As the World Cup rolled past in Qatar, I began to impress myself with how often my predictions turned out to be wrong. I was sure Germany would beat Japan: 1-2, glory to the Samurai Blue. I knew that Brazil would sweep aside Croatia: 1-1, Brazil out on penalties. I thought Croatia might beat Argentina in their next game: a 3-0 romp for Messi and Alvarez. I felt Portugal were contenders in the quarters: they promptly lost 1-0 to Morocco. I had already dismissed Morocco’s chances in the previous round against Spain: 0-0, Spain beaten on penalties with Jorge Valdano labelling their style “masturbation without orgasm”. In the end, unwilling to lay the leprous hand of my endorsement on Messi, I predicted France would beat Argentina in the final.
My failure rate was far worse than random chance. It was as though some instinct was leading me unerringly to the exact opposite of the truth, it seemed whatever I thought I knew about football was actively harming my ability to understand and make accurate judgments about the game.
With this uneasy thought, I looked back at my Irish Times columns for the year to see what I got right and wrong.
Among the themes that came up repeatedly was the question of “let it flow” – an initiative I dislike, for many reasons there is no need to repeat here. My column of August 8th argued that allowing physical play won’t make the game faster, rather “it will become slower, less skilful, and more dangerous, as it was at the 1990 World Cup... when Fifa decided the laws of the game had to change.”
This came with a bold prediction: “Fifa and Uefa, meanwhile, will continue to use the regular rules, where pushing someone over from behind is a foul. Let’s hope Premier League players can remember how the game is still played in the rest of the world when they head out to Qatar in November.”
I doggedly stuck to a general line that the team was improving under Stephen Kenny, while results obstinately refused to back me up
What actually happened was that Fifa embraced the Let It Flow mindset even more than the Premier League did. Only four players got sent off in Qatar, the same number as in Russia in 2018 – compare that to 10 red cards in 2014, 17 in 2010 and 16 back in Italia ′90, when it was supposedly much harder to get sent off. As for England, the squad with the highest percentage of Premier League players: they took home the Fair Play trophy and got knocked out by France in a match where the English complained Brazilian ref Wilson Sampaio let too much go.
My 2022 Ireland coverage was a gruelling defensive campaign: I doggedly stuck to a general line that the team was improving under Stephen Kenny, while results obstinately refused to back me up. The year began with a 2-2 draw at home to Belgium in March. Anthony Barry’s appearances on the big screen were booed by the crowd. They say you either win or learn, so Belgium’s World Cup campaign will have taught Barry a lot.
The high point of Ireland’s year was the 3-0 win over Scotland in June, after which I hailed the historic chemistry of the Obafemi-Parrott partnership. Fast-forward to December and Obafemi is being criticised for lack of effort by his manager at Swansea, Russell Martin, while Parrott has been out injured for months.
Nathan Collins scored a magnificent goal against Ukraine, which prompted me to compare him to Luis Suárez and urging a big Premier League club to buy him. Wolves did and they are now bottom of the league. By September 25th, after Ireland lost the return match to Scotland, I was as usual arguing that things were gradually improving but the time for “selling us the future” was running out.
Resisting the temptation to set the bar impossibly high, I concluded that if we stayed in Nations League B then that would be a respectable par. We did stay in Nations League B, but then almost immediately were drawn into a Euro qualifying group with France and the Netherlands – a group in which, according to me, Ireland are just “meat in the room”. We’ll see.
In January I received some strongly negative feedback from Manchester City fans after greeting their 1-0 win over Chelsea, which sent them 13 points clear in the title race, with a column arguing that their domination is boring both because they have more money than anyone else, and because their controlling style often prevents the other team from getting involved in the game.
City fans were annoyed by two elements – one, my claim that post-Ferguson Manchester United have been more “watchable” than City because they are wasteful and stupid while City are ruthlessly efficient, and second, that even core players such as Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling did not seem excited to be at City. Silva is still there, though he again requested a transfer in the summer, while Sterling has since left.
City did win the league but it was a lot closer than I had expected. In the new season, I wondered if Erling Haaland’s lack of involvement in general play would lead to problems with Pep Guardiola. With Haaland scoring 24 goals in his first 19 games, it seems they are getting on fine.
Club ownership was another recurrent theme. The sanctioning of Roman Abramovich prompted me to claim that political convulsions such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine exposed risks in the Premier League’s model of ownership by international billionaires. Then another international billionaire, Todd Boehly, bought Chelsea in a deal ultimately valued at £4.25 billion. In September I argued Boehly had overpaid for Chelsea. The planned sales at Manchester United and Liverpool will give a better idea of whether he really did.
Between the Saudi ownership at Newcastle and the World Cup in Qatar the question of sportswashing was pervasive. In June I wrote that “sportswashing” was a misnomer because it implied someone, somewhere, was feeling the need to be seen as “clean”. “Why should we imagine that the Middle Eastern aristocrats pumping in billions to take over sports feel some restless anxiety to be [perceived as] clean, when most of us wouldn’t recognise dirt if it fell on our heads?”
Buying up football and golf was not about laundering reputations, it was simpler than that: a flex, a show of power. “It’s clear an attempt is under way to buy the world’s attention, but might this not be an end in itself rather than a means to an end?” In October: “The shimmering spires of Doha offer a vision of the future; the problem is, the vision is terrifying.” A month in Doha served only to strengthen that impression. The worst things about the Gulf system – the racial hierarchy, the exploitation of the imported labour force – are all right there in front of you.
Previewing the World Cup, I wrote: “If Lionel Messi’s last dance were to take Argentina to the title it would be a story beautiful enough to bring out the inner eight-year-old in all of us... [some people think] Messi needs to win the World Cup to finally prove his greatness... [but] after 12 years of scandal and shame, it’s the World Cup that needs him.” He only went and did it.
It’s hard to believe now that back in March PSG fans were booing Messi, who was at that point, according to xG performance, the 576th best finisher out of 578 players in Ligue 1. After PSG got knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid I pontificated about the Midas effect of having billionaire owners, warning that it doesn’t always bring happiness. “Where there is no struggle, there can be no satisfaction. No wonder Mbappé thinks it’s time to check out.” Ten weeks later, Mbappé signed a three-year, €600 million contract to stay at PSG.
Leaning on John Gray, I argued that cats did not worry about the opinions of others and that ‘if a cat had been managing West Ham’, it would have picked Zouma
In January, I criticised John Terry for shilling NFTs, suggesting that players such as Terry who lent their name to what were effectively Ponzi schemes would soon regret it, as their followers lost their money and looked for someone to blame. By March there were no further mentions of apes and NFTs on Terry’s Twitter feed and by June his NFT collection had lost 99 per cent of their value. JT, however, sailed on, ending the year with a lucrative World Cup punditry gig on BeIn Sports.
On February 14th, the story of the week was Kurt Zouma, who had been picked by David Moyes despite a leaked video showing him kicking his cat. I was as surprised as anyone else to read my own contribution to the debate. Leaning on John Gray, I argued that cats did not worry about the opinions of others and that “if a cat had been managing West Ham”, it would have picked Zouma.
I also praised Graeme Souness, who had fiercely criticised Zouma for his cruelty, noting that unlike many others who were also laying into Zouma, Souness at least had the integrity to follow a vegan diet. Imagine my disappointment when the introduction to Souness’s first column for the Daily Mail in July had him “settling down to fishcakes”.