Arsenal cruised to a 3-0 win over Dundalk in their Europa League clash to sit at the top of their group with two wins from two games.
It is human nature to lament the passing of time, to feel more centred in the experiences of our formative years rather than what is going on in the world when we are older.
This seems to happen to everyone regarding the World Cup. The collective memory seems to always stop at Brazil losing to Paolo Rossi’s Italy, Harald Schumacher smashing Patrick Battiston, Diego Maradona sashaying through England’s defence, and no further forward.
I have a soft spot for France 1998 because it was the first World Cup I was old enough to commit to the early-morning risings. While I try to have perspective on life and accept the present moment for what it is, I am no different to what the TV show The Wire labels guys crying, “Back in the day” – my personal opinion is that there has not been a single classic World Cup match since Holland’s matches in 1998 against Argentina and Brazil.
It’s a harsh judgement, but I just don’t feel anything this century compares to your classic France vs Brazil 1986-type matches. Italy vs Germany 2006 was tense and meaningful. Germany vs Brazil 2014 was extraordinary. But they were not end-to-end slugfests. I’ll grant you Senegal vs Uruguay 2002 and Slovakia vs Italy 2010, but first-round matches don’t really count.
I still love current-day football, although it has all now been condensed into only two schools: Spain and Germany. On the club scene the three flagship clubs from these two countries have taken the last six Champions League titles. There are allegations that this dominance has not always been above the level either.
This decade Italy and Holland are no longer providing a counterpoint to those two powers. Holland don’t circulate the ball anymore or have any of the dreamy traits detailed in the 2000 book Brilliant Orange. Italy no longer have their iron will and star power of the 1990s. Of course neither has qualified for Russia 2018 to try proving me wrong.
On the South American front ever-increasing economic disparity and globalisation and freedom of movement for South American players have turned the annual Club World Cup final from a 55-45 sort of showdown to a certain victory for the European representative. European nations have also won the last three world cups, including 2014 in South America, once an impossibility.
I controversially argue that Argentina have been off the boil for ten years, Messi notwithstanding. Chile were a ‘school’ of evenly balanced mates who played with a philosophy – very rare at international level these days, but they aged and didn’t reach Russia.
Even Brazil have been up and down since the Ronaldo days. I do trust Brazil to be good this time – they finally seem to have a decent manager in Tite and seem to have given the Selecao over to players of youth, form and pace rather than playing old coach’s favourites, something all international teams should be doing.
As a counterpoint to this uniformity, international football is the last bastion away from the extraordinary individual dominance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo over the course of the last 11 seasons.
I remember the media panicking in 2009 because both Portugal and Argentina were struggling to qualify for South Africa 2010. History repeated in 2017, both countries needed last-day victories for qualification. God forbid a World Cup actually includes stories other than Messi and Ronaldo, who in 2010 were into roughly the third year of their unprecedented decade-plus dominance of the sport.
In the event both did get to South Africa but were nondescript. It didn’t matter, because there were other stories – depth of team balance in Spain, Germany and Uruguay came to the fore, and special individuality was provided by Diego Forlan and Arjen Robben.
Brazil 2014 was the last and maybe only time Cristiano Ronaldo was not a conversation piece in the world of football. Since 2016, however, he has won all four possible major international trophies with Portugal and Real Madrid. The World Cup, a scene on which CR7 has generally struggled – with only three career World Cup goals; unthinkable – may yet give us a brief break from him. Generally, both Messi and Ronaldo have found international football heavy going throughout their careers.
Strange things are happening in the world of club football these years. The skill of team defence – in such a previously massively defensive sport – has been long forgotten.
One reason Italy shockingly missed qualifying for Russia is that the Azzurri are no longer able to cling on to lost situations for grim life anymore. These days when they are second best they simply lose, unlike, say, in the Euro 2000 semi-final in which Francesco Toldo saved three Dutch penalties, or the 2006 World Cup Final in which Cannavaro and co. held the line.
Michael Cox has argued, curiously, that huge and traditionally defensive clubs like Bayern Munich and Juventus are no longer ‘allowed’ to play defensive football as it would affect their brand name, international prestige and ultimately their bottom line as 21st century businesses.
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The current spirit of the game is a dream come true for anyone who likes to see things actually happen in a football match. I committed to the 4:45am Liverpool vs Roma wake-up at Anfield knowing full well that something was up. Sure enough, seven goals.
This has ultimately opened the door for Real Madrid’s perpetual domination of the Champions League, on top through sheer individuality, team cohesion now unnecessary. Previous superteams like Barcelona 2009-12, in my opinion a superior team, twice had to contend with Internazionale and Chelsea scratching and clawing for survival at Camp Nou, aligned in front of their own goal like a series of grim-faced Easter Island statues.
Besides Atletico Madrid, these sorts of teams no longer exist. With no defensive grit or know-how, there is no way to beat Real Madrid except by being better than them like Bayern were in the 2018 semi-final, and even that didn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong, attacking football is better than defensive football. This is a golden age of ball movement and goals. However, most countries at the World Cup will not be skilled enough to deliver this. Teammates won’t know each other well enough, their coaches will be too old school, they will all take the field scared.
A 48-team World Cup will only dilute the quality further.
This is the beginning of the end of a cycle. It was the 2010 choice of Russia (and especially Qatar) to stage these world cups in the first place that cottoned people on to FIFA being utterly devoid of scruples.
This whole decade of the 2010s FIFA has been on a long downward spiral. Since then we have had strong street protests in Brazil of all places against school and hospital money being blown on single-use stadiums both at World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro-hosted Olympic Games.
This Russian World Cup is the first one since the United States justice department brought the very public indictments against many of the high-profile FIFA executives in 2015. They were arrested and many were accompanied out of their Swiss hotel covered by a bedsheet. The scandal eventually finished the administrative careers of all-powerful FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini.
Writer Charles P. Pierce called it the worst scandal in sports history in that unlike the 1919 Black Sox or a scandal involving a few administrators off to the side, the entire FIFA organisation was found to be a criminal enterprise.
“It is incorrect to refer to FIFA as being ‘fraught’ with corruption or ‘riddled’ with crime,” Pierce wrote in June 2015. “FIFA is itself a corrupt act. FIFA is itself the crime. This is a staggering revelation.”
Since Blatter’s demise FIFA has lurched onward under Gianni Infantino, but the organisation continues to produce stupid idea after stupid idea. In 2026, possibly as early as 2022, the World Cup will convert from a 32 to a 48-team tournament.
This reduces the first round to a mockery, in which teams with one draw and one loss from two games are likely to qualify for Round 2 and each group’s final match of three is widely open to collusion and West Germany-Austria 1982-style fixes.
After Russia, there will be the highly impractical 2022 World Cup in Qatar. After that, the 48-team monsters. This, in a sense, is the last World Cup as we know it.
If you choose to write Russia off as a result and signpost of the dubiousness of modern football administration, then the previous World Cup, Brazil 2014, was the final one before the FIFA World Cup’s shark-jump.
The Russian bid was judged by FIFA’s technical assessment team before the vote to have logistical flaws that competitors Spain, Holland and England did not. That was immaterial come vote time.
But we can argue totalitarian regimes are the only ones who can handle hosting large-scale sporting tournaments these years, for the simple reason that the will of the people is ignored.
Democratic populations this decade have turned heavily against the public spending and gigantism of modern sporting events.
Ultimately I love the World Cup still. I will sit down night after night and enjoy the final World Cup while I still can. Come the 2020s watching it will be like watching 2000s episodes of The Simpsons.
Then my conversion into one of many crying, “Back in the day” over the World Cup will truly be complete.