As the January window opens, Kylian Mbappe is considering what next. He was already agitating for a move away from Paris Saint-Germain before the World Cup, but the completion of one of Qatar’s sportswashing project has now made him further wonder whether he has fulfilled his time at the other.
Mbappe knows the next steps are crucial to his career. He’ll just be taking them in a completely different world.
This is something that cannot be overstated as 2023 opens. We are not just fully into the post-Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era, with Mbappe and Erling Haaland already taking over. We are into the era after the Qatar World Cup, with its considerable impact continuing to reshape the game.
More than anything, it significantly accelerated a sportswashing race that now sees Qatar influence much of the European game through PSG and Nasser Al Khelaifi’s presidency of the European Club Association, while Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City and Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle United look at grander ambitions. It would be lamentably fitting if one of PSG or City followed that World Cup by finally winning the Champions League. That certainly looks more likely now than at any point in the last decade. This is where the game is.
These are one of two major forces driving football in 2023, with Gulf blockade political aims on one side, and American capitalism on the other. Many in the game believe the rise of multi-club projects will be one of the biggest issues, particularly with how they transform identities, and have so far been able to work without proper regulation. “Everyone is super-focused on this,” one high-level source said. “There is need for regulation to be first re-clarified. Every club must stand on its own two feet. It’s a topic everyone has realised in 2022, and will be the biggest in 2023.”
All this comes as many anticipate growing tensions between Uefa and Fifa to escalate into “all our war”. There was apoplexy within many levels of the club game about how Gianni Infantino just announced a new 32-team Club World Cup for 2025, with minimal consultation with the rest of the game.
The battle over the calendar will grow, and really comes down to who controls the wealth of the club game.
Above all that, and much more purely, Fifa’s other marquee event will kick off in Australia and New Zealand with the Women’s World Cup. Sarina Wiegman’s England have perhaps their best ever chance of winning the trophy, as the best team in the world. The team have never been in better shape.
That isn’t the case with the women’s game, and the build-up is set to be dominated by the very loud push for equal prize money. That is going to be all the more difficult for Fifa and US soccer since preparations will properly start for the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first without a local organising committee and one the governing body will 100 per cent control.
In the middle of this will be Infantino’s re-election as president in March. Given it is happening in Africa, many will be watching to see whether he continues the theme of the World Cup in articulating a split between “the West” and the rest of the world.
The machinations around the Club World Cup come in this context. Gareth Southgate will meanwhile be focusing on this continent, to hone the England men's side for Euro 2024.
If all of this seems a disproportionate focus on matters off the pitch, it is only because they dictate events on the pitch to a greater degree than ever before.
Take Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus. With the European Court of Justice widely expected to take on the counsel of Advocate General Athanasios Rantos on the place of governing bodies in sport, it effectively kills the Super League project - at least in this form. The three agitator clubs will have to consider what next.
There is a growing speculation within the game that it could lead to the first steps in Barcelona and Madrid abandoning the socio model. It would be a tragedy if so, but an inevitable victim of the trends of the game.
Two of their greatest ever players, meanwhile, will also be wondering about what next. Ronaldo won’t want to leave his career like that, but can’t find an elite club to take him. Messi is currently deciding between that fitting farewell season at Barcelona, or beginning the postscript to of his career at Inter Miami.
The latter would further reflect the rising influence of the US on the game, and perhaps start to prove Infantino right on one grand claim. He said that the aim is for football to become the number-one sport in the country and all signs suggest this will be the case.
This could well be the year that sees majority US ownership in the Premier League. The title race right now appropriately reflects how the game is caught between the effect of those two major power bases in the West and the Middle East, since it is City against the Kroenke family’s Arsenal. The big question is whether Mikel Arteta’s side can sustain this surge or capitalise on their advantage. The prevailing thinking is that City will again just scorch away, Haaland scoring the goals that win another title and properly announce this burgeoning rivalry with Mbappe.
It is where the game is as we go into 2023. It is at once so predictable, and yet with so many unknowns.
We’re in a grand new era, albeit with everything about it influenced by what came before.