It’s debatable whether there has ever been a golden period for the World Cup. If there was it was probably in the 70’s and early 80’s, when Brazil and Holland pretty much guaranteed entertainment. After that it’s been a mixed bag, and the event itself has become a grotesquely bloated vision of what it once was. Host nations plough billions into developing stadia while FIFA takes billions in sponsorship revenues. Tickets are set prohibitively high for many people to buy them, and local traders are shunted aside to allow corporate partners to reap maximum benefits from this four week harvest.
The process that decides where tournaments are to be held is a corrupt farce, resulting in outcomes so irrational they make a mockery of everyone involved. We have reached the point where the World Cup is being presented as some sort of purpose built Expo or World Fair. A chance for a nation with ridiculous resources to show what it can make and do, with the ability to play football matches barely considered, while less tangible factors like culture and atmosphere aren’t even on the agenda. FIFA has gotten so fat from the World Cup it can’t help itself. It doesn’t care about makes a good tournament for the people watching it, it only cares about how much money can syphoned off. And, this year’s tournament in Brazil – which should be an amazing setting – has an overtly political backdrop, with demonstrations expected by local populations disgusted at their Government’s wasted resources when millions live in poverty.
So, there’s all that to digest. It’s hardly a great way to get into World Cup Fever (©FIFA). You could make a pretty convincing case that we should bin the World Cup completely and start over – if only to get rid of FIFA – but that would miss the point. The World Cup is just a reflection of the changes that have happened to football over the past two decades, and most of those have been driven by the major European leagues. For example, we have these pathetic rules to try and curb the ridiculous excesses of clubs under the ruse of ‘fair play’; the money comes from all over the world and no one really questions whether that’s ok; leveraged buyouts in football are actually a thing; and, Barcelona and Real Madrid – so often the toast of European football – are under investigation by the EU for ‘irregular public funding’. If they’re found guilty it essentially means they’ve been systematically cheating for years. Wonderful.
And yet, despite the endless truckloads of manure slurry that FIFA has poured over the World Cup – it’s still fucking great because none of this club v club bullshit really applies. Players can’t play for one country for years and then switch to another for more money or a ‘better chance of winning trophies’ as it’s otherwise known.
Any nation can produce talented footballers, even tiny ones like Bosnia, playing in its first World Cup this summer. Of course, some nations exploit family ties to recruit talent from outside their borders, but the majority of footballers represent what they feel is their home nation, because they actually want to.
It matters to get to the world cup. It matters to perform well at the finals, and it definitely matters if you win one. Sometimes a nation has to wait generations for enough talent to emerge at the same time to establish a competitive team, like the Belgians this year. There are occasional once in a lifetime collections of talent, such as the Yugoslavians in 1990 and the Croatia side of 1998. Or, you get solid teams built around one magnificent star, such as Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria in 1994. History is littered with teams that surprised and surpassed expectations.
The nostalgia that precedes each tournament tells you how much these moments live in the memory. People start talking about their favourite world cup goals and teams. The media start replaying highlights and writing about classic moments. People can’t get enough of it, because it remains a platform for greatness that can only be partially destroyed by greed. The swaggering egos of superstar footballers that are nauseating during the regular season become compelling at the World Cup, because here they don’t get many second chances. There’s no time to wage a campaign to get the manager sacked if you don’t like his approach (unless you’re France). That’s not to say the big names always turn up, but the ones that do are the ones that get talked about forever.
Wayne Rooney might have a lucrative new contract, but Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Holland will be resurrected every four years for eternity. That’s what the World Cup provides – immortality.
It’s a wonderful thing. It is depressing that FIFA will have done everything they can to sterilise the setting for this year’s tournament, but Brazil is still the most iconic nation to play host to this event. Personally, I think the Russian World Cup will be pretty cool because it’s an interesting place, and it will showcase a lot of the lesser known towns and cities that rarely make the news. After that things look a bit shit, granted. But, even then, I doubt people will switch off. FIFA know this – it’s what enables them to be complete bastards and get away with it, but I don’t want to finish on a negative, and Qatar is still eight years away.
The World Cup in Brazil is about to start and it’s impossible not to be excited about that. Come at me, football. Come at me.