World Cup draw fails to excite

THE GOLDEN goose is dead, laying on a lakeside in Switzerland or maybe in a desert somewhere. The ghost of World Cups past, with a number 16 on its heavily-sponsored back, tries to warn the stricken bird, but it is too late, FIFA’s premier competition is on the point of exploding, fattened by gavage, choked by excess.

We’ve long known that the World Cup was getting out of hand, but the draw for Qatar 2022 demonstrated just how uninteresting a 32-team format really is. The recipe is simple: 1 seeded nation, carefully shaken and garnished; add a team of nearly men; throw in a hopeful but be careful of the mix; and then to top it off, a makeweight for some artificial colour. That’s what makes a group for the World Cup finals. 

The media desperately tries to find a group of death every time there’s a draw, but it is getting harder and harder. Football has become a game with few shocks these days, be it club football or the international game. England came out with a weak group although nobody wanted to use that word, preferring to call it, “intriguing” or “satisfactory”.

Like the Champions League, the interest only starts to bubble in the World Cup when the group stage is out of the way. For two weeks, the ritual 1-0 or 2-0 slaughtering of weaker sides takes place while the TV pundits, still stuck in a 1970 paradigm, try to persuade us that “watching Brazil is all samba and soccer”. They talk up the preliminaries when by the time the third round of matches is upon us, we have had enough of David v Goliath narratives.

The draw, a prolonged and unnecessary ceremony which really isn’t a case of shaking-up the balls as they just spin around in plastic dishes, was tedious beyond belief. The Avatar-type presenters (including the incredibly rising Jermaine Jenas), were perfectly groomed and scripted. 

While they (pundits, presenters and contracted ambassadors) kept telling us Qatar is a beautiful country (it may well be) and that fans will have a wonderful time if they attend, it was difficult to get out of your mind this is a far from ideal situation. Miguel Delaney of the Independent got it right when he said: “Tantalising World Cup draw adds first layer of gloss to Qatar’s morally bankrupt tournament”.

FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino tried to bring statesmanship into the occasion, calling for leaders to get together to resolve the war in Ukraine while claiming 2022 would see the greatest World Cup of them all as the world becomes united in Qatar. Such naivety really explains why FIFA are in such a mess, losing support and credibility by the tournament. Football has, due to its insatiable appetite for cash at all costs, sold its soul, courting regimes and leaders with very questionable human rights records. Instead of promoting a clean-up of the game, FIFA instead prefers to justify its decision-making process.

And so Qatar continues to divide opinion, but there can be no question some football people do feel uncomfortable about 2022. Will they do anything about it? Let’s not forget that British football has been making gestures for the past few years about issues it feels strongly about, such as taking the knee. The background to the BLM-prompted action came from the problems in the US. In Qatar, society is deeply divided and racism, sexism and homophobia are rife, but we don’t see it across our screens. And yet, this hasn’t moved football to show its displeasure on a grand scale apart from wearing t-shirts of protest. Real action demands brave and unselfish displays, and that would include refusing to support Qatar 2022. Anyone with a social conscience or knowledge of the politics and social climate should find it hard to align themselves to this particular World Cup. The financial benefits are obvious, but did FIFA ever ask itself if awarding hosting rights to Qatar was the right thing to do? 

The drama of Italian football

ITALY are out of the World Cup and won’t be in the finals for the second consecutive competition. In this age of 32-team formats, it does seem very hard not to qualify, so Italy’s failure is all the more humbling for one of the homes of football. One of Europe’s top five football countries-  and four times World champions – have come up short once more, losing in dramatic circumstances to North Macedonia.

England know all about the pain of failing to qualify, but there are not too many around who remember the period between 1970 and 1982 when the three lions were more like three blind mice. When England were beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the quarter final of the Mexico World Cup in June 1970, they had to wait until 1982 for their next World Cup tie. 

The intervening period saw careers rise and fall, players like Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon, Martin Chivers, Trevor Brooking and Roy McFarland and Colin Todd. A whole generation of England internationals was deprived of the chance to play in football’s greatest boy scout jamboree when they were at their peak.

A World Cup without Italy is almost unthinkable, especially as they are the reigning European champions. But it’s not the first time that the winners of the Euros have fallen in the qualifying stages of the World Cup: Czechoslavakia (1978), Denmark (1994) and Greece (2006) have all gone missing after winning the continental prize two years earlier. In the reverse situation (World Cup winners attempting to make the cut for Europe), Italy in 1984 were the only champions (1982) who lost their momentum. 

Italy’s defeat in the play-off was certainly unexpected, but their decline has been a slow burner and hasn’t been without its high points. Any other nation would be delighted with their record in the 21st century: one World Cup win (2006) and one European Championship success (2020), along with two Euro finals (2000 and 2012).

And while two successive blanks in the current World Cup format looks dreadful, other major nations have missed out on two consecutive finals, including Spain (1970 and 1974), Netherlands (1982 and 1986), France (1990 and 1994) and Portugal (1990, 1994 and 1998).

Doubtless, the post-mortem will go on for some time in Italy, the media are quite unforgiving and the future of coach Roberto Mancini has to be in some doubt. Despite votes for confidence for Mancini from the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, the 37 year-old central defender, and the president of the Italian Football Federation, Gabriela Gravina, the press have already lined-up possible replacements. World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and Marcello Lippi have all been listed. 

Mancini, understandably, was crestfallen after North Macedonia’s win, apologising to the nation. He still has his supporters, though, and will long be credited with rebuilding the national team and few would deny the Azzurri deserved to win Euro 2020. Italy enjoyed a 37-game unbeaten run that was ended by Spain in the UEFA Nations League semi-final, but they rebounded well from that setback.

Why Italy didn’t win their play-off semi-final is a mystery, they enjoyed 66% possession and had 32 shots to their opponents’ four. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s 23 year-old goalkeeper, has come in for criticism and he’s had a bad month, being on the end of Paris Saint-Germain’s capitulation in the UEFA Champions League. But Italy’s problem is clearly at the opposite end of the pitch, they have scored 13 goals in their last 10 games, but five of those came in a victory against Lithuania. At the same time, they have conceded just seven goals in 10. Bizarrely, Italy were unbeaten in the qualifying group, but drew four of their eight games, again emphasising their lack of firepower.

With the World Cup now a dead duck, Italy have to look to the future. The days of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne and one or two others are surely over. After their revival last year in Euro 2020, Italy should have had the wake-up call they needed, but this defeat is something of a second wave, and frankly, it is easier for a big nation to qualify for the World Cup than it was 30 or 40 years ago. They will be foolish to ignore how and why this has happened.