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

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY J EFF CENTEN ER A

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


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


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.


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