrate this guy’s ability and drive and the way he has taken care of his body for the past 17 years?

17. That the transfer bans imposed on Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid — and, before them, Barcelona — over the movement of minors serve as a way to overhaul the system with clear, global rules. It’s absurd that movement within the European Union is treated differently, and it’s unrealistic to expect FIFA to police everybody. The fact of the matter is that some youngsters are being exploited, while others are getting chances that would otherwise be denied them. Like most regulatory decisions, this one isn’t easy, but it’s important.

18. That folks take notice of what Lucien Favre and Mario Balotelli are doing at Nice. In many ways, they are the oddest couple in football: The uber-tactical, gray-haired disciplinarian and the guy with more baggage than the hold of two 747s. Yet Nice are top of Ligue 1, and the artist formerly known as “SuperMario” is on pace to score 20 goals in a season for the first time in his career.

19. That people lay off Max Allegri. This season, the Juventus manager is top of Serie A and won his group stage in the Champions League. Prior to that, he delivered back-to-back domestic doubles and a Champions League final in his two full seasons. And he did so while having to reload each summer, first after losing Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, then after losing Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata. Yes, a club’s success is not just about the manager, but to question Allegri — especially now — is just folly.

20. That Jorge Sampaoli takes Sevilla to new heights and that Monchi sticks around as the club’s director of football. These two men have attained success while thinking outside the box and outworking the competition; they ought to be celebrated and studied. And you hope their collaboration will continue.

Alison Bender and Don Hutchison discuss Borussia Dortmund’s poor start to the Bundesliga season.

21. That Borussia Dortmund fans don’t panic. Instead, that they realize when you lose Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan in the same summer and replace them with a bunch of kids, there will be growing pains. Thomas Tuchel is doing things differently and, while it may or may not work, at the very least let it play out.

22. That Roma figure out the right way to bring down the curtain on Francesco Totti and finally break ground on their new stadium. Some joke that neither will ever happen, but both need to happen if the club is to progress.

23. That Antonio Conte’s first few months at Chelsea remind us there is such a thing as working individually with players to regenerate them. From Eden Hazard to Victor Moses, from Diego Costa to Pedro, from Thibaut Courtois to Nemanja Matic, Conte has thus far helped many regain their mojo. Rather than having mega clear-outs when players underperform, sometimes it’s more a case of doing better with what you have.

24. That Milan continue pushing youth and, just as important, get some definitive answers on the ownership front. Enough of the Sino-Europe Sports’ missed deadlines, enough of Silvio Berlusconi gilding the lily. You’re in or you’re out.  

25. That as wonderful as the Red Bull Leipzig story is, people realise there’s a flip side to it. A flip side that is about subverting rules and uber-commercialization. You can appreciate the good parts of the tale without embracing what they are and what they stand for.

26. That we remind ourselves, while agents are easy punching bags, there are two sides to every negotiation. Which means that, if agents do things we don’t like, it’s because they have contracts that enable them to do so.

27. That Peter Lim and others like him realize you don’t run a club by rifling through managers and turning it into a place for friendly agents to “park” their star clients. Not to specifically pick on Valencia, but the facts are there for all to see, and though supporters ought to be grateful that Lim’s investment saved the club from bankruptcy, they deserve better.

28. That Inter Milan become a normal club, whichever way you choose to define “normal.” I’m not holding my breath on this one, and maybe, deep down, a club whose own anthem defines the team as “crazy” doesn’t ever want to be normal.

29. That Bob Bradley gets another shot in club management and that some of his critics grow up. Maybe it won’t be in the Premier League, but hopefully it will be a pathway back to the big time. Then it is up to him to seize the day.

30. That we never forget when Iceland and their fans did  this.  

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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