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.

Brazil, Chelsea and England 1970 – Why the perception of “iconic line-up” still misleads us

THE BBC recently published a story in 2021 highlighting how rarely some clubs’ iconic line-ups actually played together. It showed that football carries many myths in its rich heritage, but also confirmed that our perception of the component parts of great teams rarely takes into consideration injuries, suspensions, loss of form or just being “out of favour”.

On the other hand, 50 years ago, football was less of a squad game, therefore it was arguably far easier to name a “regular” side. It helped that collectors cards, and there were a lot of them, fuelled the misconception that most clubs had relatively static teams. It was easy to name the best elevens of most top division outfits – or at least how we saw them.

The Leeds United team of the 1970s supposedly had an XI that never altered. However, what we consider to be Leeds’ regular side of the Don Revie era – Gary Sprake, Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper, Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer, Allan Clarke, Mick Jones, Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray – only lined-up once. It is hard to believe, but apparently true. This is all the more surprising given Leeds had a relatively small squad compared to some clubs, but they also had a player who could fill-in across many positions, Paul Madeley.

Similarly, Chelsea’s “classic” team from 1969-70, which was denied its big day in the FA Cup final due to the injury of Alan Hudson, also had a limited lifespan – just nine games. That team comprised: Peter Bonetti, David Webb, Eddie McCreadie, John Hollins, John Dempsey, Ron Harris, Charlie Cooke, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood, Ian Hutchinson and Peter Houseman.

Chelsea had a few decent players in reserve such as John Boyle, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Birchenall, Bobby Tambling, Marvin Hinton and Stewart Houston, so it is likely that manager Dave Sexton stumbled across this side after trying several permutations and overcoming a lengthy injury list.

This combination had its first game on December 6, 1969 at Old Trafford, a 2-0 win for the  Blues. Two goals from Ian Hutchinson against opposition that included George Best and Bobby Charlton underlined Chelsea’s quality and moved some reporters to declare that Dave Sexton’s side could make a bid for the league title – “What price these Southern Softies now?” asked Harry Miller of the Daily Mirror.

The team won eight of its nine games, their only defeat coming at Wolves on December 13. The last time they lined-up was the FA Cup semi-final at White Hart Lane on March 14 1970 when Chelsea secured their place at Wembley with a 5-1 win against Watford.

After that success, the team started to encounter problems: Alan Hudson missed the last league games and the two FA Cup final meetings with Leeds; Ian Hutchinson had a series of injuries that eventually brought his career to an end in 1976; Eddie McCreadie had a troublesome stomach injury; Peter Bonetti was ill with pneumonia; and Peter Osgood endured a lengthy suspension in 1971. New players like Keith Weller, Chris Garland and Steve Kember were added to the squad over the two years.

In 1970, Brazil won the World Cup with a team that became household names across the globe: Felix, Carlos Alberto, Brito, Piazza, Everaldo, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Pele and Tostao. This team appeared as one body just four times, three occasions during the World Cup and once more on September 30, 1970. This is not totally surprising as World Cup teams normally disperse once a tournament is over, the competition is invariably the end of a build-up process rather than the start of something.

England, at Mexico 1970, looked to have a team to compare with their 1966 World Cup winners. Sir Alf Ramsey named his squad and gave the 1 to 11 shirts to: Gordon Banks, Keith Newton, Terry Cooper, Alan Muller, Brian Labone, Bobby Moore, Francis Lee, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. Ramsey had fielded this team for the first time on May 10 1969 when England beat Scotland 4-1 in one of their best post-1966 performances.

On June 1 1969 this group of players faced Mexico in the Azteca Stadium and drew 0-0 in a pre-World Cup tour game. By the summer of 1970, it was widely regarded that this team was Ramsey’s best selection but he could only play this side twice in the actual World Cup, the last game being the ill-fated Quarter Final against West Germany. The team played together six times and lost just once and kept four clean sheets. The German side that beat England in Leon, incidentally, was never fielded again. Not one of the England team would see a World Cup beyond 1970 – it wasn’t until 1982 that they qualified for the finals again. It’s unlikely anyone would describe some of the teams that wore the white shirt in the intervening years as “iconic”.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA