Why we long for a decent World Cup

WHAT will we take from this year’s World Cup? Too often, the great FIFA bunfight fails to deliver something really lasting, certainly in more recent times. Arguably the most striking thing about 2014 was Brazil’s dramatic capitulation to Germany – that 7-1 defeat is still really hard to believe.

In the long and distant past, World Cups were eagerly anticipated, but all too frequently, the politics, economics and skulduggery gets in the way of truly enjoying the event. That last word is very relevant, because there seems to be a trend in both the Euros and World Cup that these are now “events” rather than festivals of footballing excellence. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Germany 2006, Austria 2008 and France 2016, but I didn’t derive much satisfaction from the football itself. Germany started off the “fan park” concept and as someone who visited places like Frankfurt and Berlin frequently for business purposes, and got to know all about the people and the country, I took my hat off to the Germans for the way they handled 2006.

Likewise, in France, I marvelled at the wonderful Bordeaux stadium when I went to see the Habsburg derby, Austria versus Hungary. My son and I has a good trip to France, but we won’t remember the quality of football for very long. That said, everyone had a great time, there was plenty of bonhomie and the fan parks were heaving.

Football events create a sense of “boy scouts on tour” among fans travelling from all corners to take part in the World Cup. In 2006, based in Hamburg, we rubbed shoulders with Mexicans, Saudi Arabians, Costa Ricans and Ecuadorians, to name but a few. There is often a sense of carnival about these tournaments that breaks down barriers and brings people close together – football is a currency of its own and a global language. I wonder if we are going to lose that with the highly dispersed Euros in 2020 and a massive tournament spread of over multiple venues in the 2026 World Cup.

Time does blur the memory, but I remember getting out of the bed in the middle of the night as a young lad to watch Mexico 1970 games but also being amazed by Pele and his team-mates. We invariably look to our formative years for the greatest influence in peripheral activities like football and music, but it’s hard to feel the same sense of exploration that the World Cup once gave us. Mexico was my first World Cup but I was, and still am, a huge fan of the Dutch and Germans of 1974 – from a competition that not only gave us Cruyff, Beckenbauer and the wonderful Poles, but also a soundtrack of klaxons humming away in the background. We look back, fondly, the ticker-tape of Argentina 1978, the dodgy game against Peru, the sight of Ally’s crestfallen army, some of whom are still working their way back to Scotland. Then there’s 1982 and Tardelli, Rossi, Schumacher, Platini and Socrates. In 1986, we will forever talk about that “hand of God” and the ubiquitous “John 3:16” banners behind almost every goalmouth. Which brings us to 1990, an over-rated and tedious World Cup that gave us Gazza and Roger Mila.

What have we had since? A succession of disappointing competitions, in my view, that have become more accessible but have sacrificed succinctness for commercial exploitation. They do it very well, but the fact is, the UEFA Champions League is more compelling than the modern World Cup, which is heavy on quantity but low on quality. There are glimpses of how it should be, the French team of 1998, for example, was a joy to watch, but the event has become attritional and prone to spectator fatigue.

But we’ll still watch, especially in the early week or two when hopes are still high – even in England! Back in 1970, we never had the chance to see players like Jairzinho, Müller, Cubillas and Rivera unless it was in a World Cup, but today, we can watch the top stars every [football] weekend, either in the flesh or on TV. Our choices have never been greater, but even the World Cup can be victim to the curse of the remote control.

Let’s have a great World Cup, one that excites, inspires and opens our eyes to something special. Football still has the power to unite people together, we should hope that Russia 2018 does just that and the competition leaves us with something truly exceptional. It may be a forlorn hope, but isn’t that one of the game’s most important ingredients – the prospect of a moment of genius lifting us off our seats and creating the great shared experience?

This article appeared in the July edition of Football Weekends

Photo: Ded Pihto CC BY-NC 2.0

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