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.

Soccer City: Why Munich is Germany’s football capital

WHAT chance has any club got when you have Bayern Munich on your doorstep? TSV 1860 Munich, the Bavarian capital’s oldest club, has an unenviable task in trying to get air time when the behemoth that is FC Bayern pervades every side street, kiosk and newspaper.

As a city, Munich has much to offer as well as three professional clubs – SpVgg Unterhaching, formed in 1925, is the other team – it is a stylish and comfortable metropolis. We know it for a number of clichés, beer halls, foaming lager, lederhosen, oompah bands and hearty food that relies heavily on meat, potatoes and bread. It’s the home of BMW and insurance giant Allianz and it has played its part in European history in many ways. Munich’s GDP per person is around € 101,000 which is 40% higher than the national average in Germany. In short, it’s a very prosperous place.

FC Bayern are at the top of the tree – no other German club has won the Bundesliga since 2012 and every aspect of this huge footballing institution is dissected by the public – in Germany as well as in Bavaria. Bayern are loved and hated, admired, resented and envied.

Bayern are one of the world’s top football club brands and form part of the European elite. They are watched by 75,000 people at every home game at their impressive Allianz Arena, making them one of the top clubs by average attendance. TSV 1860 Munich, who are now in 3.Liga, draw an average of less than 15,000 to the Grünwalder Stadium. As for Unterhaching, also in 3.Liga, they attract barely 5,000 loyal fans.

TSV and Unterhaching are like all clubs that reside in a city dominated by a European giant. They are in the shadows. Aside from a TSV club shop in the centre of the city, there’s little trace of Munich’s “other” clubs, which is a pity. TSV were members of the Bundesliga before Bayern and were champions in 1966, three years before their soon-to-be far noisier neighbours. TSV also reached a European final before Franz Beckenbauer and his pals, losing to West Ham United in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup at Wembley.

TSV’s recent history has been disastrous, though, and that’s why they fell as low as the Regionalliga Bayern in 2017 after failing to secure a license to play in 3.Liga following relegation from 2.Bundesliga. The club had been co-owners of the Allianz but they soon realised that the stadium was too big and too expensive for their own purposes. They sold their stake to Bayern Munich for € 11 million and eventually moved back to their beloved Grünwalder. In staving off bankruptcy, the club effectively gamed the 50+1 system that characterises Germany club ownership, allowing Abu Dhabi-based millionaire Hasan Ismaik to buy 60%, although Ismaik’s stake only carried 49% voting rights.

If TSV were more prominent in the 1960s, the 1970s really belonged to Bayern as Munich became, arguably, the top football city in Europe. Bayern assumed the crown won by Ajax Amsterdam in 1974, winning three consecutive European Cups. Despite the Dutch dominance between 1970 and 1973, Germany was the centre of European sport – Munich hosted the 1972 Olympic Games and 1974 World Cup as well as Bayern and their three European Cups and three Bundesliga titles. Sadly, the shooting of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village cast a dark shadow over events, but it could not erase the efforts made by West Germany to create a modern Olympics with some remarkable architecture, highlighted by the revolutionary stadium that set out to imitate the Alps.

Another reason why Munich has been so important to sport is the work of Otl Aicher, a graphic designer and typographer. Aicher, not a Bavarian by birth, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. His work included the logo for Germany’s airline, Lufthansa and he was commissioned to be the lead designer for the 1972 Olympics. This included the creation of a series of pictograms that illustrated the various sports of the games. His designs lived on and arguably changed public signage – even today, you will walk past a signpost somewhere that bears his influence.

While Adidas was not based in Munich, the sportswear company became the brand that everyone wanted to see on their football shirt and boots in the 1970s. It was “continental” and associated with the most successful and “cool” clubs and players of the period.

SpVgg Unterhaching vs. 1.FC Kaiserslautern 3. Liga

The majority of the faces of 1970s European football, in addition to the Netherlands’ Johan Cruyff, were undoubtedly German – Maier, Breitner, Beckenbauer, Hoeneß and Müller, to name but a few. Uli Hesse, in his book on Bayern (Bayern: Creating a global super club), explained that Bayern’s European success of the period was vital in order to keep these legendary players at the club. Hesse also revealed that their rivalry with Borussia Mönchengladbach in the 1970s was something of a “Beatles or Stones” situation, although Bayern’s ability to carve-out victory, versus Gladbach’s status as heroic losers, made them unpopular with a lot of people.

Bayern are part of Bavarian culture, their crest features the state colours and it’s a routine for the team to visit the Oktoberfest, dressed in traditional costume. A few years ago, the club launched a lederhosen-inspired strip, comprising a white shirt, brown shorts and white socks with a “calf-warmer” design. The team also wore Alpine jackets and hats to complete the look. Brave as well as respectful to tradition.

Beer, of course, is everywhere in Munich and a visit to the Hofbräuhaus, if you can get a table, is a significant box to tick. There are more accessible venues around the city that also capture the spirit and ambience of the beer hall. There’s no doubt that Munich is steinful of great liquid refreshment!

Aside from the cellars and beer gardens of the city, nowhere is the tradition of beer, sausage and brezel better represented than at a football match. The game and beer have long been bedfellows, although not always for the greater good. But at the Allianz Arena, to name but one footballing venue, the marriage of the people’s game and the people’s elixir appears to create the right sort of vibe. Munich may be a city of beer, but it is also one of the world’s great homes of football.


Photos: PA