Disappointment is inevitable at most World Cups

IN 2018, there was a great deal of enthusiasm about the World Cup in Russia. The narrative was very positive, it was said to be the best competition for some time after a series of disappointments. However, in recent years, there has been a trend to claim everything current has a legitimate claim to be “best ever”, a tag that has been handed to teams like Manchester City and Liverpool because they happened to win the Premier League. In 2014, some sections of the media have argued that Brazil 2014 was the greatest World Cup, only to be usurped by Russia 2018. Such examples of “presentism” appear to ignore the players that gave the World Cup its mass appeal – Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas and Zinedine Zidane, to name but a few.

World Cups over the past 30 years have been intensely marketed and rammed down everyone’s throats. They seem to go on for ever and there are too many games that fail to capture the imagination. Football governing bodies never know when to stop expanding, complicating or monetising their competitions, taking the deluded view that more is best. The fact is more teams and more games translates to lower quality. The more teams you add, the more the field becomes diluted.

This never gets discussed properly, the driving force behind the World Cup is television and corporate advertising. More games means more air time for products and sponsors. The real product on show isn’t a sugary, carbonated drink or low quality fast food, but the game of football. As a result of this commercialisation, the World Cup has doubled in size since 1966 and in 2026, it will comprise 48 teams. There will be more games, a longer competition and a somewhat attritional experience for even the most ardent supporter of international football. From a quality perspective, World Cup 2026 will surely see a drop in standards.

There’s no doubt the last two World Cups have been the salvation of the competition. It went through a mediocre period that extended from 1990 to 2010, six tournaments that were often yawning spectator experiences, with the exception of one or two games. The mythical Italia ’90 has been revered because of what came after the football – the return of English clubs to Europe, the idea of the Premier League, a lull in the culture of hooliganism and the beginning of respectable football. But in truth, Italia ’90 was mostly dire and full of defensive football and the lowest ever scoring rate in a World Cup. USA ’94 was marginally better and of those that followed, only 1998 in France and Germany’s grand show of 2006 were truly enjoyable experiences.

More often than not, the World Cup has let people down. Expectation is too high given the competition is usually held at the end of a gruelling domestic season. It is not unreasonable for players to be tired, injured or emotionally drained after nine months of intensity. There’s always an injury or two to key players, depriving the World Cup of top talent.

In the past, one of the attractions of the World Cup was the chance to see foreign players, star names who were known only by reputation and rumour. Globalisation has changed all that – and it is not a negative thing – but it has robbed us of the sense of wonder that accompanies the unknown, a glimpse of seeing those stars from a far-off place.

By contrast, just look at the composition of the 2022 squads – almost 20% of the 32 national squads play their football in England, 10% in Spain and 10% in Germany. More than half of the players heading to Qatar are employed by clubs in Europe’s big five leagues. Bayern Munich have 17 players representing them at the World Cup, one more than Manchester City and Barcelona. Only a third of the 832 squad members play in their domestic leagues – only two participating countries have squads drawn completely from home, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. At the other end of the scale, Senegal have no domestically-employed players and Argentina and Serbia have only one apiece.

Globalisation also means teams are more technical than ever and so the gaps in class can be closed, resulting in damage-limitation performances that are not necessarily good to watch. Humiliating thrashings are increasingly rare, the last six-goal performance was in 2018 when England beat Panama 6-1. The no-hopers are still present and although African teams fare better than when they first arrived on the scene, CAF is no nearer getting its first World Cup winner.

The duration of the World Cup means it is difficult for any team to sustain the sort of campaign that Brazil mounted in 1970 in the old 16-team format, even though the team of Pelé played just one less game than the 2022 winners will play. Brazil provided a benchmark that every World Cup winner is measured by, but it was a different, more innocent time. Club football is far more demanding in 2022 than it was 50 years ago, which makes it almost impossible for the World Cup to satisfy us consistently every four years. In order for the protagonists to be fresher, at the peak of their powers and fit to compete at the elite level, they don’t need close season competitions (indeed, mid-season competitions) that compromise quality and merely present the spectators with battle-worn individuals. FIFA, at some point, must consider if they are truly doing justice to a football institution. We struggle with 32 teams, so expansion to 48 will possibly do more harm than good.

FIFA will surely fear an 11th hour boycott of Qatar

FOOTBALL can be a peculiar game. On one hand, people get outraged about the most trivial of matters and are ready to appoint scapegoats, sack managers and jeer opponents, yet the really serious issues are often ignored.

With less than six months before the controversial Qatar World Cup, there’s no sign of a concerted protest or plan of action to demonstrate the global disgust at the Gulf state’s human rights record and treatment of migrant workers.

Players talk of using a “platform” to send their message, but in truth, there is probably not a single player who would sacrifice the chance to play in the World Cup. The lack of cojones is incredible. Whatever happened to the days of non-aggressive action, where key athletes boycotted the Olympics and countries made a stand?

Premier League players are still taking the knee, still wearing rainbows on their sleeve and declaring their affiliation with just causes. That’s not to criticise their feelings on major topics, but while they will show their support for as nation that has been invaded and violated, they will also quickly line-up to align themselves with the military.

Qatar 2022, as a World Cup, is already tainted beyond belief. The process of awarding the competition in the first place, the state’s politics and social climate, which goes against so many of football’s values and aspirations, and not to mention the environment, make it an inappropriate venue. We all know the score by now.

The hypocrisy goes on; some of the Welsh national team’s staff have openly stated they will not go to Qatar, yet the team will not boycott the event, using that word “platform” as a ticket for non-action. In all probability, and this also applies to England, it would seem probable that the teams will be visible in their messaging other than a carefully-scripted letter full of platitudes and the bleeding obvious. Interestingly, some sponsors of national teams – such as Belgium and Netherlands, have take away their support.

Today, the prospect of a nation acting alone to express its concern is unlikely, but what would happen if a major country did withdraw? It could be a case of a collapsing deck of cards. Why? Because if, for example, Germany decided not to go, any team remaining on the aeroplane would be seen as supporters of Qatar. It would become contagious, with other countries following the example led by that first withdrawal.

Regardless of political stance, the situation in Qatar cannot possibly be seen in any way; acceptable. Amnesty International is calling for FIFA to contribute to workers’ compensation from the proceeds of the competition. When you consider the amount spent on the World Cup some (US$ 200 billion) and the total FIFA anticipates to generate (US$ 6 billion), then the call for around US$ 400 million to make its way to compensation deals seems reasonable.

Let’s not forget how difficult life can be for migrant workers in Qatar. “We work from January to January, Sunday to Sunday. No days off. If you absent yourself, they will deduct two or more days wages,” said one worker.

This is just one example of the hard-line regime. But in this age of increasing acceptance and inclusion, Qatar still lags behind. Homosexuality is illegal and can earn you seven years imprisonment, women are supressed in many ways and are effectively punished for divorce by having their children taken out of their care and freedom of expression is prohibited.

Against this backdrop, it is not only teams that should swerve clear of Qatar, supporters should also consider the wisdom of attending the World Cup. If they have values and believe in freedom of speech and personal choice, they should think again. Many will not, of course and will pour money into an economy that is built on slave labour, discrimination and autocracy. When we will ever learn?