Luka Modric was one of the standout players at the 2022 World Cup. Alamy Stock Photo

Thrilling World Cup highlights the biggest difference between club and international football

The many surprise results in Qatar 2022 are in stark contrast to the consistently predictable outcomes elsewhere.

IN TERMS of pure quality, there is no doubt that the World Cup final is no longer the pinnacle of football.

These days, the latter stages of the Champions League are at a far greater standard.

The reason is money and the tendency of the best players in the world to be attracted to a select few elite clubs and congregate in an increasingly narrow sphere.

Yet the World Cup also feels special in a way the Champions League or any other club competition just isn’t.

While the increased prominence of satellite TV and social media means there is less of a capacity for surprises or under-the-radar/obscure players coming to the fore, it can still happen.

Even the most avid footballing connoisseur would have struggled to have named the majority of the Moroccan squad before the 2022 tournament began.

Yet the African side have improbably emerged as the fourth-best team in the competition, with several players suddenly becoming household names over the course of the past month.

And what the Moroccan story epitomises is that to thrive in international football, teams don’t necessarily need world-class players throughout the team and a wealth of experience at the top level.

This point tends to be proven regularly at tournaments — Wales reaching the semi-finals of the 2016 Euros or Denmark doing likewise at the same competition five years later are a couple of recent examples.

That is the primary difference between club and international football, as this World Cup has plainly illustrated time and again.

A successful international team rarely has 11 world-class players capable of playing at the best club teams in the world. Sometimes, three or four will do.

The winners, Argentina, had plenty of solid players, such as Tottenham’s Cristian Romero, Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister and Atletico Madrid’s Rodrigo De Paul.

But how many many of Lionel Scaloni’s squad would, for example, be good enough to regularly get into the Manchester City starting XI? Their main striker, Julián Álvarez, isn’t quite there yet.

Really, it is Lionel Messi who is the one genuine superstar with 10 others essentially serving to facilitate the 35-year-old sporting genius.

Messi won the Golden Ball and few people would dispute the decision to recognise him as the best player at the tournament after an impressive tally of seven goals and three assists.

There is even a case to be made that he is still the world’s best player, although Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe are catching up if they haven’t surpassed him already.

What Messi’s success also indicates is that international football is about individuals much more so than the system-oriented club game.

2015 was the last time he was part of a Champions League triumph, despite having better players around him at Barcelona and PSG compared to Argentina. Time and again, his teams have been outthought by brilliant managers like Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti imposing intelligent tactics.

The time coaches have with players in club football means there is scope for a level of tactical sophistication that international sides cannot match. The style in the latter instance consequently tends to be more basic and thus, more reliant on individual brilliance.

France, it could be argued, are an anomaly giving that the tremendous depth in their squad, but at this World Cup, certain top-class footballers have looked a little lost when removed from the comfort of the club environment where everything runs in such a coordinated, smooth and effortless manner — both Germany and Spain arguably struggled as a result of this dilemma because, on paper, they boasted two of the strongest teams in the tournament. Both, however, lacked a sense of spontaneity that the best teams possessed and seemed to simply panic when plan A was failing.

Looking past the two finalists, the two next-best-performing sides — Morocco and Croatia — also conceivably had a handful of world-class players (such as Luka Modric and Hakim Ziyech) coupled with a healthy number of workmanlike, adaptable, and consummate professionals.

So part of the reason why the World Cup has captured the imagination in the way club football seldom does is owing to its sheer unpredictability.

In contrast with the nonsense of the Champions League group stages (not to mention most of the top domestic leagues around Europe) where it too often feels like a formality and upsets are very rare, few if any people could have correctly guessed the four semi-finalists at this World Cup before the tournament began.

So for all its disgraceful off-field issues, in terms of on-field action, Qatar 2022 felt like a reminder of what football can and should be.

It doesn’t have to be a handful of elite teams dominating — if the club game is governed properly and financial fair play is enacted more rigorously, there would surely be a capacity for more World Cup-esque shocks and fewer instances of the elite teams dominating to the point where the competition in question feels almost redundant.

So the problem is fixable, but whether willpower exists to take action and create meaningful change is another matter.

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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