The pulsating public appeal of the World Cup's quadrennial format is founded in exclusivity – a paradox of the sport after its stance against the stratospheric payment structures engineered by both 1990s inventions, the Champions League and Premier League. Olympian it may not be, but the tournament continues to comprise many ideals harboured in its 1930 invention; rampant professionalism, in direct proximity at the inaugural edition, hosted in Uruguay. Politically naïve – if an inevitable reaction to idealism – Jules Rimet nurtured sentiment to be contorted and manipulated by all future corruptors. FIFA’s own capital rose with the elevation of true celebrities; Argentina’s serene centre-half Luis Monti and free-scoring centre forward Guillermo Stábile surpassed by a frantic Uruguayan outfit spearheaded by local icon Héctor Castro, while the USA’s Bert Patenaude drew myth in short-lived international exploits. One mere factor has relented, however. South America no longer holds sway. Europe, perennial colonisers and grand schemers within, rules.
For all the barometer’s swings, none have been as dramatic as its present bias. Though Brazil were irresistible in their charge to 1958, ’62 and ’70 crowns – the closest to what an increasingly Americanised media may crave to term a ‘dynasty’ – even that run, the one which made their name on the global stage, pales in comparison to consecutive Italian theatrics, Spanish mastery and German ruthlessness; each entirely indicative of their era. If discounting the long-disputed interruption to their hegemony, even, it may not even compare; too easily hindered here by an English hubris, and elsewhere (namely West Germany, Argentina and Portugal) refuted credibility, 1966’s reverence amongst South American historians does not capture post-2000 plaudits.
No one finalist in these past three tournaments has repeated their appearance, in a tournament that has rewarded eight few victors and paid indifferently to four further unfulfilled finalists in its 20 iterations. It was no aberration to succumb, if Vicente del Bosque, Marcello Lippi or Raymond Domenech, to new victors and, potentially, superior intellects, if a devout professor of the sport. Though the 1998 edition may have been France’s destined emergence, and 2002 Brazil’s – but more so Ronaldo’s – redemption on uncertain geographical footing, while minnows and politically reignited states bounded on with fearlessness, from Germany onwards, the plagues permeating Europe had infected Sepp Blatter’s FIFA also; corrupt wounds still having plasters peeled, while subjects wince.
Renewing as it takes to Russia – Blatter purged, Vladimir Putin stalled as his latest sparring partner drew compromise – the tournament now finds favourites in Brazil, Spain, Germany and France. Though distant from many other competitors, their collective rivalry is scarcely separable. Two possess managers in their first international competitions, whereas many doubts are cast over France’s Didier Deschamps. Two harbour stagnant domestic competitions; Messrs Bayern and Saint Germain obstructing all means of internal conflict. Joachim Löw’s ageing contingent aside, all have prompted full inspections of recent frailties. We have a reigning heavyweight, indeed, but the scrapping pretenders do not lack attributes of their own.
If geopolitical undertones have subsided in radical gauges since an ideologically moribund West Germany’s victory at Italia ’90, the re-tarmacked ‘Road to…’ has only favoured the most studious elements of the sport. Denmark, Croatia, Turkey and South Korea thrust forth for a while, amongst those who refused to rest on their laurels, especially after dramatic earlier failure; Italy, beset with cultural fears after elimination to the Koreans in 2002 and only lightened from the malaise that followed in Euro ’04 by a 21-year-old Antonio Cassano, Spain by similar disappointments at the same meets, and Germany by inconsistencies and an inability to prosper for much of their reunified history.
Exposed Brazil, however, found their coup de grâce on home soil. While England and France have achieved sole victories in temperate motherlands, and Uruguay, Italy, (West) Germany and Argentina each accredit a single of their multiple accolades to local support, the hotbed of the sport, the romanticised heartland, failed to capitalise on an identical, fêted, opportunity. Twice. Their 7-1 defeat to Germany touched pains just as visceral as in 1950, when denied by neighbours Uruguay in front of 200,000 baying Maracanã fans. As Pelé, and the advent of Brazilian emigration to professionalised Europe, emerged soon after that national devastation, the patriotic amulet now falls to Neymar – certainly no revolutionary 17-year-old, but a rebel seeking redemption – after the injury that tragically arrested his increasingly assured duty on home turf, and another that ravaged his universally despised opening PSG account. With Olympic Gold at the stadium his side did not progress to bask in two years prior, and a cycle on from his Silver at Wembley, he has already been a beneficiary of football’s implausible delays. Today’s Verde-Amarela have not earned the comparative guise of 1970’s icons, nor even of the side that transitioned from France to East Asia, and political uncertainty has not aided their cause; the 2014 tournament awash with public protests as poverty still ravages in a country that haemorrhages natural resources to fund the political class’ self-interest.
As Adidas’ charges sport dedications to former artistic glories this summer – cautious reverence, in present periods of relative democratic dormancy, showed to iconic apparels of ’90 and ’94 – and Nike’s opt for a minimalist’s perspective, there is a palpable confidence in each rivalling approach. Germany and Spain wear their recent glories very much on their chest in immediately recognisable fibres, yet hold their achievements very much as a testament to what previous decades dealt; Brazil and France would rather forget all and demonstrate their enviable footballing modernity. These are the sides to whom the multinational tandem partners pander; forget England, Egypt and even Nigeria, they demand recognition as contributors to, and valued sponsors of, the perennial prize winners, and require a select bracket of national brand. This is a business of cliques, revelled in by the most amoral of the sport’s necessities.
Fortunately, if all comply to expectations and emerge victorious from their groups – a route lined with fewer potential pitfalls for the Mediterranean-bordering duo, one may dare to suggest – then all could reach the final four. A tantalising prospect indeed, and one only tempted by the canny scheduling of meetings in March to test the reigning champions against their closest two challengers. They went winless from the ties, drawing an all-action 1-1 with Spain and dampened by a Gabriel Jesus header misjudged by Kevin Trapp against Brazil, but this would only act as a foretaste for marketers and consumers alike. As fascinating tactical tussles have proven the tale of all previous three finals – each extending to extra-time, and 2006, infamously, to penalties – and public appetite has sustained for the occasion (1.013 billion tuning in for the Rio de Janeiro showpiece across all platforms) the course of imminent events should only deviate depending on an influx of imbedded talent, and their intentions.
A rolling stone, famously, gathers no moss. Look only to Argentina and Belgium, who retain their status as seeds from 2014, to validate this transcription; previous counterparts Uruguay, Colombia, Switzerland replaced by Portugal, Poland and France. While it would be horrendously discourteous to write off their chances in Russia, a doctor has two tasks, to prescribe and to proclaim death.
The former, helmed by Jorge Sampaoli, still heralding the success he enjoyed with Chile in 2014, is fraught with the same selection headaches that have dogged a top-heavy crop for the entirety of a scornfully unfortunate Lionel Messi’s career – never to emulate his countrymen Maradona and Kempes, particularly after a credible, but eminently forgettable, runners-up medal in Brazil.
Roberto Martínez’s served as the second consecutive uninspiring appointment by the Belgian FA after Marc Wilmots and has fared little better with this luxurious loot; failing to fuse a successful combination of industry and explosive flair from the enviable tools that lay in front of him. Ridding his squad of a single rallying workman in Radja Nainggolan is adjudged only an admittance of his inability to tame the characters of the Red Devils, while for Sampaoli, though blessed in attacking areas, omitting Diego Perotti will deprive his unproven midfield of an ability to work openings for a frontline more immobile for the favour of Gonzalo Higuaín over Mauro Icardi. The loss of Sergio Romero to injury does not aid their cause, of course, and neither do fixtures against the defensively hard-hitting Croatians and Icelanders, nor the examination of their own dubious backline they will again receive from Nigeria after a 4-2 friendly defeat late last year. Belgium will face the same explosive sucker-punch should England defy their demons, and set up far more offensively – with far more to lose, as top seeds – than their North European counterparts against the resolute Tunisians and debut-making Panamanians, with ambition most potent.
Geographical minnows lacking much semblance of winning mentalities, the progression of these masses is scarcely evident since 2014. Messi may be a serial winner; Hazard, though amiably modest, similarly outspoken while driving his employers to regular silverware. Otamendi and Lukaku may have been elevated by the pinnacle of world coaching; Agüero, Higuaín, Mascherano, Di Maria, De Bruyne, Kompany and Courtois maintaining their erstwhile pedigrees. Strike a swift 2-0 deficit to Croatia, or England, into their eyes, and what emotion greets you? De Bruyne aside, none fizz with the impermeability of potential Quarter-Final opponents – Spain and Brazil, respectively – and great burdens will fall to combustible forwards Paolo Dybala and Michy Batshuayi in these instances. Sampaoli and Martínez lack the audacity to blood these steeds – they will trundle through with a generation implausibly facilitated at the expense of a rhythm anew. That Martínez boasts more international caps in his suspected – post ‘Mattressgate’ – 23-man squad than Löw had at his disposal in 2014 (1,054 to 971, before 2 June without an individual centurion to Germany’s four) only welcomes the world’s scoffs.
до свидания – do svidaniya – may be the call for an expiring guard of these states, but for renewed royalty, the challenge is not a stagnant one. For Germany, even if 34 players feasibly run out in Austria and Saudi Arabia friendlies, they will still be the first squad this century to defend their title with fewer total caps. Of their predecessors, Spain, Italy and France all faced group stage capitulations, the likes of which the tournament seldom saw of its standard-bearers in the 20th century.
Progressively, however, there does remain an oscillating factual truth. From the 14 cumulative caps of Vieira, Henry and Trezeguet sur terra firma to the emboldened Ronaldo of ’02, continentally famed Italian contingent of ’06 and domineering Barça-Real bloc in South Africa, even to Löw’s innate and trusting relationship with Messrs Klose, Podolski, Schweinsteiger and Lahm in Brazil, more experience has been required to reach the trophy on each occasion; astoundingly, almost doubling from 501 accumulated appearances with consistent leaps of roughly 100 caps at each post-Millennium summit. These are as much insights to the cultural and structural factors imposing on each nation as they are of the direction of perceived superiority; the exponents of the trend all reverting to type this summer; Didier Deschamps with around 600, Tite with over 650 and Julen Lopetegui around 950. The bevy of ravenous forwards, the smattering of Brasileirão talent dovetailing the undisputed figurehead and the eking out of a gilded glut’s final dregs as wholly capable fresh hands take their place; all conform.
So, there is a mistruth to at least one rhetoric. Youthful prodigiousness is certainly an admirable component if available, but relied on to the extent of a 17-year-old Pelé or Ronaldo, or unbridled Ligue 1-based duo and Arsène Wenger tutee? England – with Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling paling only to Gary Cahill and Jordon Henderson for international exposure – may hope so, but it is an unrefined approach, highly reliant on momentum and an ever-dissipating element of surprise. Wise, relevant heads have their place also, but not when entrenched in attempts to consolidate existing legacies; they must locate alternative, proactive motivations. If daring to select Julian Brandt over Sebastian Rudy in what many view as his final selection conflict, Löw may inject a much-needed progressive thrust. With the selections of international rookie Álvaro Odriozola over Marcos Alonso and Corinthians’ Fagner over Alex Sandro or Rafinha at full-back, both bold appointments in Spain and Brazil cast their chips with impetus – meanwhile, with Presnel Kimpembe and Benjamin Pavard joining, Deschamps pandered to a void of talent and the inevitable defeat of favoured steeds Koscielny, Sissoko, Payet and Gignac.
If assessing the greatest professional movements since Mario Götze’s finish – forever to be repeated as a plight to his injury-ravaged career – then, at their very mention, England must rank favourably. Roy Hodgson is gone, and too his homogenous favour of celebrities, irrespective of form or positioning, at the unguarded national forefront. Dan Ashworth’s newfound belief – proclaiming 2017 as ‘the best year on the pitch, bar 1966’ – the fruition of views adopted from Italian, Spanish, Dutch but primarily German administrations in various youth honours, and, straight from the FA’s coaching manuals, Gareth Southgate, are in. Unafraid of culling a deflated Wazza, broken Daniel Sturridge and shot Joe Hart from the picture, Southgate has finally restored the confidence of a side that had seldom witnessed freedom since a teenage Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scythed down Mathieu Debuchy in their opening Euro 2012 tie. Dele Alli was not immune to benching, nor the toxic and immature Jack Wilshere to being dropped entirely. Judge him by actions or words, but Southgate has displayed bravery on par with his global counterparts, matched with the sensibility and respect ingrained after three years with the Three Lions’ under-21s; Ruben Loftus-Cheek will not be the fleeting talent that Andros Townsend was, nor John Stones a Carl Jenkinson or Martin Kelly, or Steven Caulker, or Jon Flanagan…
The objective here is not to besmirch Hodgson’s name. For all the Football Association’s flaws – an administrative corporate whitewash, duplicity towards grassroots subjects, Sam Allardyce (the appointment more so than the subsequent scandal), hostility from Greg Clarke to gay players and Mark Sampson to long-serving women’s players – Southgate, aided by a thriving young squad, was an astute appointment. Grouped with one-time FA Cup winner Martinez, patriot Nabil Maâloul and old hand Hernán Darío Gómez, their engagements will be some of the most understated in the competition.
A decade ago, one was in League One, one leaving the Guatemalan manager’s role and another the Tunisian assistant; Southgate tipped as the FA’s potential replacement for Teesside predecessor Steve McLaren, having led Middlesbrough to a mid-table finish. This is no egotistic linkage, and views typical of colonist histories are to be fully discouraged. This is ancient history – since Senegal in 2002, old world orders have shattered with the cataclysmic unison of a pyromaniac let loose in this, the cathedral of football. There was no time to reinforce the stained glass before iconoclasm swept through.
While England may have banished their recurrent earlier evils – lacking attacking width, and exposed at full-back, in labouring 4-3-3s and 4-2-3-1s – with their resurrection of a three-man defence, there are only pragmatic shades of the tussles that will engross Tite’s, Löw’s, or Lopetegui’s admirers. If not in process from 2014, with this trio begins the crowning of leaders amongst, rather than of, their players. In an age of rampant marketisation and tabloid smut, the need is ever-present.
Though nationwide dexterity has rewarded responsive generations, and requisite technical abilities, successive to 2014 and 2010 – when the much-fancied Brazilians fell to Wesley Sneijder’s temporary mastery – many ideological remnants of victorious campaigns remain. Spain are still stereotyped as an oppressive, overwhelming outfit; 36 goals scored, and just three conceded, in ten qualifying ties modernising the incisive ways of Vicente del Bosque, with Rodrigo, Iago Aspas and Diego Costa – disciples of highly contrasting schools of marksmanship – preferred to the morose Álvaro Morata and the spent forces of Fernando Torres and David Villa. Saúl, Isco and Marco Asensio have burst through with the trust of modern World Cup midfield bastions in Madrid, while Thiago assumes the pall bearer’s role to retiring stanchions Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta. If midfield was their earlier mastery, however, the Spanish can now confidently assert theirs as the leading vanguard, if not equal with Germany; David de Gea earning his equal standing with Manuel Neuer, Jordi Alba above Jonas Hector, Dani Carvajal arguably slipping behind the unrelenting Joshua Kimmich and Piqué-Ramos continuing their engrossing legacy and competition with Boateng-Hummels.
2008-13 aside, only twice have the Iberians progressed beyond the Quarter-Final of a major international tournament; 1984’s grit and, though from just two knockout rounds, 1964’s final defeat of inaugural European champions Soviet Union. If del Bosque were to be an exception to the rule of an economically modest and democratically inept nation, elimination would follow against Argentina or, in the worst-case scenario France, this summer – ¡imposible! The toreador roars again, and the often-abrasive chutzpah will again grow infectious.
Brazil are an untamed entity in relativity, and amount fully to the perpetual national breeze. Gabriel Jesus the only outgrowth of a 2015 Under-20 World Cup campaign, even Marquinhos and Neymar are now established qualities, but their critical assets lie in those who Tite has fostered to fruition; Alisson, Fred, Taison, Paulinho and one may even suggest Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. Accommodating the rising stock of Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, Ernesto Valverde and Paolo Fonseca’s charges with ease, this is a group radiating confidence. Only two members of the starting XI in their previous World Cup outing, and two further substitutes, remain, but Thiago Silva and Neymar return with vengeance – not least for their fallen brother Dani Alves.
Political instability intensified the Seleção’s psychological stranglehold before, and, if anything, has only ratcheted further against openly corrupted President and playboy Michel Temer, who now counts down the final few months of his presidency. Mariano Rajoy is ousted in Spain; Emmanuel Macron’s populist appeal predictably wavers in France and the parliamentary coalition now more necessary than ever for Angela Merkel in the Reichstag typifies the times. Dissatisfaction with authorities that have stood, in reality, for centuries is only a symptom of the culture that pervades each, so synchronised with brooding footballing affairs. Entering what effectively amounts to a police state, their concerns are placed as comparatively petty, and that is, demoralizingly in some respects, the reality of this career. Events pass you by as the pursuit of your own collective glories. Relief may be what you offer to friends and family, but it is not a true patriot’s service. More so than ever, when meeting for such an extensive period it is a club atmosphere that greets them; associations finally keeping pace with the investment and expertise of their contributors, and perceived puppeteers. This is the ideology that has rationalised the World Cup stratagem, and that which will be further refined this summer – not producing the most stylistically advanced competition, but for the traditionalist few current iterations compare. Exclusivity is not as it once was. The World Cup is dead, long live the World Cup.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!