“The reward today was for beautiful football,” said Vicente del Bosque after Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0 to win the 2010 World Cup, kicking off the decade with an optimistic outlook. Spain finished the final with 57% possession, giving a glimpse of a footballing future centered around midfields and possession. France finished with 39% possession in beating Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final just eight years later, with Didier Deschamps described as a functional manager who would not impress aesthetes. According to this decade’s chief philosopher of pragmatism, big matches in the modern game are won by small, individual moments as opposed to the larger flow. Looking back, del Bosque’s words seem like a wish more than a coronation.
But couldn’t a counterattack be as beautiful as a long passing sequence in its own way? There is something to the brutality, finality, and efficiency of the singular moment. Besides, the tiki-taka and gegenpressing tactics that opened and closed this decade are on speaking terms. Possessing the ball and closing off space are polar tensions that inform and strengthen the other: an effective press will force opposition teams to create new structures in build-up play, thereby creating new developments in pressing.
Playing without the ball no longer denotes cynicism and passivity. The most modern teams switch between sequences of pressing high to create chances, falling back deep to rest, then pressing high again. A match then becomes a mini-game of cycles of risk management. In lieu of long-passing sequences, the beauty is in the synchronicity of a large block of players moving in unison as the opposing team desperately tries to break out and find space. Inter won the 2010 Champions League Final with 33% possession. Liverpool had 39% possession in beating Tottenham in last season’s final. The numbers look similar, but each side had a different purpose and activity without the ball.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea set a league-record with 103 goals to win the Premier League in 2010. Was it surprising that it took eight years to break that record? Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City finished with 106 goals in their record-setting 2017-18 campaign, which also included a record for the most points, most wins, and highest goal-difference. That side was awarded the team of the decade for their ability not in possession, but in reimagining positional concepts to exploit the specific style of a league. So del Bosque’s beautiful football still exists, but it must be looked at as a problem-solving tool as opposed to aesthetics for its own sake.
Though the most relevant record-breaking number surrounding the Premier League this year was in the millions of subscribers who signed up for its Prime Video platform to watch midweek matches in December. The sequence of games featured the most sign-ups for the platform since its launch, marrying innovations in streaming with the Premier League’s global reach to show a glimpse of how audiences could consume the sport over this next decade. Sky paid $4.58 billion for the current rights to the league, with Amazon allotting more than $7 billion to licensing shows and sports. Most cynically, television shows were created to sell products as an early form of content marketing. Amazon already found success in using the Premier League as a gateway for purchasing everyday items at speed. History may not necessarily repeat, but it does rhyme.
Television rights are at the source of existential conflicts in essentially every league in the world, most explicitly with La Liga. Though the Spanish league will make more than $2 billion from television rights by the end of this season, it still trails the Premier League’s global growth and impact. That anxiety has played out in situations ranging from the rescheduling of El Clasico to the league’s attempt to play a match in the U.S. Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish FA, implored that La Liga matches cannot leave the country’s borders. Meanwhile, La Liga president Javier Tebas takes on a global viewpoint, connecting the health of the league with engaging audiences worldwide.
The speed and development of digital spaces forced La Liga to question its role and meaning in future footballing landscapes. Is it possible to split the difference in keeping a local feel while growing a global audience so as to not get left behind in a Prime Video world?
“The idea of the rebrand was to reposition the club in the wider entertainment industry as a brand that was able to deliver lifestyle experiences. It was about being able to be identified as something wider than a pure football brand,” said Juventus chief of revenue officer Giorgio Ricci about the club’s rebrand in the middle of the decade.
Juventus aimed to engage audiences who weren’t fans of football, which is a unique thesis for a football club. After all, what can a team mean to someone who doesn’t care about the sport? Reshaping the club - or rather, the brand - into a relatable, aspirational ideal beyond results on the field began with visual storytelling. A brandmark in lieu of a crest immediately differentiated themselves from other Italian clubs. The signal was clear: Juventus are not in competing with Inter or AC Milan, but are instead in conversation with Harley-Davidson and Gucci.
Turning a club into a brand also relieves the risks of competition, replacing unpredictable sporting results for control. Currently in 8th place and 24 points behind league leaders Liverpool on the Premier League table to close the decade, Manchester United have actually increased their fanbase 67% over the past seven years, counting 1.1 billion followers worldwide. The club’s next jersey sponsorship deal is expected to break a record beyond their current $570 million contract.
In an era where clubs attempt to resonate with fans beyond soccer, does winning still matter?
With clubs breaking financial records and exponentially increasing global supporters anyway, it may only resonate on an ego level. The Champions League, which cemented Europe as the center of the footballing world in the digital age, remains the challenge for a club that has everything. Traditional powers outside the Premier League from Bayern Munich, Juventus, and PSG based coaching and transfer strategies dedicated to winning the tournament. Though even the unpredictable nature of the format is in question. The rumored creation of a European Super League would have the financial and global reach of the current setup, minus the pressure of winning. With all of the global brands in one league, the top clubs will still succeed through their association regardless of the results.
A concoction of pressing, modern branding principles, and an emphasis on winning the Champions League created the modern game over the decade. Those sides who remain idealistic, who prefer to only be a football club and nothing else, are threatened to be left behind. One could imagine writing a decade recap in 2030, with the sport even more unrecognizable from its current state due to the speed of technology shifting audience expectations. If this past decade introduced soccer to a language of branding, the next decade could result in further segmentation in the tension between local clubs and global audiences. We can sense it today, how even as two sides compete in the same match, they are playing two vastly different games.