When The World Comes To Play
The shape of global football has changed over time, yet the World Cup has remained defiantly the prize of a select handful of nations. As star players from across the world assemble in Russia next month, we’ll be reminded why it is so hard to win – and ho
Why the biggest prize of the world game remains the property of an elite circle of nations. Plus: the top players from across the globe.
Amid the epochal feeling around Sydney’s 2000 Olympics, it was possible to envisage a new world of football. The final of the men’s tournament, then as now contested by the under-23-yearold set, pitted Cameroon against Spain. The United States finished in the topfour, while Brazil had been eliminated early. Australia, still starved of top-flight football after the shock defeat to Iran during qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, went winless.
It didn’t stop the host nation, though, from packing out Olympic Stadium for the gold-medal game, a record attendance of 104,098. The wonderfully named Indomitable Lions, a fan favourite since their memorable display at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, once again won over the crowd. FIFA’s technical report on the tournament, in typical report-speak, noted the “lucky spectators … saw a match most would qualify as unforgettable”. Cameroon rallied from 2-0 down to level the scores, then win on penalties.
For the second
Olympics in a row, an African nation had claimed victory, after Nigeria’s win in 1996. Pele once famously predicted that the continent would produce a World Cup winner by 2000. In the outlines of those Olympic tournaments, the idea of a champion from Africa didn’t seem so far-fetched. It wasn’t just the Africans – at the World Cup two years later, another pair of insurgent football nations, South Korea and Turkey, made the last four.
Alas, Pele’s predictions are notable within football for being famously bad. Cameroon went on to be a solid presence at the international heights, qualifying for World Cups in ’02, ’10 and ’14, but not this year. Meanwhile, their Spanish opponents in the final – a line-up that featured the likes of Xavi and Carles Puyol – inaugurated a full-blown flourishing for the country’s football. Spain crashed the ranks of World Cup winners in 2010, shedding their tag as historic underachievers and doing so with a style of football that earned kudos from Brazil as the new source of the beautiful game.
The future of football is yet to arrive at the World Cup. The recent history of the sport told at its signature event is not one of the earth flattening or geopolitical fault-lines moving. Instead, the game’s traditional powers have reasserted their dominance, and in many ways buttressed by the force of global new money that was meant to upend it. The notion of an African nation lifting the Rimet trophy seems further away than it did 20 years ago; the likes of the US and Turkey, like Cameroon, didn’t make it to Russia. Australia, finally rid of its World Cup hoodoo, qualified for a fourth straight finals, but even this accomplishment seems freighted with complacency.
In many respects, there’s a G8 of sorts atop world football, the elite circle of nations that can put a star or five on their jersey to honour their triumphs at the World Cup. There’s all-time leader Brazil, defending champs Germany and their antagonists both in Argentina. Spain and France were the new members of the club from the old European core, while England always has 1966. Italy is the VIP guest left without a table this time around, after a slip-up in qualifying. And even Uruguay, long the joker in the World Cup’s winning pack, has enjoyed a revival in its football, although Luis Suarez’s exploits keep them firmly on the unfashionable side.
It might be the world game, but the World Cup remains the province of where football has long ruled. Try to find a prediction that
"MORE THAN EVER, I FEEL LIKE IT’S HARD TO JUSTIFY PICKING NATIONS OUTSIDE THAT ACCEPTED ELITE … AT THIS LEVEL, YOU HAVE TO ALMOST HAVE GOT THE RUNS ON THE BOARD. EVERYONE DREAMS OF HOLDING THE TROPHY ALOFT BUT I DON’T FEEL AS THOUGH, UNTIL IT HAPPENS, ANYONE REALLY THINKS IT’S POSSIBLE.”
doesn’t have one of the elite eight wining in 2018. “More than ever, I feel like it’s hard to justify picking nations outside that accepted elite,” says Optus Sport execuitve producer and presenter Richard Bayliss, who will be in Russia covering the event. “Whether the gap is increasing between the haves and the have-nots, I’m not so sure. But I don’t feel like there are too many sides outside those eight that are peaking at the right time.
“Belgium is one, for me, that is fascinating because their starting XI is fantastic. When they play against England, there’ll be essentially 20 Premier League players on the pitch and we know how good the Premier League is. Yet people are only considering Belgium as an outside chance. And a lot of that comes from the fact that at this level, you have to almost have got the runs on the board. Everyone dreams of holding the trophy aloft, but I don’t feel as though, until it happens, anyone really thinks it’s possible.”
It’s one of the quirks of the World Cup that it’s been brutal on the world’s underdogs. Where a near-equivalent tournament such as the Euros has produced surprise winners over time such as Greece, Denmark and Czechoslovakia, the World Cup has consistently defied the unpredictable. The pattern has held: only wealthy or heavily populated nations – in football terms – need apply. Smaller-scale nations haven’t managed to break through, no matter how outstanding: the Netherlands of the 1970s, most famously; Hungary’s team was regarded as the best in world in the ’50s, before star Ferenc Puskas retired to Melbourne; Austria similarly in the 1930s while the World Cup was still a thrown-together affair, and it was robbed of a shot in 1938 after Hitler folded the country into Germany in the Anschluss.
As a level playing field for the planet, the football pitch should present more opportunity than in other realms of national prestige-mongering. Footballers don’t quite carry around these geopolitical considerations with them, particularly once a ball is kicked. But as noted football pundit and Fox Sports commentator Simon Hill observes, the World Cup is hardly just another bunch of games, even for these players. “You very much have the feeling that this is the most important sporting event on the planet, which it is,” Hill says.
“I was having a conversation with Thomas Sorensen and he’s played at a World Cup for Denmark. He was telling me that when you’re lining up in the tunnel before you your opening game, you do sort of feel, ‘Wow, this is the culmination of my lifetime dream.’ I think it’s a mental thing for players as well.”
One of the novelties of Russia 2018 was previewed at the Euros two years ago: Iceland, which becomes the smallest nation ever to compete at a World Cup. It’s an irresistible underdog tale: an
island nation that gets sunlight a quarter of the year, with a population less than that of Canberra, still in recovery from one of the definitive flameouts of the global financial crisis. The national team manager is a dentist, the goalie made the music video for Iceland’s Eurovision entry.
Iceland stands as the poster child for the World Cup’s all-encompassing reach. With fellow debutant Panama, the pair become the 78th and 79th nations to participate in the tournament (give or take FIFA’s accounting method), and Qatar is already locked in as the 80th in four years.
Iceland’s rise, however, is a sidebar to the main story of football’s power flows in the 21st century. In their influential book Soccernomics, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski elaborated a view of how international football success relates to sources of national power. Working with a database of match results over time, they arrived at some key insights, viewed through the lens of development economics. Population size and wealth mattered, but perhaps not as much as the amount of football experience the nation had, or whether it was simply playing at home. But contrary to the romantic notions of the kid on the streets who uses football to escape from poverty, there was a correlation between wealth and overall success – as the authors noted, their rankings bore a strong resemblance to the UN’s human development index.
The other big takeaway of Soccernomics was the importance of knowledge transfer. This is the most decisive factor to shape the game into the future: as the world becomes more networked, the transmission of knowhow is what determines a nation’s football fates. How connected a country is becomes key – the book points to Spain, which went from the isolated basket case of the Franco era to an integrated member of the European Union, and with a dash of Dutch influence via Johan Cruyff, became the dominant nation everyone thought it could become in 2010.
Because of proximity, these knowledge transfers have been most effective close to the source of top expertise in Europe. Indeed, if you staged a World Cup without regard to region, using FIFA’s rankings to
“IF THIS BUNCH OF ENGLISH KIDS WERE, FOR EXAMPLE, BELGIAN OR FINNISH OR NORWEGIAN, THEY’D GET MUCH MORE OF AN OPPORTUNITY. MAYBE THAT COULD DEVELOP AS A GROUP INTO A REAL GENUINE CHANCE OF WINNING A WORLD CUP.”
take the top 32 nations, you’d have 21 European teams, six South Americans, three from the other American and two African. The primacy of knowledge in modern football – analytics, training techniques, organisational structure – is another reason why the traditional powers have reasserted themselves.
As a story that says something about football at this moment, the recent experience of Germany has become a parable. If there was a natural football power, Germany would be it: rich, populous, pedigreed; to parse the famed Gary Lineker quote, football by definition is a game that Germans win at. But after a group-stage exit at the 1998 World Cup and a winless disaster at the 2000 Euros, as well as the prospect of saving face as hosts of the ’06 World Cup, there was public pressure for a bottom-to-top overhaul of the structure of the sport. The project earned the moniker “Das Reboot”, after a book of the same name by football writer Raphael Honigstein.
This already wealthy football nation reinvested in itself, massively. The national federation set up a comprehensive training scheme for boys from eight years old through their teens that has grown to more than 300 locations. To do that, they needed to fund more coaches – actual qualified ones, rather than volunteer dads. It was widely reported in the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup that Germany had more than 28,000 holders of the UEFA “B” coaching licence, the level below the requirement for working a professional club, or one for roughly every 3000 people. England, by comparison, had one for every 28,000 (Iceland, which also has a wellresourced system, has one for every 400, which shows smallness can be a virtue). At the other end of the pathway, every club in the top two divisions of the Bundesliga, some 36 teams, was required to open an academy. The hard work was in convincing club sides to see past the cost – according to Das Reboot, since 2001, the clubs had collectively spent more than €1b on youth development.
To watch the Germans hang seven on Brazil in the semi four years ago is to believe they got what they paid for. Die mannschaft is swollen with depth, to the degree that Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle, two of the heroes of 2014, didn’t make the squad this time around. With so much young talent in their pipeline, Bundesliga clubs have the luxury of fielding line-ups full of Germans.
“The national team had become staid, predictable and almost very Teutonic in the way it played its football,” says Simon Hill. “It was very staccato. It’s impressive what they’ve done, not only with Das Reboot, but also in embracing and understanding the modern nature of multiculturalism. It exists to a huge degree in Germany, and
they’ve put an umbrella over all those migrant communities; cherry-picked the best, really.
“Look at Mesut Ozil, who is a Turkish immigrant. Fantastic player, totally un-German, but he’s got that German discipline through coaching. You’ve still got your archetypal German players like Thomas Muller, a workhorse, technically very good, but disciplined. Where Ozil gives them something that little bit different.”
The change in culture extends beyond ethnic background. The system embraced a new approach to the way players should think. Unlike in other football hothouses, German academy prospects spend a lot of hours in school. As one German official explained to Honigstein, the demands of modern football professionalism required the self-discipline found in other lines of work. The proportion of youth players who have completed university-level requirements has inverted, from 15 percent to 85 percent. “German football has, it seems, become thoroughly middle class,” he wrote.
The contrast with England, for example, couldn’t be more pronounced. Hill, a keen observer of the English condition, notes that everyone brings up the burden of history that weighs upon the founder of the sport. But it’s less to do with 1966 and more about Brexit. “It’s about what England has done, or rather hasn’t done, over the last 20 years in terms of its development and its rather insular and parochial nature in terms of its football. The fact that none of our players play overseas, so they’re not well-rounded as footballers, or not as well-rounded as other nationalities. Or as human beings, so they’re not flexible enough on the world stage.”
The familiar stages of grief that England goes through at a major tournaments have been put in the blender this time around. Some elements are already advocating writing 2018 off, and waiting for the next wave – England is currently world champions of the under17 and under-20 level – to arrive. “But as we know, that doesn’t necessarily translate to senior level,” Hill says.
“It depends whether they get their opportunities with their Premier League clubs and that’s a big problem.
“If this bunch of English kids were, for example, Belgian or Finnish or Norwegian, they’d get much more of an opportunity. Maybe that could develop as a group into a real genuine chance of winning a World Cup, but because they play in a country where the national league is so massive, it might not work out that way.”
Amid all this, whither Australia? As the glow of the Golden Generation era begins to ebb, the challenge of competing in the football world has come in for some harsh light. Regularly qualifying for the World Cup was the low-hanging fruit, as it turned out. The hard part of genuinely contending in them remains.
As Richard Bayliss puts it, an important facet is the narrative each football nation tells itself. “I think if you look at Australia, it’s not in our footballing DNA to consider winning the World Cup. But it should be. Why isn’t it? We should be aiming to win the World Cup, whether that’s in four, eight, 12 or 50 years’ time.
“England want to win the World Cup because they know that it’s possible. We want a team that can beat anyone in the world because we know it’s possible. We’ve seen it happen before.
“However, I think the ground beneath Australian football has become considerably less stable since then and there are factors that contribute to creating another golden generation that aren’t there at the moment.”
It’s an optimisation problem – a healthy domestic league is important, but not one that discourages players from chasing higher levels of the game. In this regard, the A-League is not alone. After the United States’ failure to advance to Russia, there were American observers blaming the rise of the Major League Soccer for eroding the strength of the national team.
These leagues are still young, and the dividend from them in broadening the base of the player pyramid is way down the line. Exciting as it is to wait upon a wave of talent coming through, the record of golden generations – first attached to the Portuguese sides of Luis Figo and Rui Costa that never did anything at the World Cup – isn’t altogether lustrous. Think of how many German and Italian sides considered secondary that won the trophy. World Cup success is often less about the ability of the team as much as the underlying strength of the system.
The Soccernomics pair was notably bullish on Australia’s prospects in the sport, identifying it with a group of future powers: the US, Japan, even Iraq, a notable overachiever for its resources. With the 13th-largest national economy in the world, an openness to ideas and an already vibrant sporting culture, the fundamentals were in place for a genuine football power. The book couldn’t resist a bit of trolling: “A century from now, Aussie Rules might exist only at subsidised folklore festivals.”
Potential change in the Australian sporting landscape might be outpaced, however, by change to the World Cup itself. Under the new leadership of Gianni Infantino, FIFA is seizing the moment to shake things up. It is increasingly likely that the tournament will go to a 48-team format that was once thought fanciful. This is not the only shake-up to the international calendar – Infantino has hatched plans for a nations league that would replace the
World Cup qualification regime. Along with an expanded competition for clubs, FIFA will have a revised suite of international matches that has already attracted backing of $25b.
The implications are seismic. “They’re looking to increase revenues because FIFA is under pressure, they’ve lost a lot of sponsors because of what’s gone on over the last few years,” says Simon Hill. “People have lost faith in them and Infantino, probably smartly, knows that the way back to people’s hearts is through their wallets, certainly the national associations, so they’re trying to expand their tournaments.
“Personally, I think a 48-team World Cup is utterly ridiculous. I know you should never reject change because it’s change, but 48 teams? It’s getting to unwieldy proportions, and 48 sets of fan groups coming, for example, to Qatar. If you have ever been to Qatar, it’s a sand dune at the end of Saudi Arabia. And you’re looking at having half the world there for six weeks.”
Hill sees the writing on the wall for the super-sized World Cup, almost certain to go in 2026 to a joint North American bid encompassing the US, Canada and Mexico. “The other thing is that FIFA desperately want the World Cup to go to China in 2030," he says. "Almost guarantee that will happen, even though it’s not been announced. Now, China could host 48 teams quite easily, so could America. So you’re looking basically at massive-nation World Cups from now on in, if this is going to be the way. Or co-host between two, three, four different countries.
“I don’t think that’s ideal. World Cup hosting should be special to that country. It would probably, almost definitely, rule out Australia, to be honest. Which is a shame, because it would have been great for our game here.”
It’s no stretch to envisage the larger World Cup as a true Cup-type competition, with fewer matches, more knockout action, and the potential to draw in an even greater proportion of the globe. Whatever its future shape, history says it will still be hard to win, as it will be this month. As any armchair strategist will tell you, plotting world domination by going through Russia takes a whole lot of ambition.
SOCCERNOMICS WAS NOTABLY BULLISH ON AUSTRALIA’S PROSPECTS IN THE SPORT, IDENTIFYING IT WITH A GROUP OF FUTURE POWERS: THE US, JAPAN, EVEN IRAQ. THE BOOK COULDN’T RESIST A BIT OF TROLLING: “A CENTURY FROM NOW, AUSSIE RULES MIGHT EXIST ONLY AT SUBSIDISED FOLKLORE FESTIVALS.”