World Cup 2018: a tipping point for the ages

FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia Logo
FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia Logo

The 2018 FIFA World Cup marked a global football tipping point witnessed by the largest sporting event audience on planet earth. The quadrennial 64-match competition, the unrivalled pinnacle of soccer, once again captivated billions everywhere and both showcased and documented the full array of what the sport has to offer, over a 32-day span.

But this year, a number of long-simmering futbol-wide and World Cup issues and themes reached a simultaneous and cumulative peak in Russia, and for once they were all captured live on television and via the broadcasted or published reporting and opinions of all participants—the fans, protesters, players, and coaches, FIFA, and the world media. We were all participants and witnesses. There is no turning back from that convergence, and what may lay ahead could be the biggest sea change in the sport’s history.

The futbol issues and themes that came together this summer at the 2018 FIFA World Cup were:

  1. FIFA’s accountability is still in serious doubt.

FIFA’s transparency—whether we are speaking about the rarely uniformly applied rules of the game, or the manner in which officials are chosen for games, (so that Brazil is officiated in back-to-back games by a Serb and a Mexican after having eliminated those national teams) or how VAR is used or misused, or how many slots each confederation gets for the World Cup, or whether favoritism is shown to certain big soccer nations or players because their progression is financially rewarding, or conversely whether teams and players are discriminated against because they are blacklisted, to whether the global soccer entity should have any say about the manner in which monopoly regional broadcasters might cover the cup—is suspect. The 2018 World Cup laid much of this bare.

These are issues that FIFA-gate has not yet addressed. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has shown little interest in safeguarding and certifying the integrity of the sport while showing copious interest in reaping the financial bonanza it still represents, in any manner available. At some point the question as to who owns association football will have to be answered. Odds are that with the 2022 Qatar fiasco and North American 2026 expansion experiment ahead, it will be this cup that made clear it may not be the currently constituted FIFA who should remain at the helm of our sport.

It is time for a major reconsideration of how global football is governed.

 

  1. How the sport is played best is still a matter of idiosyncratic choice based on available resources.

Styles remain in fashion mostly dependent upon the success of the team(s) using the style. So whether you use a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or 3-5-2, or are a purposeful possession team (molded on Spain’s uber successful 12-year reign with tiki-taka), or a pressing and block attacking juggernaut (like the Dutch and German teams of 2014), or are a defensive and long-and-set-ball specialty team (like the Swedes, Danes and English in this World Cup) or a defensive minded counterattacking force (molded on the French, Portuguese, or Uruguayan styles), or a mix of styles (like the Belgian and Croatian sides) if it works for your guys use it.

These are age-old issues with what seemed little resolution but in Russia it became clear that supplanting one way of looking at or playing the game with another, simply because a different way is in fashion today held sway this time around, is folly. You go with what you have at your disposal molding your style to your players’ strengths and not forcing them to play an unnatural style because it was successful for others this season or cup.

Cultural legacies and national priorities often play a role in the make ups of national teams participating in the World Cup, sometimes those can be positive (like the communal waves which brought Spain its first cup and Germany its fourth cup), others (like the Spanish drama this cup or the Brazilian one last cup) can be destructive. The lesson is, allow the soccer team to be a soccer team, not a proxy salve for national ills.

Molding a team around a star is no more or less a good strategy than sublimating that star’s abilities to those of his less talented teammates. What matters is what mix works for the team at the cup given their resources and the opponents they must face. Many teams made that clear in this cup, from the successes of Croatia and Belgium (who mixed strategies) to the mistakes of Spain, Brazil, Germany, and Argentina, who each played a different way.

No one style is above another (there are no dinosaurs or newly evolved species) only fitting and imaginative applications of what is possible for your team.

 

  1. The World Cup is the crucible of the sport.

The World Cup, despite what others might mistakenly believe, is preeminent among all soccer competitions because of its concentrated global focus, the quadrennial nature of a 7-game competition that puts a premium on efficacy and extracts a 4-year hiatus for reflection on the losers. It is the standard of measure for the sport, the measure of what is and can be in soccer, as the history made by past performances remains in the retina for a lifetime, and the mix of cultures and styles of play that only get to come together at the cup remind us of the singularly global nature of the sport. The participation of many of the world’s best players in a single event, the freedom to try new strategies or unleash an unknown gem of a player, the history and traditions that are made, remade, and upended, all contribute to the aura.

This World Cup was special not only because of the quality of some players’ goals or teams’ performances, or the drama of a given match, or the unlikely progression of so many unheralded teams. It was also special because it may have marked the passing of four stellar generations of South American players (from Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil, but also the absent Chile).

In addition, two great national teams who evolved specifically in response to previous World Cup experiences, and whose reincarnations came to redefine aspects of our sport—the Spanish and German teams of the past decade of dominance, will bow out in their current forms. Those two traditional superpowers, together with the absent Italy, Netherlands, Chile, and USA, to pick a few who felt they should have been in Russia, will be rebuilt upon new foundations that will make them look like different sides come the next couple of cups. This cup already gave us perspectives on these changes.

Russia’s World Cup most likely also bid goodbye to the two preeminent soccer players of the past decade, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, while simultaneously allowing us to say hello to the most likely current and future heirs to their thrones, Neymar and Mbappe. Right behind them we peeked at the likes of perhaps Asensio, Dembele, Sisto, and Hakimi, some of whom only saw partial playing time. But also, given that a number of teams could not fit many up and comers among their squads, we were left knowing that those we have only seen in fleeting glimpses at other times will arrive in 2022. Wait until you see Brazil’s Vinicius Junior, or the USA’s Timothy Weah, or Norway’s Martin Odegaard, play futebol.

The 2018 World Cup also helped define the potential of the continuing contributions of influential coaches like Tite of Brazil, Roberto Martinez coaching Belgium, Aliou Cisse of Senegal, and England’s Gareth Southgate. This cup certified it is our sport’s yardstick, lab, and fantasy.

Every four years the World Cup serves up the fullest and clearest picture of the state of football and this time around we got to see down the road a bit—and the vistas are breathtaking.

 

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