Four years ago, in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup 2010 in South Africa, a friend of mine, who should know better, told me that the World Cup was less interesting to him than the Champions League.
He was wrong, of course, and here’s why:
It’s a summer extravaganza.
The World Cup takes place in the middle of the football year’s ‘dry season’, when normally there is nothing else that will satisfy. Over a month-and-a-day, you become absorbed by this group of largely new characters, personalities and stories. It’s pure compelling immersive improvised drama. And you can watch up to three episodes a day. TV stations also offer highlights and chat which fire analysis and off-the-field shenanigans back at you in the gaps between matches.
Every competition is different.
Because it’s only once every four years, each World Cup stands apart, even if they come back to back. Italia 90 was not like LA 1994. Japan/South Korea 2002 was completely different from Germany 2006, and so on. The characters are all different too. Pele in 1958 was totally different from Pele in 1970, as was Maradona in 1986 and Maradona in 1990. You can even see they were played by different actors if you look closely enough.
Home advantage sometimes works, like Italy in 1934, England in 1966, or France in 1998. On the other hand, it can fail spectacularly – think Brazil 1950 or Spain 1982.
Then there is the eternal battle between defence and attack – Italy versus Brazil in the 1970 final (hooray!) or Germany versus Hungary in 1954 (booo!).
Apart from each broadcaster delivering its own take on what the host country has to offer to the viewers back home (‘samba soccer’ with a touch of social unrest this time, I reckon) you also get the quirks of the local broadcasting company: how many cameras have they got and how often will they show replays? Will they translate captions into English or leave them in the local language? How much time will they devote to picking out women in the crowd?
Contrary to the popular belief, the World Cup does have the best players.
The contention has always been that some of the greatest players like George Best, George Weah or Ryan Giggs never played at the World Cup because their country is too weak to qualify. But it’s a team game, so you’ve got to build from what’s available (eg Northern Ireland 1958, 1982 and 1986 and Wales in 1958) and not just rely on one or two stars carrying a bunch of donkeys.
This year (correct at time of writing) we’re expecting current greats like Ronaldo, Messi, Suárez, Neymar, Agüero, Higuaín, Diego Costa, Balotelli and Fred to take part. The discerning fan gets to judge whether they can rise to the challenge of playing for a different team (Maradona, 1986) or not (Cristiano Ronaldo, passim). It’s also a great time to discover new heroes with great names: the Schillacis, Tshabalalas and Pak Doo Iks. And if that’s not enough, you can call Zlatan Ibrahimović and ask him to come and juggle balls in your back yard.
The best team always wins.
Yes, hindsight proves that. Except where it doesn’t – as in Hungary’s great side in 1954, Spain’s team in the late 50s and early 1960s, Netherlands in the 70s, Brazil in 1982, France in 1986, and so on. But there are always reasons why it goes one way or the other, and it’s the ‘what ifs’ and ‘never weres’ that keep you debating long after the games are over.
It throws up truly global confrontations.
There’s no other occasion where you could get Iran squaring up to USA (1998) or England and Argentina bashing their heads together (1966, 1986, 1998, and 2002) without serious bloodshed. And there are all the other inter-continental and cross border rivalries such as Brazil v Argentina v Uruguay, Ireland v England, Netherlands v West Germany and so on.
It’s also great to see soccer minnows taking on football behemoths and winning, like when Cameroon beat reigning champions Argentina in 1990, or Senegal beat reigning champions France in 2002.
Finally, it’s not a self-perpetuating pantomime dreamed up to keep the same few rich clubs, players and managers in the spotlight and in the money.
At this year’s World Cup, all the world champion teams since the first World Cup in 1930 will be taking part: Uruguay, Italy, Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina, France and Spain. The fact that this is even worth mentioning is probably the strongest affirmation of why the World Cup is the superior competition in comparison with the so-called ‘Champions’ League.