QATAR 2022 really is the party DJ that no one wants, the one who surveys the dancefloor, admires the euphoric crowd, works them into a frenzy and decides the moment has come to play Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me.
The tempo grinds to a halt. The hysteria dissipates. The lights come on. Everything suddenly looks uglier and sweatier. The party dies.
Welcome to the World Cup, a tournament with a list of crimes still to be written, following the reprehensible ones already committed, but the one least discussed – because it’s arguably the least important – is against the English Premier League.
While the first three months of a hurried, compressed season are more in keeping with the frenzied fumbling of a couple of teenagers on a park bench, the EPL was still edging towards a Christmas climax of sorts, before the premature evacuation to Qatar.
Talk about a mood killer. We’re stumbling towards a winter World Cup by turning away from a domestic campaign that’s threatening to exceed expectations, as if EPL teams are raising a collective middle finger to FIFA and saying, "You want to stop this for that?"
The chief instigators are Arsenal, of course, the artists formerly known as paupers. They’re trying to party like it’s 1998. Just who are these alien gate-crashers?
William Saliba effectively turned Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang into Stuart Little at the weekend, popping his little pet into his pocket to amuse himself.
Thomas Partey schooled Chelsea’s expensive midfield like a radical teacher unimpressed with being assigned entitled, elite school halfwits.
While Gabriel Jesus did the work of two men, the one still aggrieved at Manchester City for letting him go and the one obsessed with ending his mini-goal drought. He scampered like a puppy eager to please his new master.
And Mikel Arteta was pleased, punching the air at the final whistle. The Arsenal manager has a bit of Mark Zuckerberg about him. He’s hit upon a successful formula at a young age. He’s not entirely sure how he’s got to where he is so quickly, upsetting industry giants along the way, but he’s running with it.
Stars like Salah, Nunez just coming into form
And it’s not just the marauding Gunners. Mo Salah is at it, too.
Liverpool and a below-par Egyptian are like Scousers not complaining about a pro-Manchester bias in all facets of modern life. Their game is off. Something is missing.
But Salah’s ninth goal in eight games was a lovely reminder that the impish creator had fully returned. His cheeky chip against Tottenham Hotspur was the merchant of mischief turning EPL pitches into school playgrounds once more, showing off with friends, just because he can. He’s such an uplifting force in this form.
And we’re about to lose him, for a month or so, along with Darwin Nunez, who is close to merging his bizarre shapes. His freakishly tall frame, quick limbs and relentless power are coming together now, like a Jackson Pollock piece. We’ve had a chance to stand back and take it all in and we can see the real Nunez emerging.
But that entertaining lesson in art analysis stops soon, at least in the colours of Liverpool.
The EPL campaign is about to become that prestige TV drama that may not get another season to resolve the many dangling narrative threads, such as will Salah and Nunez combine to reach the top four?
Or will Antonio Conte’s short-term project drive his fainting, vomiting superstars towards a trophy or nervous exhaustion? Will the prickly Italian turn on his own supporters? Spurs were booed off the field after their Liverpool loss. Conte behaves like Joe Pesci in The Irishman, if he suspects his people are demonstrating a failure to show appreciation.
Erik ten Hag has already surpassed his Manchester United predecessors by coaching players to play better. Diogo Dalot, Lisandro Martinez and even Luke Shaw have all improved. But he cannot squeeze more goals from a spluttering forward line. Will Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford become the next Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke or the next Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham? Who knows?
We certainly won’t, not for a month at least. United’s season hangs precariously in the balance, in a unique EPL season that hangs precariously in the balance, which is absurd. The impact is really hitting home now, as a kind of obvious, existential angst takes hold.
We like this stuff.
We don’t want this stuff to end.
This stuff may not be as good on its return.
Damage done when Qatar was named host nation
In fact, this stuff almost certainly won’t be as good on its return. As everyone from Jamie Carragher to Jurgen Klopp - and all those not connected to the geopolitical power plays between oil-rich nations – continue to point out, the damage was done when Sepp Blatter feigned surprise when he pulled Qatar’s name from the envelope in 2010.
The football must suffer. The EPL will be a lesser, paler imitation of its former, pre-World Cup self. It’ll certainly be messier, which may appeal to one’s anarchic streak. Injuries, fatigue and fixture piles-ups will throw up daft results, similar to those played during the COVID lockdowns, inside empty stadiums.
The lack of fans made those matches part of an inferior product. The lack of rest and recovery will do the same for this EPL season, when it resumes in late December.
And that’s such a shame, just the latest in a long line of shameful incidents as we sleepwalk towards a tournament that feels like an unwanted hangover before it's begun.
Remember that great night out you once had, the one that was spontaneous, vibrant and perfect? Remember how hard it was to recreate that night with the same friends at the same venues? It didn’t work, did it?
That’ll be the English Premier League when the season resumes, trying desperately to continue a party that was stupidly stopped at the wrong time. What a waste.
Remember that great night out you once had, the one that was spontaneous, vibrant and perfect? Remember how hard it was to recreate that night with the same friends at the same venues? It didn’t work, did it? That’ll be the English Premier League when the season resumes.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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