The way the above headline is written offers a big hint as to why the WSL have a major dilemma when it comes to awarding the injury wildcards for 2019. Slater and John John are bona fide super stars, famous enough to be regularly referenced in single name terms, the same way that ‘Messi’ or ‘Ronaldo’ are in soccer. Caio Ibelli is a brilliant surfer, but does not operate in the same rarefied space as the other two. All three are engaged in a foot fight over the two official, WSL injury wildcards available for 2019. (This year’s wildcards went to Ian Gouveia and Kelly Slater)  

On a medical level Kelly’s application is based on continuing problems with the foot he broke at J-Bay back in 2017. More recently he strained the ligament in the same foot, and my haven’t we seen a lot of that x-ray on the WSL webcast.

Caoi Ibelli broke his foot whilst freesurfing at Margaret River earlier this year and has been undergoing intense physiotherapy ever since. John John Florence’s knee injury was incurred while freesurfing after he was knocked out of the Corona Bali Pro. Perhaps a blessing in disguise given his horror start to the year.    

Even if Caio has the best medical case for claiming one of the wildcard slots it is difficult to imagine a 2019 world tour without Kelly and John John Florence. We know Kelly wants one more shot at the title because shortly after Parko announced his retirement at J-Bay, Kelly, a notorious limelight thief, blurted out his intentions to go round one more time in 2019.        

Much has been made of Kelly’s reluctance to partake in the European leg of the tour, despite finishing third in the recent WSL Surf Ranch Pro. ‘If Kelly can dip his turf toe in his wave pond then why can’t he take on French and Portuguese beachies?’ has been the sentiment conveyed by many viewers. These comments are partly driven by a perceived view that Kelly gets to make up his own rules and partly motivated by the fact that we still love to see him compete.

One theory might suggest that Kelly is protecting his win/loss ratio. The turf toe may indeed still be troubling him, but he also knows that if his form is not solid and he bows out in early rounds in Europe then it may make his case for an injury wildcard look weaker. Despite his impressive performance at The Ranch, Kelly hadn’t made a single quarter-final in the six events he’d contested prior to The Ranch – a bad stat by his illustrious standards.

Caio Ibelli finds himself in a heavy heat with Kelly Slater and John John Florence in pursuit of a 2019 injury wildcard. Photo: WSL

So how is the WSL going to make room for everybody given that all three surfers have legitimate and/or popular claim to a spot on the 2019 roster? It takes 36 men to contest an event. Once the top 34 (which includes the two injury wildcards) are factored in, that leaves two spots vacant in each event. One of those automatically goes to the trials winner while the final slot is ‘usually’ reserved for the event’s sponsor. However, the absence of event sponsors at many recent (and future) events has given the WSL the opportunity to appoint another 'Commissioner's wildcard' at their discretion.

We saw this happen with Mikey Wright in several events this year – a decision, which was met with mixed responses from fans and other surfers.            

At face value it seems like there is an obvious solution. Simply award one of the three above surfers with the ‘Commissioner’s Wildcard’ for every event. However, this plan is not quite bullet-proof. Some events next year do have sponsors. What if Rip Curl for example decided that they want to grant Mick Fanning or Mason Ho a wildcard into Bells in addition to the winner of the trials? For several years Rip Curl have elected to appoint their own wild cards. Last year Mikey McDonough claimed a slot and in years past Mason Ho has been the beneficiary. Surely such a scenario would rule out a commissioner’s appointment. Would Rip Curl insist on Mick Fanning as a wildcard over Kelly as an automatic WSL appointment? The WSL wildcard ruling is a little vague, but their site currently carries the following statement.    

“Q: What are event wildcards?
A: In addition to the World Surf League wildcards there are also event wildcards. These are surfers who are chosen to compete alongside the CT surfers in a single CT event. A Men's CT event has a 36-man field comprised of the Top 34 plus two event wildcards. Women's CT events have an 18-woman field comprised of the Top 17 plus one event wildcard. The event wildcard is typically awarded by either the event sponsor, through a trials event or through automatic entry at the discretion of the event organizer. Typically candidates for the event wildcard will come from the event sponsor's team, the local area, or both. Not only do these surfers complete the seed list and/or fill in for injured surfers, but they also bring exciting new faces and challenges to the CT elite.”

Meanwhile Hawaii also presents a problem. Under the current system the top two surfers from the Pipe Trials (most events it’s just one) are awarded spots in the main event. That also eliminates the option for a Commissioner’s wildcard, which technically means someone will miss out. Imagine Kelly (a seven time Pipe Master) being denied a spot in the Pipe Masters in his final year on tour after surfing all year as the WCT/Commissioner's Wildcard?

That may be a  just and fair interpretation of the existing rules, but it also sounds almost sacrilegious.    

The more controversial resolution the WSL are rumoured to be toying with involves manipulating the spots given to WQS qualifiers. The WSL could for example decide that Caio Ibelli should automatically receive the final WQS qualifying slot instead of the surfer on the WQS with the appropriate points. While this might be great for Caio, it would be dire for the surfer who was scheduled to land on the WCT by virtue of their efforts on the WQS. Such a dramatic shift in the goal posts could also open the WSL up to some serious legal scrutiny. Therefore the final legitimate qualifier bumped out by say Caio would be in a position to sue the WSL's ass with good reason.

Whichever way you look at the problem, the WSL has a conundrum. They obviously want John John and Kelly on tour because they know the fans love to watch them surf and that two surfers of that stature make the tour a much sexier platform to sell to prospective advertisers. They also know that Caio Ibelli has a great case for a spot on tour, on the basis of the injury he incurred. The decision on who receives the wildcards is usually announced the day after the Pipe Masters is completed. It’s a long way off but it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how the WSL deal with a testing situation involving the greatest surfer ever, the current world champion and a feisty, Brazilian natural footer who is fighting to keep his career alive.