I’ve never experienced such disinterest on the eve of a World Cup before – and it’s made me wonder why.
I refute that it’s due to Russia hosting it. Yes, there good reasons why that should matter; it’s a country riddled with corporate and political corruption, that doesn’t have freedom of the press, the tournament is being cynically used by Putin to stoke nationalism and consolidate his grip on power, has a problem of racist chanting at sporting events (to put it mildly), discriminates against LGBT folk, annexes and invades territories of neighbouring countries and used highly questionable machinations to win the right to stage the tournament. Normally I’d recognise that the English media’s sour grapes were due to their competing bid losing (and recent events in Salisbury have reinvigorated the jingoistic sneering), but then FIFA awarded the 2022 finals to Qatar at the same time. That decision was an epic abortion. Both votes were bent as fuck.
However, for those watching at home, once the matches commence all the recent and ongoing political tensions, and the debate as to whether a country with Russia’s social, political, economic and geopolitical profile should be allowed to host such a prestigious event will fade. In truth most folks aren’t concerned enough about politics, never mind international politics, to take a stand on this, not when they can relax and watch some footie.
My apathy can’t be that Scotland aren’t involved, as we haven’t reached a major tournament finals since 1998 – gulp. It hasn’t anything to do with England’s involvement either. While the ritual of witnessing England’s media and chainmail clad fans rouse themselves into vomit inducing levels of tubthumping delusion, through romanticising ‘66, Agincourt and Normandy, only to fail, often crushingly, allows you to delight in pure schadenfreude, on this occasion most seem to be, to their credit, embracing introspection and bypassing this charade. Clearly the defeat to Iceland two years ago was an epiphany. There’s no talk of winning this or any tournament now. And no wonder, this is the least talented England team of my lifetime. They play a troglodyte, antiquated style of football, a grotesque legacy of the FA pandering to the moronic inverted snobbery of Sunday League marshes and terrace boorishness for decades. As a result most – except the diehard Brexiter, imperialist, royalist, little England middle earthers and bandwagon types – have finally recognised this has resulted in their current place as a footballing irrelevance on the international stage.
For once perception, reason and reality are aligned. It used to be that the World Cup Finals is where you’d witness the greatest concentration of talent. That premise alone gripped you. Because it only happened every four years over a period of six weeks heightened the importance for the players, supporters and the countries participating. It was though a solar eclipse was occurring, and so you didn’t want to miss it. It filled the usual void of a summer sans football. The prospect of a nation’s success, and how the highs and lows of its narrative affected you, was enticing, as it allowed for an outpouring of benign nationalism. There was no reason to feel queasy, or be ashamed at getting pished because your country won a football tournament, or, in Scotland’s case, just won a match.
We know now that international football owed its historical status to archaic club football rules; the European Cup being limited to just the champions of each country, fairer distribution of wealth (and less of it) and a limit on foreign players per team. Now a progressive conflation of lifting the restrictions on the number of foreign players per team (rightfully), added to a boom in television money, the arrival of oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds into club ownership has allowed the biggest clubs to stockpile the world’s best talent.
This and Champions League expansion has rendered many of international football’s previous appeals, mostly based on rarity and exclusivity of quality, as irrelevant or as wholly inferior. Not only has it supplanted its quality, but the narrative flow of the Champions League is ubiquitous, unchecked, running throughout the year, every year.
For international football to compete with the Champions League it must evolve and find ways to become more like it. The proposed expansion to a forty-eight team World Cup in 2026 is not a solution, only a cynical money making enterprise, and further devalues and dilutes international football’s appeal. In this day and age people have choices, waiting every four years for a bloated competition, and in-between be subjected to fragmented, drab and elongated qualifying campaigns and redundant friendlies, doesn’t work.
And so a suggestion – have the World Cup every two years instead four, that means more competitive matches against better opponents. While national teams will always be restricted to picking players from their nation, too often national teams play without synergy or verve that repetition and meaningfulness encourages. Perhaps we’d see World Cup knock-out matches played with more fluency, unburdened by its form of cruelly unique failure: a crushingly catastrophic double whammy of having to wait four years to get another chance (if they get one at all) and letting their country down.
Hopefully my indifference to Russia 2018 will dissipate, and when the knockout stages commence intrigue will have superseded it. But that I feel that way about it is telling – the World Cup finals can no longer live off its name and what we think it promises, it has to deliver on the pitch.