FIFA World Cup, one of the world’s most popular sport, is starting in Russia in a couple of weeks. Though it will not top over the international games schedule decline but will still be enthralling on television.
Many countries will come to a stop later this summer as the 21st edition of the world’s largest sports tournament gets cracking in the world’s largest country, Russia. This is the first time that the country is hosting the World Cup. While the way in which Russia and the 2022 host, Qatar, were awarded the World Cup rights remain shrouded in controversy, the 2018 tournament is upon us, questions that need to be asked more important in the eyes of some than the corruption scandal or Russia’s brutal crackdown on dissent or even the crisis in the Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
For 90 per cent of the sports watching population across the world, such questions can wait out the six weeks of the tournament, which is a pity because hosting the tournament usually can put a lot of pressure on the hosts to behave themselves, but other than forcing Russia to ‘suspend’ some homophobic laws for the duration of the tournament, FIFA and the world, particularly Western Europe, which misses no opportunity to hector their giant Eastern neighbour, have been quiet. In Germany and the United Kingdom, more pressing issues have emerged — that is how will their national men’s football teams perform in Russia, spy poisoning scandals be damned. Such is the hypocrisy of the Western media.
However, World Cup tournaments themselves during their durations have a way of altering the worldview and the world’s view of nations. Germany, for example, got a massive economic and social boost following the 2006 World Cup they hosted. The world’s image of the Germans as a stiff teutonic nation was irrevocably changed into one of a hip, modern and inclusive nation. The foundations of Germany’s 2014 World Cup win and their unquestioned leadership in Europe today were laid in 2006. However, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil had the opposite effect — it was the catalyst that laid bare the social strife at the heart of the nation that spent money they did not have to host the tournament. Today, Brazil is in political and social turmoil.
However, it was the deep-rooted corruption in the global football federation FIFA and the world body’s failure to spread the sport more successfully into China and India that is becoming a huge issue going forward. Even though the Indian Super League has had some commercial and viewership success, it pales in front of the runaway success that is the Indian Premier League in cricket. Indeed, football’s spread to several new territories will be challenged by cricket, as the IPL has demonstrated India’s soft power in neighbouring countries. But much like the IPL and other T20 leagues across the world have gnawed away at the core of the international game in cricket, overload and competitiveness of the club game, especially the European club game, is challenging international football.
Unlike international cricket, where players can play beside each other as much as a hundred days in a year, international football players barely spend a few weeks together in a year once their professional careers start. The European football season officially comes to a close on Sunday at the conclusion of the Champions League final between Spain’s Real Madrid and England’s Liverpool Football Club, which will be a highly competitive match between two clubs loaded with talent. But one reason the club game has become so popular is because of the mixture of talent and the fact club football is the only space for some of that talent to really shine through. Take Liverpool’s talismanic Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah. While he will play at the World Cup, it is unlikely that he can raise the rest of his team to the level they need to be to get into the second round. But when surrounded by talent from all over the world, he will win several trophies in Liverpool.
And Salah is not the only example, Leo Messi, who along with Cristiano Ronaldo is a superstar and one of the best to ever have stepped onto a football pitch, has not won a major international tournament. And this is where things have changed from the times of the previous Argentine football God, Diego Maradona. Messi is no less of a legendary player because he has won nothing in the blue and white of Argentina because he has won everything a club player can in the ‘Blaugrana’ of Barcelona. Maradona was defined by his performance at Mexico, 1986. Messi has been defined by his time at Camp Nou alongside other superstars like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.
Lack of frequency of international football matches, particularly compared to the fifty-plus games a year that some of the top clubs play, almost all of which are broadcast in high-definition into our homes have changed the game of football. That coupled with the rot inside the global football federation which spent, among other things, $25 million producing a movie about themselves ‘United Passions’ instead of promoting the game properly has been a problem, FIFA and for that matter the Indian football federation have not built on the back of the successful Under-17 World Cup hosted in india last year. If India is to be successful at the sport, much more money and coaching talent is needed from FIFA. However, it is almost certain that an Indian-born player will succeed at the top of the club game, it is almost certain that player has been born already. Because it is easier for one or two to succeed than a whole team.
FIFA plans to expand the World Cup Finals to a truly incredible 64 teams going forward, quite the opposite solution of the International Cricket Council which is reducing participation. This runs the risk of making the international game even more unrelatable and irrelevant. No country is particularly fond of failure in an international sporting event, so with more countries failing and it might turn people away from the sport. One could argue that a lot of Brazil’s current turmoil started after their horrendous 7-1 defeat by Germany. Smaller, tighter and highly competitive tournaments might be the best way for the international game to stay relevant at a time of the club game.
That said, I for one will certainly be enjoying this tournament, which on the face of it it seems the most open tournament since 2006. Despite all the controversy and the issues surrounding the federations and the hosts, the tournament ought to be a success. Here is wishing all the players, coaches and volunteers all the best for Russia, 2018.
(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)
Writer: Kushan Mitra
Courtesy: The Pioneer