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.

Reflecting the times – World Cup posters

THE 2018 World Cup was notable for a number of reasons: the competition was of a high quality and therefore, enjoyable; there was harmony off the pitch; and Russia, with one eye on Soviet-style graphic design, produced an excellent poster representing the event.

The image of Lev Yashin was modern, but also nostalgic – it could easily have been an album cover for Kraftwerk, a band that combined modernism with high respect for the past.

This poster came at a time when Russia was displaying some Soviet-type traits and Vladimir Putin had shown a liking for Kremlin muscle. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the poster should have a trace of the type of propaganda products that typified the USSR.

The World Cup was, of course, an opportunity for Russia to meet and greet the world, dispel any preconceived ideas about the nation being full of two-headed monsters and Mafia influence and also to demonstrate it could put on a show worthy of the competition’s heritage.

The inclusion of Yashin was useful in more ways than one. Firstly, it reminded the public that here was a local star who was known the world over and secondly, Russia did not really have a contemporary player who would be as recognisable among visiting fans, even though Yashin last played in a World Cup in 1966.

The 2018 poster is undoubtedly one of the best of a series that dates back to the very start of the World Cup in 1930. As a record of changing styles, artistic trends and political backdrops, the posters, to some extent, can be seen as social history documents.

The very early efforts combined art nouveau and Art Deco with the last pre-WW2 poster really mirroring the political climate. Not only is the imagery dark, but it has a boot-clad foot standing on the World – the fascists of the Mussolini era perhaps stamping on opponents and conquering all.

By the time 1950 came around, the poster was more jolly and symbolised a united world after the horrors of war. The flags of the nations, implying a more harmonious global community, although there was still a boot featured.

The 1958 poster, all bright, simple and worldly, maintained the spirit of unity. Four years on, with the space race in full flow, Chile’s poster depicted a football almost like a heavenly object – if ever a sport summed up a planet, it is surely football. The “battle of Santiago”, a violent clash between Italy and Chile, was probably more symbolic of the time than any attempt to link man’s mission to go further than any man had gone before.

England used a gormless lion, World Cup Willie, a Union Jack-clad figure that was meant to characature British pluck and fortitude. Mascots became commonplace, some merely stereotyping popular images of a nation while others lent themselves to mass production.

By 1970, the inevitable sombreros we’re playing to the cartoon interpretation of Mexico, who built on their Olympics of 1968 (who recalls Long John Baldry’s song?). Mexico was clearly proud to host the World Cup and their poster was simple and nationalistic, including “Mexico 1970” against a brightly-coloured background. It worked.

Then the artists and designers started to get all arty. 1974 was Germanic, dark and confusing, while 1978 reflected what Argentina wanted to see, blue and white striped footballers celebrating – presumably winning a trophy. This was the first to illustrate the host nation winning, possibly because the artists were fearful of the right-wing regime in Argentina. If Hitler’s Germany had hosted 1942, which was a possibility before war broke out, we might have seen a similar scenario.

1982 was Jean Miro meets Spanish tourist board, colourful and sunny and could easily have come with a free bottle of Sangria. In 1986 and 1990, Mexico and Italy went down a similar route, although they used photography to achieve their aim.

The US could not resist bringing out the flag to highlight their tournament, but did not try any clever imagery, similar to a obvious and literal American paperback book cover.

Some posters do not work that well, France 98 was a mess, the Japan/Korea gig in 2002 nondescript. Similarly, Germany 2006 was disappointing, not representative of a well-hosted World Cup that changed many people’s view of the country. Likewise, 2010 was too simple and 2014 failed to exploit the potential of a Latin American event. Russia 2018, by contrast, was superb.

Nevertheless, despite some flops, World Cup posters are colourful, evocative and important by-products of the competition – nostalgic, iconic and, with a little thought, memorable. 2018’s effort certainly revived the concept of this type of media.

Photos: GOTP, PA