Is the World Cup even international football?
Every time that the Premier League goes away for a week and we’re forced to watch football without shirt sponsors and without much excitement, there’s a lot of moaning from fans, and head-scratching by global football administrators and associations as well as some journalists, about why we just don’t like it.
International football is derided as a slow, stodgy game played out by players unused to each other and the system. Suddenly, though, when the World Cup rolls around, all is forgiven and international football is to be watched at all hours of the day and night.
So, I wonder, what changes?
Can the World Cup teach us anything about how to spice up mid-season international football? Is it even international football at all, or something else… something altogether more magical? Why is the world cup different?
Theory 1: The actual football is better.
We’re starting with the dull stuff, ok. To get it out of the way. I mean, clearly this isn’t the answer.
The argument, I guess, would go something along the lines of; players get more time with each other, they get more comfortable and used to playing with each other, and the quality increases.
But international tournament football, even at its best – I suppose in recent years you’re looking at Brazil 2002 and Spain 2010 (Germany 2014 were much better on paper than they showed, the weird Brazil game aside) – is not stellar. Spain won four games 1-0 in 2010, including their quarter-final, semi and the final. They also lost to Switzerland 1-0 in the opener.
Those sides also weren’t better than, or even as good as, the sum of their parts. That Brazil side were good, but look at the names on the team sheet – Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Juninho and even a young Kaká. Were they as good as those players would have been playing together week in week out for a club side? The Spain side were a kind of generic brand version of the Barcelona (and to a much lesser extent, Madrid) team their players came from.
None of this is to say that I didn’t really enjoy watching those sides. It’s just that the same criticisms we always level at international football still seem to apply. Onwards.
Theory 2: It’s not just England
Ok, now we’re starting to get somewhere. Usually when we’re moaning about international football it’s because we’re moaning about England- having to watch yet another perfectly satisfactory performance against Poland to go top of a qualifying group. Most other teams play too, but it seems either we collectively can’t be bothered to search it out, or the game is on at the same time as the England game. Broadcasters, it appears, assume we’re not that interested.
But, no, at the World Cup, they’re lined up one after the other. A Yo! Sushi of international football beamed straight into our brains through the novelty of terrestrial television. I, for one, will be watching Japan vs Poland. But why don’t I make more of an effort to do that in the mid-season international breaks? Partly, I think it is an issue of awareness because broadcasters don’t push it, but surely they would if they thought there was a market? So… next.
Theory 3: It’s bonus football
With the World Cup nothing is interrupted. It has its own little place in the calendar every four years. Like a leap year it suddenly appears and poof! there’s football on in July that isn’t a pre-season friendly or MLS.
This is the answer of a cynic though. The search continues.
Theory 4: It unites us (whoever ‘us’ is)
I think this actually starts to get really close to the mark – certainly in this country. This might be a very Anglo-centric perspective, but that’s largely where I hear the mid-season moaning about internationals coming from, so I’ll go with it for now. (If anyone wants to provide a different perspective from abroad, I’d be more than happy to hear and publish it!)
Anyway, in this country football tribalism is not necessarily worse than it was (there is ultimately less violence, at least), but it is now more instant and insistent. This means that instead of a well-constructed chant, or a week to think about whether you really do want to defend Luis Suárez just because he has a contract with your club, you get tweets. Endless tweets fighting every battle under the sun, about every player, manager or coach who has ever played for, against or within one hundred miles of your club, and how you feel about their latest scandal in light of the aforementioned factors.
But when England play at a World Cup everyone does largely seem to get on with it. At a World Cup, no domestic football will be played for about two months, rather than a gap of ten days. You can forget about it, a bit. And people do seem to. Sure, if Dele Alli wins a penalty in the World Cup final I’m sure some Spurs fans will claim it as theirs - and theirs alone - and Arsenal fans will claim they didn’t want to win the World Cup anyway. But it’s better. We don’t seem to hate other countries in the same way we hate rival clubs. Even Argentina or Germany aren’t hit with the same bile by England fans as frequently flies around between Manchester United and Liverpool fans, for example.
More than that, though, it seems to unite us not just behind England, but in a weird way, with the rest of the world a bit more. It brings out (again, for the majority) our best instincts rather than our worst. It brought out the instinct to support Ghana as they battled traditional giants (and that man again) at World Cup 2010. People seem more capable of objective football analysis at World Cup time of year, rather than petty point scoring. Maybe this is just me and it’ll probably take about 15 seconds of your time on Twitter to disprove me, but it’s the sense I get.
I genuinely think there’s something in this one.
Theory 5: It’s a big party
Ok, so maybe it unites the UK. But what if it unites the world too? And more than that, what if it unites the World in a party atmosphere akin to an open bar at a summer wedding where you don’t really know anyone at the start of the day but you definitely do by the end. Is that what we really love?
I’m not so sure. The Euros has all this too, and I don’t think they necessarily feel the same. Of course, there is a difference in scale. The World Cup is the entire world’s party, rather than just one continent at a time.
I definitely think the gathering of cultures, either in host cities, or behind a screen, united by a culture of football is part of what makes the World Cup different. But do we need an excuse to have a party in the Summer? Well, maybe the Southern hemisphere sides do. Is that why Brazil fans are always so much…?
Theory 6: It’s the bloody world cup
Right. Now we’re really cooking with gas. I think I’ve cracked it boys and girls. It’s the bloody World Cup. It’s actually almost, very nearly, and whisper it quietly, like it’s not about the football at all.
The answers to the questions at the start are; no, yes, and it just is.
No, there’s nothing that mid-season international football can learn because the world cup is so much more than just twenty-two men kicking a ball around and it has been for at least 70 years now (since everyone actually started playing).
Yes, the World Cup is something different. It’s the gathering in one place of a culture that spans national borders; it’s the setting aside-ish of toxic club rivalries; it is the world’s party; it’s the history of Hurst in 66, Pele in 70, Maradona in 86 and Milla in 90; it’s the world’s tournament; it’s all of those things and more; it’s the bloody World Cup. It just is.
And what it’s not? Well, it’s probably not the best football we’ll ever see played. But you know what it’s also not? It’s also not England four, Andorra nil, on a Tuesday night in November when you could be watching Corrie on the other side, preceded and followed by Saturdays spent in the Stamp and Maritime Museums respectively*. It’s not international football. It’s the bloody World Cup.
*I know football exists outside of the top two divisions and is on on Saturday’s during international breaks, and I actually really like watching it too. This is a joke. Similarly no offence is meant to stamp and maritime enthusiasts.