Magic can still exist in time of 'El Gasico'
The most shambolic World Cup of them all - in an admittedly crowded field - was undoubtedly the 1950 tournament in Brazil. Held in a fragile post-war landscape and hit by the late withdrawals of India, France and Scotland, the 13 teams who eventually qualified - some by default - were arranged into two groups of four, one group of three, and one group of two, consisting of a single game: Uruguay 8-0 Bolivia.
Facilities were basic, the schedule deeply unfair, the logistics a nightmare, and most amusingly of all at one game, Switzerland and Mexico - to their mutual befuddlement - both turned up wearing red shirts.
So let's not pretend for a second that the World Cup has always been the apex of global sporting competition. Indeed, the tale of 1950 is a timely reminder that for all the apocalyptic scale and branded bombast of the modern World Cup, for most of its history it has been just as frequently defined by ineptitude and farce.
A police dog invading the pitch during Brazil v England in 1962. The goalposts collapsing during Mexico v Bulgaria in 1994. Graham Poll handing out three yellow cards in 2006. In a way, the embarrassing VAR cock-up - that we all know, with a queasy knot of certainty in the pit of our stomachs, is definitely going to happen at some point during the next five weeks - will merely be following in a grand and gilded tradition of World Cup slapstick.
All of which is a rather roundabout way of puncturing one of the more tenacious fallacies surrounding the World Cup, which is that it is the pinnacle of our sport, the summit of the game, the apex of achievement, the finest football has to offer. In terms of size, scope and stage, there's probably some truth to that.
But as the world sits down on Thursday afternoon to watch Russia v Saudi Arabia - 'El Gasico', they're already calling it - in the tournament's opening game, you suspect a fair proportion of the audience will be wondering whether a game between the 70th and 65th best teams in the world can really be described as the pinnacle of anything.
It wasn't always this way, of course. To those who came of age during the tournament's golden era, between around 1970 and 1990, the primacy of the World Cup was taken almost as an article of faith. For four weeks every four years, the World Cup was where the game congregated, not merely in celebration, but in a spirit of growth and discovery.
The great teams - Pele's Brazil, Cruyff's Holland, Beckenbauer's West Germany - played a level of football far surpassing anything on offer in the club game at the time. As recently as the early 1990s, Arrigo Sacchi was arguing that no club team would ever attain the level of the best international sides.
Time, and the unfettered rise of post-1990 global capitalism, have proven Sacchi wrong. In the same way that the biggest corporations have amassed a financial, political and cultural power outstripping that of most medium-sized nations, football's superclubs have been able to arm themselves on a multinational scale, to an extent that no single country can compete with on its own.
The death of international football can easily be overstated - just ask Iceland, Peru or Egypt - but at its very highest level, it has begun to occupy a curious recess just below the summit of the game where superstars rub shoulders with some extremely ordinary footballers.
A place where Eder can score the winning goal in a European Championship final, while Cristiano Ronaldo watches hungrily from the sidelines, trying to remember his name.
And so while the World Cup still boasts most of the world's elite players, there are also some notable omissions. Alexis Sanchez, Gareth Bale, Jan Oblak, Marco Verratti, Arjen Robben, Leroy Sane, David Alaba, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mauro Icardi and Arjen Robben are all missing for some reason or other.
In fact, if you take 'FourFourTwo' magazine's most recent - and naturally, subjective - list of the world's 100 best footballers, just 69 will be playing in Russia this summer, as opposed to 95 who featured in this season's Champions League group stages. With coaches, the gulf is even more pronounced. Just three of 32 World Cup coaches - Jorge Sampaoli of Argentina, Age Hareide of Denmark and Julen Lopetegui of Spain - have managed in the Champions League in the last five seasons.
But it's not just about personnel. The one big advantage that club sides have over international teams isn't money or talent, but time. Time to train together, time to work on skills and strategies, time to bond and cohere.
Time to scout the best players and staff, to hone your analysis and sports science, to find out what works and what doesn't.
International teams, by contrast, are cursed by their lack of meaningful preparation, which is why a well-drilled underdog like Iceland or Costa Rica can make up far more ground on the competition than their club equivalent.
And of course, some of this has occurred by choice. Were World Cup qualification based solely on ranking rather than confederation, 27 of the 32 teams would come from Europe or South America. Instead, Fifa's determination to globalise the game means some of the biggest nations miss out - four of the world's top 20 this time.
The proposed increase to 48 teams from 2022 onwards will only accelerate this trend. It's a trade-off, and some would argue an entirely laudable one, given football's historical power imbalances. But it does also occasionally make for Gigi Buffon sitting at home watching Tunisia v Panama through gritted teeth.
Look, obviously the World Cup will still be great. The stakes and the spectacle, the drama and the intrigue, the volcano of national fervour and the caprice of knockout football, will see to that. And as much as we like to think we know about the game, there will be players over the next month who will delight and enthral us for the first time, and whose lives will be changed forever in the process.
In a sense, this remains the single most compelling element of the World Cup: that frisson of the unknown, that sense of a golden thread linking the first pre-war pioneers, to your parents and grandparents watching Rivelino on a grainy colour telly, to the excitable hordes packing the bars of Bogota and the cafes of Cairo and the pubs of Portsmouth, to you: sitting at home in your sweatpants, watching Luka Modric with a pizza on your lap.
Best of all, they may even wear different coloured shirts this time. It's the little things. (© Daily Telegraph, London)