Thursday 17 January 2019

World Cup will always be greatest show on earth

Scandals haven't reduced allure of sports event which means more than any other

Russian players go through their paces in Luzhniki Stadium ahead of today’s opening match against Saudia Arabia there. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Russian players go through their paces in Luzhniki Stadium ahead of today’s opening match against Saudia Arabia there. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Talking point: Daniel McDonnell

It will be 6pm in Moscow when the World Cup kicks off today - 4pm in Dublin; 11am in New York; 10pm in Bangkok; 1am in Sydney.

In normal circumstances, a game of football between Russia and Saudi Arabia would mean nothing to people in those countries. Probably not even in Russia itself.

But when the World Cup starts, the world watches. Whether it's over breakfast, or a distraction from work, or as a backdrop to an evening in or a night out, this is a tournament that unites sports fans from around the globe in a way that no other can.

The competition might have evolved and changed, but the magic still lives. It might be consumed in a different way now. Readers may recall a childhood where a major tournament was the only time that wall-to-wall football was available on television. You can find football at any hour of the day now if you know where to look.

There was a time when the detail of every game was consumed by the viewer, whereas we are now in an era where large swathes of the audience spend a game scrolling social media to see what other people are saying about it. The stadiums are packed with fans recording every moment so they can share the fact that they were there with other people, rather than savouring the occasion themselves.

And yet, it's entirely likely that the next five weeks will throw up sporting moments that will be remembered for generations. There will be children whose first vivid sporting memory will be drawn from this competition.

Status FIFA have tried their best to chip away at the status of the World Cup, but the scale of a sporting event can often be judged on what it means to the protagonists. This competition can define careers; it can give individuals a status that will shape the first line of their obituary.

It's true that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do not need to lift the trophy to be remembered as great players. The club game is now a global beast that has cemented their legacy. But success for Argentina or Portugal would deliver the front-page image for the story of their sporting lives; it would rank above everything else.

Yes, the World Cup has been damaged by scandal and catastrophic decision-making. Qatar will the hardest sell of all. The hosting process should form the basis of academic studies on the subject of corruption, although the decision to bring the 2026 tournament to America, Canada and Mexico is a welcome step back in the right direction.

FIFA remain deeply unconvincing, yet dubious decision-making and questionable levels of governance is consistent with the long-term track record. Think of Argentina 1978, and a tournament that was a propaganda weapon for a murderous regime. Or Germany's shock 1954 win over favourites Hungary that left a stench when officials from the losing side found syringes in the victorious dressing room.

They are just two inglorious episodes. There are countless examples of shenanigans that favoured host countries or major powers on way to glory. Dodgy refs. Home-town decisions. Cover-ups.

What has changed in recent years is that the days of being able to describe international football as the gold standard is gone. In terms of quality of play, Champions League football is the benchmark. Real Madrid's announcement of Julen Lopetegui as their new boss provided a timely reminder of where the power lies - although it's likely that his epitaph will focus on the rancour created by his career move and the reaction of his Spanish employers.

The pre-eminence of the superclubs is a logical consequence of the bloated funds that allow them to pluck the best players - and managers - from around the world and put them to work together on a daily basis.

By contrast, international teams that rarely spend more than a week in each other's company are nowhere near as polished. Resources do still influence outcomes, of course. The wealthier associations with substantial populations and developed football infrastructure naturally have the best chance of a deeper pool of talented players.

But in the space of each tournament cycle, they can't buy their way out of trouble. They simply have to work with what they've got. Defending champions Germany have come to the fore in an era where they have still lacked a real top-drawer centre-forward, although they hope to have found one in Timo Werner.

Messi has to try and do everything for Argentina because he doesn't have the base that allows him to thrive in Barcelona colours. He's got to deal with the hand that he's been given.

The super agents cannot play God and decide the destiny of this trophy. It adds a layer of unpredictability that is absent in the club sphere.

And that might save the status of the World Cup going forward. The increasing influence of Europe's leading superclubs is only going to undermine competition in that field. Last week's successful attempt by English football's top six to secure a bigger share of the television pot is a major push down a slippery slope.

In the early rounds of the Champions League, there is scope for an underdog to poke their head in where they're not wanted, but even then they are big fish in a small pond that benefits from a competitive advantage in their own back yard.

There's a world of difference between that and the romance of Iceland and Panama arriving onto this stage for the first time, or Peru making an emotional return after watching from afar for 36 years. The road to 2026 can galvanise the international game.

The big guns may not compare with the great champions of the past, but a consequence of that is that it has opened the door for well-organised teams blessed with a decent generation of players to go very far. It's as close to a level playing field that we can hope for at the top end of professional sport.

Inducements For the players, there is money to be made. Rows over inducements and bonuses have derailed campaigns, yet it's the smaller nations that tend to be afflicted by that. At the top end, the stars will retire as wealthy men no matter what they do for their country.

But they all want to be on this stage. Friendlies and run-of-the-mill qualifiers can be dreadfully dull and unglamorous, but the reward more than makes up for it. National service generates powerful emotions because it takes marquee performers from their comfort zone and sets them a unique challenge.

This isn't about the pressure of representing a high-profile brand, or doing what it takes to get the next contract. It's about the hopes and dreams of a country, a burden that brings a stifling level of responsibility.

After the long build-up, it can all end very quickly. And if disaster strikes, the unlucky ones have to wait four years to put it right. That's if they ever get another chance.

Any Irish detachment from the slightly subdued build-up is understandable, because we were so close to being a part of it and have fresh enough memories of just how good it is to be there. But once the action begins, the storylines will captivate fans all across the globe. This is still the greatest show on earth.

Irish Independent

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