World Cup: What did we learn about football's future?
And breathe. It’s over. We’ve all caught our breath. In fact, we’ve all had almost a week for the withdrawal symptoms to kick in. So here are some reflections on the World Cup, from what it said about nations, to the future of the competition and maybe even football itself.
Apparently, England pissed off the rest of the world. Which isn’t new or especially surprising, but is somehow more depressing this time. Because within the confines of Hadrian’s Wall, the Severn river and the channel (a few idiots in an IKEA, a woman on an ambulance and a bloke at a bus stop aside) it did feel different. It felt inclusive; it felt celebratory; and it didn’t feel arrogant.
Many people who have been in Russia; fans, journalists and players alike, have commented on their positive experiences. Certainly, there have been very few incidents of the kind many feared and predicted prior to June. There are exceptions to this; Senegal fans searched en masse after their joy-filled celebrations sparked drug fears with an unmistakably racist undercurrent as well as muggings and other individual instances of violence or criminality. Overall, though, it’s passed off mainly without incident.
But this was a highly curated month with the world’s eyes upon it and shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the problems ordinary Russians face daily. Geopolitics aside, it is potentially life-threatening in Russia to be a dissident or to be LGBTQ+ etc. Be thankful that this World Cup passed off without incident, be grateful to ordinary Russians who helped it do so and welcomed fans to their country, but don’t praise an entire system and erase its victims after seeing a month-long exhibition.
On a not unrelated note, doping. A World Cup in Russia where the hosts far outperformed pre-tournament expectations of their own fans was always going to raise questions. But it wasn’t VAR decisions (after all, it’s just a replay guys, not some space-age ‘technology’ as some seem to think) that hit the headlines most controversially, but rather the possibility that Russian players might be chemically enhancing their performance.
More interestingly than whether this Russian team were actually doping (after all they didn’t win and knocked out the coma-inducing Spanish team which did us all a favour) is the question it raised about where football as a sport stands in relation to doping. Would it help? Is it rife? Are governing bodies doing enough?
There’s limited reading available on this subject. It appears that largely the attitude from administrators, clubs, players and even to a large extent, journalists has been, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’
The lack of concern largely seems to be based on the idea that doping can’t improve skill, and therefore wouldn’t be any help in football. These sentiments are expressed periodically, most notably and recently by Gary Lineker in 2017. I love Gary, but for those comments he was rightly castigated. Of course making a player stronger, faster and more able to recover between matches would make them a better player over the course of a season and within individual matches. After all, this topic flared up because data showed that an unfancied Russia side had won their opening two games by running further, at higher intensity, than any other team.
Ok, so it would help. And, with the huge rewards available in football making sports known to be rife with doping like cycling and athletics look paltry by comparison, why aren’t more footballers being caught doing it? Is it simply that they aren’t doing it at all? Or is testing just too easy to evade?
Miguel Delaney suggests in this excellent piece from 2016, there’s a both problem of collective amnesia when doping is proven to have taken place in the past; a lack of adequate testing; and a culture of pushing the boundaries which ends up blurring the lines of what ‘doping’ even is. Similarly, Der Spiegel reported in 2015 that footballers are caught doping (158 that year to be exact), but that a lack of attention to the problem means that even this number is probably only the tip of the iceberg.
Whether or not it’s as common as in athletics and cycling remains to be seen. It can only be a positive that it’s appeared on the agenda again, though. Even if football isn’t, and never can be, clean, it’d at least be nice to know.
If the World Cup is a meeting of football - a clash of cultures, minds and individuals from across the globe then nowhere was this more obvious than in the studios and commentary boxes of Russia.
On the one hand, entitled Mark Lawrenson moaned his way through a job most people would give their right arm for – uninformed and uninterested. Even the usually competent and enthusiastic Jon Champion, failed to realise that Granqvist was Sweden’s penalty taker and expressed shock and dismay that a defender was lining up to take the penalty. As he scored, Champion remarked, ‘He must've known something that we didn't.’ Yes, quite. Known something like his history of taking and scoring penalties which would have been easily discoverable with even a cursory Google.
Elsewhere, Alex Scott and Eni Aluko provided informed, passionate insight and analysis borne of their careers at the highest level married to hard prep. Ally McCoist’s willingness to engage with the culture and history of Russia went above and beyond his job title, and perfectly encapsulated why the World Cup still has a role, even if it is no longer the on-pitch pinnacle of the game.
This tournament felt like an opportunity for a changing of the guard in the broadcast commentariat. Please, please, TV execs… take it.
Hopefully the future of the World Cup looks like Croatia and Japan.* A country with a population of only four million and a national history of less than thirty years made the World Cup final - and made a game of it. Another country with a footballing pedigree more associated with joy, intrigue and Keisuke Honda than success played joyous football and were pretty successful.
But what if the future actually looks more like Panama and France?
Panama, a team who were not even statistically one of the worst entering the tournament, conceded eleven goals and generally looked pretty out of their depth. No doubt it was a great experience for the players, coaches and fans and is not a huge issue in isolation. But in 2022, the World Cup will expand to have 48 teams. That likely means 16 more Panamas. What if England scoring six in a meaningless group game becomes the norm? At that stage, the World Cup will have become the qualifiers, and lost its status as not-really-international-football-at-all. It risks suffering the same fate as the rest of the international game, derided as a distraction from the real football of the club format, especially as, played in the Winter, in terms of the calendar it will be.
And what if, at the other end of the ability spectrum, the future of the World Cup is France? A nation with so much talent, nurtured in Western European nations, cities and academies that can far outspend their global rivals that they could have qualified three or four teams for this World Cup. A team who won by sheer crushing weight of numbers. That’s not just a criticism of this France team, it could equally apply to Spain and Germany’s recent World Cup triumphs.
What if the future of the World Cup is a rigidly tiered and stratified tournament, where twenty teams are there ‘for the experience’, another twenty to make it interesting and knock out a couple of the ‘big boys’, followed by a soulless parade of four or five Western European finalists and winners?
*Hopefully it looks like Aluko, Scott and McCoist too.
So, what now? Right, right, yes. Transfers. We’ve dispatched our reporters to the taxi rank at Manchester airport and Watford Gap services. It’s all in hand.