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Is the World Cup still the biggest prize in football?

With the Premier League among other competitions more popular than ever, has the international game lost some of its allure?

World Cup (file pic).
World Cup (file pic).
Image: Tim Goode

IT IS NOT exactly easy to pinpoint why, but there is still something unique and enthralling about the World Cup — it offers viewers an experience no other prize in football can.

And yet watching the competition in the modern age is a significantly different experience compared with 30 years ago.

Back then, there was no Sky Sports. Wall-to-wall football coverage on TV felt like such a novelty, mainly because it was so fleeting.

In England especially, mired by hooliganism and various stadium disasters, the sport was a million miles away from the commercial beast it is today. Footballers, rather than being confident millionaires, rarely made spectacular money and in some cases didn’t want to even admit what they did for a living, such was the negative perception of the sport in the 1980s, as Tony Evans has recalled in his brilliant recent book ‘Two Tribes’ on the 1985-86 season.

But even amid this gloomy backdrop, there was something impossibly exotic and alluring about the World Cup.

In Russia this year, 31 of the 32 teams had at least one foreign-based player in the squad (England were the exception). By comparison, in the 1986 competition, nearly every squad was dominated by home-based footballers, and indeed, they often were exclusively made up of the individuals from the country’s own league.

Nowadays, the big five leagues have gathered up most of the best players in the world. The games for these competitions are far more accessible than they once were, with Spanish football shown on Sky Sports every week et cetera.

In 1994, of the Brazil team that won the competition, just 10 of their 22 players played football in Europe. Football Italia was only in its infancy and Spanish football was not widely accessible, so even high-profile stars like Romario, Bebeto and Aldair would not have been overly familiar to Irish audiences.

Fast forward to 2018, and earlier this week, we were faced with the possibility of a final featuring 20 or more Premier League players, had Belgium and England won their respective semis.

And even with France and Croatia, many of the key players involved will be recognisable to anyone who has even had a passing interest in the Premier League over the years. The brilliance of Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and to a lesser extent, Olivier Giroud, is no huge surprise to those who have been paying attention to the increasingly narrow world of elite football.

Granted, there are still countries, such as Panama, where none of the players are well known, but the prospect of a star emerging from nowhere to make a name for himself is far less likely than it once was.

Similarly, the competition was once portrayed as the pinnacle of football quality-wise, but it is surely no longer the case.

Many of the top footballing countries at this World Cup — Germany, Spain, Argentina, Brazil — have disappointed to varying degrees. They have exceptional players in their squad and strength in-depth to the point that they leave some hugely talented individuals (Leroy Sane, Mauro Icardi) at home.

However, football tactics have become so sophisticated now. When taking individuals out of their club environments and throwing them together with a collection of players who only meet up sporadically, the stars often struggle to adapt. They are seemingly unable to function to the maximum in these unfamiliar surroundings and in some cases, have to make do with vastly inferior team-mates to those they are accustomed to playing with on a more regular basis.

These problems also mean that teams with limited players but a coherent system can often punch significantly above their weight. Before this World Cup, in a hypothetical situation whereby a manager could choose to work with any squad at the tournament, Croatia might struggle to make it into anyone’s top-five selections.

Sweden v England - FIFA World Cup 2018 - Quarter Final - Samara Stadium Sweden managed to significantly punch above their weight at the World Cup despite a lack of big-name players. Source: Aaron Chown

Similarly, take a look at the Swedish squad. Their starting XI consisted of players from clubs such as Toulouse, Krasnodar, Hamburger SV and Bologna — sides well below the elite European level.

If you were to put that collection of players into the Premier League, how would they fare? At best, they would probably be a mid-table team. Switzerland, who made it to the round of 16, were heavily dependent on Xherdan Shaqiri, arguably their best attacking player who was relegated with Stoke this year and may only be a bit-part player at Liverpool next season.

Even the majority of managers at international level are not exactly the cream of the crop. Roberto Martinez, who guided Belgium to the semis, ultimately failed to make the grade at Everton. At least before the tournament, it is hard to think of any Premier League clubs who would be willing to hire Gareth Southgate, whose three-year stint in charge of Middlesbrough between 2006 and 2009 coincided with the club’s relegation to the Championship.

France boss Didier Deschamps’ fortunes at club level were also mixed (the good: getting Monaco to the Champions League final; the bad: lasting at Juventus for just a year and parting ways with Marseille after a disappointing 10th-place finish in Ligue 1).

And while Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has made some astute decisions at this World Cup and may continue to be a big success in years to come, he was hardly a household name until recently — before being appointed by the Croats in 2017, his last job was a three-year stint in charge of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates.

All of these factors lead to the inevitable conclusion that international football and the World Cup is no longer as illustrious as it once was. Whereas 20 years ago, players below the Premier League would struggle to get into the Irish squad, Championship footballers representing the Boys in Green is now more or less the norm.

The closest people will get to seeing the best players in the world in one place is by watching the Champions League latter stages rather than any major international tournament.

Nevertheless, despite all the aforementioned flaws, Russia 2018 has still felt more special than anything else in the beautiful game currently. Perhaps it is the FA Cup-esque underdog stories — largely unknown Tunisian players, for example, coming up against gilded Premier League millionaires. Perhaps it is the way it brings people together and countries to a standstill with one shared passion and unified purpose for a few short weeks. Or perhaps it is the sense that players are competing for something more than their pay cheque or to help them get a move to a bigger club — they are instead doing it for the pride of a nation, so that their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers can hold their heads high back home. But whatever it is and notwithstanding the increasing importance and popularity of club football, there is still nothing quite like the World Cup.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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