As with Mark Twain, rumours of the death of international football were clearly premature. As the World Cup enters the quarter-final phase, it has already been a magnificent celebration of the most beautiful game. There has been only one goalless draw (albeit that France v Denmark was as boring as a hundred normal goalless draws) and at least three all-time classic matches (Spain 3-3 Portugal; France 4-3 Argentina; and Belgium 3-2 Japan). Indeed, unless teams other than Uruguay suddenly rediscover the lost art of defending, or become gripped by fear as the dream of a world title nears reality, there is every chance that Russia 2018 will go down in football history as one of the greatest World Cups and the first of them not to be held in Mexico.
Why has this happened? There are obviously many reasons, but there are three main ones.
The World Cup Can’t Be Bought
It’s Not Boring Old Club Football
Before the tournament, as before most recent World Cups and other major international tournaments such as the European Championships or Copa America, there were many suggestions that international football had lost its allure. It was claimed that the rise of the Champions League and the modern so-called ‘Superclub’, such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, had seen football fans’ hearts around the world being won by club football at the expense of international football.
Yet the viewing figures for the World Cup (not only in England, where the national side’s newfound ability to take penalties saw them reach a record audience) have generally been extremely high, confounding the expectations of many critics of international football.
The utterly obvious point is that international football is not club football – indeed, it is so different from the club game that it almost constitutes an entirely different sport. Whereas the best club sides are now assembled at enormous cost and over considerable periods of time, international sides are almost literally thrown together at the last minute. As a result, they may not be able to match the cohesion and instinctive team play of the very best club sides, but nor are they able to build the kind of blanket defences that in the past have done so much to reduce Champions League and Copa Libertadores finals to the point of being unwatchable.
It’s not just the finals of club football that are so often dull but increasingly the whole concept of club football, at least in the major leagues of Europe. Three of those five major leagues (Germany, Italy and France) have been made almost utterly uncompetitive, with one so-called ‘Superclub’ proving itself so far ahead of the rest that it is not a question of whether they will win the league but how many leagues they will win in succession. In Italy, Juventus currently lead that most boring of races with seven Serie A titles in a row, but they are closely followed by Bayern Munich in Germany (who have just won their sixth Bundesliga in a row) and PSG in France (who have just won their fourth title out of the last five).
When he finally left Arsenal, Arsene Wenger expressed his own sense of boredom about so much European club football, saying that many of the major leagues were effectively decided by Christmas. Well, it may only get worse. If Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City continue on their astonishing upwards curve, soon Spain may be the only one of Europe’s big five leagues that has more than one genuine candidate to win it. And with the greatest of respect to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, who have done so much to establish themselves as a third force in Spanish club football, most of the time La Liga is a straight fight between the two giants of Real Madrid and Barcelona. And in much of the last decade, during which Barca have won seven out of the last ten league titles, it has not even been a two-horse race.
By complete and utter contrast, the World Cup has been a succession of spectacular surprises. It began with Germany crashing out in the first round for the first time since Hitler was in power and continued with Russia somehow manning the barricades against a vastly superior Spain for long enough to take them to penalties. Now, as we approach the tournament’s final stages, there are at least six genuine contenders to be world champions, with only the hosts and Sweden being regarded as complete outsiders. However, given all the other surprises that we have seen, perhaps Russia or the supremely obdurate Swedes can somehow lift the World Cup. And even if it is pre-tournament favourites Brazil who finally win, they will have faced incredible competition even to reach the final, let alone win it.
The Fans (In the Grounds and Around the World)
There had been the usual pre-tournament fears about stadia or transport links not being completed on time, but there were also Russia-specific fears about racism and hooliganism. Thankfully, so far at least, those fears have proved unfounded. Of course, it was always likely that the Russian security apparatus would crack down on anyone who threatened the image of Russia that Vladimir Putin wanted to project on the world stage. However, it has been far more than mere crowd control. Instead, Russian fans and visiting fans alike have warmly embraced both the World Cup itself and each other.
The Rio Olympics of 2016 were probably the nadir of modern televised sport, in that there was virtually no live audience (as in actual fans at the event) for it, other than for the main athletics events and the football competition. World Cup 2018 is the polar opposite. It has been played out in front of enormous live audiences, with seemingly every ground packed to the rafters.
That has been a reminder of the importance of the fan to football. In England, it is often said, ‘There’s no show without Punch’, referring to the traditional ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet shows, in which Punch is the villain who usually gets his comeuppance. Well, in football, as in most sports (or indeed most live performances of any kind, sporting or artistic), there is no show without the audience. They form the necessary backdrop to any live event.
And it is not only the audience at the grounds that matters, but the viewing audience around the world. Another major reason why this World Cup has been so successful, and in particular why it has so successfully captured the global imagination, is that it remains on free-to-air TV. For the moment at least, FIFA, however much they may have wanted to, have been unable to sell the World Cup to the highest bidder, be that cable, satellite or online broadcasters. That means that, unlike most major European leagues and the Champions League itself, the whole world has been able to watch the World Cup together. Now especially, as the games begin to thin out as we approach the tournament’s final stages, it can be confidently predicted that most inhabitants of Earth will be watching at least one of the seven remaining games (the third-place play-off is an abomination and doesn’t count as a real, competitive fixture).
In his magisterial account of football history, The Ball Is Round, David Goldblatt begins by saying that the 2006 World Cup Final was probably the most watched event in human history, easily outstripping even such remarkable one-off events as the first moon landing in 1969. Well, if that was true in 2006 (when Goldblatt’s book first appeared), it is even truer in 2018. As club football becomes increasingly hidden behind corporate paywalls, international football, and especially the World Cup, becomes the one form of football that virtually everyone can watch. And because people watch it together, they share an experience that transcends anything that the club game has to offer.
You Can’t Buy It, You Have to Win It
My children’s former headmaster, the marvellous (and marvellously named) Mr Millington, had a wonderful saying that he would employ at almost every school prize-giving, saying of each award: “You can’t buy it. You have to win it.” Well, those words have been thundering in my ears in the last fortnight or so, because exactly the same can be said of the World Cup.
Before anyone interjects to say otherwise, let me say immediately that it is absolutely, tragically possible to buy the right to host the World Cup, as appears to have been the case with at least Qatar 2022. What can’t be bought is the right to win the World Cup.
Again, this is one of the major differences between club and international football. The main reason why so much club football has become so uninspiring is precisely because billionaires or quasi-state bodies have been able to buy up so much of the available talent and concentrate it in the hands of a few small clubs. Of course, as David Goldblatt also shows in The Ball Is Round, money has always been a factor in professional football, from its very beginnings at the end of the 19th century. However, it is now reaching the point where it is the main factor, or, as some would argue, the only factor.
That is not the case with international football. It is certainly true that national federations (or even national governments) can invest millions, if not billions, to maximise their chances of sporting success. However, unlike in club football, where it is possible to buy the finished article (proven, experienced international players), there is absolutely no guarantee with international football that such planning and investment will prove successful.
One only needs to look at the countries that are not in Russia, notably the USA and China, who are the two biggest economic powers in the world and who both have invested enormously in their attempts to become global players in soccer, to realise that, unlike in club football, there is no causal link between economic investment and success in international football. Instead, it is the likes of Uruguay (who famously have ‘football instead of history’) that are the genuine soccer superpowers.
In this way, international football, and especially the World Cup, reminds all of us of the essence of football, namely that it is a simple game that you play to win. As Mr Millington said, ‘You can’t buy it. You have to win it.’ If the club game has been largely sold off, as yet the international game remains defiantly unbuyable. That is what makes the World Cup the ultimate prize, arguably not only in football or even in sport, but perhaps in all of human activity.