Why is the World Cup Boring?
How the nature of international football leads inevitably to sluggish football
At the moment, we exist in a realm of perfect possibility. We see the 32 teams that will be at the World Cup and we imagine how it could be if every team is somewhere near its peak and the best players are fit. We imagine Neymar dazzling for Brazil, Lionel Messi thriving in a system built for him with Argentina, Spain wrestling with the weariness of success, Germany with their phalanx of gifted young attacking midfielders. We think of Côte d’Ivoire’s ageing golden generation at last doing it on the world stage, of Emmanuel Emenike lifting Nigeria to the heights they reached in the nineties, of Chile’s high press and Bosnia-Herzegovina’s flair, of the emergence at last of Japan and of Mexico taunting everybody by prospering despite a laughable qualification campaign. We think of Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez, of Mario Balotelli and Falcão, and think how good it could all be. And at the back of our minds there exists the lurking certainty that it’ll all be a huge let-down, that this will be a tournament that drags, as it was in 2002, as it was in 2006, as it was in 2010.
That international football is no longer the pinnacle of the game has been obvious for years. You watch the Champions League and — however much you may regret the financial structures that have led us to this point — see the best football that has ever been played, players of great physical attributes and technical skills, playing at extraordinary pace in sophisticated systems.
Moreover, the football is generally attacking football. It’s not an entirely perfect measure, but this season, there were 2.94 goals per game in the Champions League last season. In the best leagues across Europe, goals per game nudge towards 3: 2.93 in the Bundesliga last season, 2.87 in la Liga, 2.80 in the Premier League, 2.63 in Serie A. At the last World Cup there were 2.27 goals per game and in 2006 there were 2.30. I’d be the last person to claim that a game needs goals to be of interest, but where there’s half a goal less per game being scored in the premier national competition to the premier club competitions, something is clearly amiss.
Some would argue that the structure of the World Cup is to blame, that playing just three group games makes sides cautious, that there is a perception that a draw will do. But if that were the case, why doesn’t that apply to such an extent in the Euros? At Euro 2012, there were 2.45 goals per game, at Euro 2008, 2.48.
The problem, rather, surely lies in the number of sides at a World Cup. At the Euros, there are only 16 teams, of whom probably two thirds believe they have a decent chance of winning (the example of Greece in 2004, in fact, probably convinces every side that they have a chance). The World Cup, by contrast, has roughly the same number of potential winners but twice as many entrants. For many sides, the main objective is simply to avoid humiliation. There is a form of heroism in a draw against Brazil or Germany. The result is the majority of teams at a World Cup are primarily defensive.
That compounds an existing problem in international football, one that has been growing in significance since the game became tactically systematised in the sixties. Once the likes of Viktor Maslov, Gipo Viani, Nereo Rocco, Helenio Herrera, Osvaldo Zubeldía and Alf Ramsey had shown that the coalitions between players were at least as important as the players themselves, football lost its innocence It developed a second-order complexity so that at the highest level it was played always with a knowledge of how it should be played. That’s why the 1970 World Cup stands as a romantic ideal; the heat and altitude of Mexico made a game based on pressing and hard-running impossible and so it stands as the last tournament of the individual.
“The level of detail that goes into games still, to this day, amazes me,” the Secret Footballer wrote in his column in the Guardian. “Every player has his own script, what to do, when to do it, information on the player he’s up against... We memorise every single set piece, where we have to stand, run and end up. We even memorise this for the other players so we know where everyone else will be at any given time. You know that pass when you say to yourself: ‘How did he spot that?’ Often he didn’t need to; he knew the player would be there because, the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making. It’s exactly the same pass after which sometimes you might find yourself saying: ‘Who was that to?’ The receiving player either forgot to be there or was taken out of the game by a tactical manoeuvre by his opposite number. Football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside.”
In the club game, in which players train together every day for 40 weeks a year and play perhaps 50 matches a season, it’s possible to generate a highly detailed level of mutual understanding. At international level, in which coaches have players for perhaps a week at a time six times a year, it’s impossible.
Most coaches, given the limited time frame, choose to focus on the defence. Present a solid unit and hope to nick something at the other end. And, as Tomislav Ivić noted, outlining a truth so profound that the line is quoted elsewhere in this section. “It’s much easier to learn how to defend than how to attack. It also takes less time.” Pack men behind the ball, get the structure right, and it’s difficult for an opponent to break you down. At club level, well-oiled attacking structures can get beyond that; at national level it’s much harder. A player receiving the ball at club level will already have an idea where his teammates are likely to be; the playing of a pass becomes semi-automated. At national level, it takes an extra fraction of a second to size up the situation, which makes attacking moves slightly slower and thus easier to defend against. That is also why it helps a national team if a lot of its players play for the same one or two clubs, as is the case with Spain and Germany.
So at a World Cup, what we get is a series of teams intent on defending playing against opponents who, even if they are minded to attack, lack the slickness of a top club side. The result is stodgy football. The 1998 World Cup didn’t feel that special at the time — it was no better than 1994 and no match for 1982 or 1986 — but it stands now as a beacon, as the last good World Cup. Perhaps the institution of the World Cup is too great to disappear, at least in the short term, but sooner or later the poverty of the product is going to become an issue.
Brazil, for all the issues of infrastructure and the near-certainty of demonstrations, still has a cachet as a cradle of the game, but will fans still flock to Russia and Qatar for drab football? Perhaps that doesn’t matter unduly when television rights are sold years ahead, but eventually if the football is poor people will stop watching. For all the talk of the distasteful politics around Fifa and the World Cup, it may be that the greatest threat to international football comes from the game itself.