Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


World Cup Week

world-cup-nails

(Photo: quickpic/Flickr)

The End of the World Cup as We Know It

• June 10, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: quickpic/Flickr)

Club soccer has surpassed the international version of the sport in just about every way: better pay, better players, better teams. And yet, come Thursday, the world will still be watching.

My first experience of the World Cup—at least as a marginally intellectually-competent ectoplasm—came in 1978. An English kid obsessed with soccer, the thrill of that World Cup, held in Argentina, will never be matched. To hear once again the BBC theme music takes me back to my nearly 10-year-old self, allowed to stay up past 8:45 by dad to watch a final group game between Scotland and the Netherlands. (England hadn’t made the World Cup that time around). We—me, my elder brother, Dad—assumed our usual football-watching positions, laying like dead fish on the living room floor, peering up uncomfortably at the small TV, perched as it was on some wobbly high table. Up on our elbows we held our chins in our hands, rapt, Dad making every pass, taking every shot, his foot jerking up and down on the nasty brown shag carpeting. If I’ve ever been happier than that night, I forget.

Scotland-Holland was a classic game made unforgettable by Archie Gemmill’s mazy solo goal in the second half. “This hard little professional,” in the words of British commentator David Coleman, picked up the ball at the right corner of the box, beat three despairing Dutch tackles, and dinked the ball over the on-rushing keeper. Back in Britain, those three English fans leapt up from the floor and danced around like happy salmon. Scotland had to win by three goals to advance to the next round, and this goal made it 3-1. There was a chance … but by 10:30 Scotland were out. (The game had ended 3-2.) The Tartan Army came home proud but defeated, like James IV’s forces after the Battle of Flodden Field.

And then the rest of the 1978 World Cup continued, and we lay entranced, especially by the play of the silky, muscular Argentine side. Their names still rattle around my head: Mario Kempes, Daniel Passarella, Alberto Tarantini, Daniel Bertoni, Osvaldo Ardilles, and Leopoldo Luque. (My brother still sometimes calls me Luque in honor of the great center forward.) The final was a magical event, punctuated by reams of ticker tape raining down on two of the finest sides ever assembled. Facing Argentina on home soil was another silky, muscular side, the Scot-vanquishing Netherlands, with the van de Kerkhof twins and Neeskens anchoring a midfield behind legends Rep and Rensenbrink up front. The compelling game went to extra time where Argentina scored twice to win the World Cup at home.

Quickly, the trickle of foreign talent moving around became a torrent, leading to the game being unrecognizable from the one we watched in 1978.

The point, though, was that I’d never seen most of these players actually play the game. True, even then some players left their countries to play elsewhere, but domestic leagues around the world were mainly peopled by players from home. The Division One champions in England in 1978, Nottingham Forest, featured a squad of five Scots and the rest English. So seeing Mario Kempes jink his way through a Dutch defense featuring Ernie Brandts and Ruud Krol was the height of exotic. We simply never saw these geniuses on a field unless the World Cup came around. The world was smaller; globalization was years away; TV coverage of football was extremely limited; Dad was alive.

But the 1978 World Cup was a watershed moment. Right after that tournament, three of Argentina’s starting 11 left to play in Europe (Tarantini and Ardilles for Birmingham City and Tottenham Hotspur in England, and Bertoni for Sevilla in Spain). Quickly, the trickle of foreign talent moving around became a torrent, leading to the game being unrecognizable from the one we watched in 1978. The globalization of football via the free movement of its top stars has since killed one of the crucial aspects of watching World Cups years ago: the elements of discovery and surprise.

FAST FORWARD TO THE 2014 World Cup and the English Premier League that has just finished. Manchester City, which just won that competition, has a squad featuring 29 first team players, just five of whom are English (and only two of whom—James Milner and Joe Hart—regularly played). The stars of this championship-winning side will all feature in the coming World Cup: David Silva for Spain, Yaya Toure for the Ivory Coast, Edin Dzeko for Bosnia and Herzigovina, Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta for Argentina, Fernandhino for Brazil, and Vincent Kompany for Belgium. (Plus Joe Hart, and—sadly—James Milner for England.) So to a fan of the English Premier League or of the Champions League (or the Copa Libertadores in South America), there’s nothing new to see here. And it’s not just Manchester City who will send most of their team to the World Cup. Much of Spain’s squad (the current World Cup holders), hails from either Real Madrid or Barcelona—and at one point a couple of years ago, it seemed like “Spain” was merely a Lionel Messi-less Barcelona. The Bayern Munich team who lost to Real Madrid in the European Champions League semi-finals in 2014 will send most of their team to the World Cup, too. Even the 23-man Brazil squad features just four home-based players—Victor, Jefferson, Jo, and Fred—while the rest play in Europe.

The real power in the modern game is now with the clubs. Back in 1978, and before then, to pull on a national team jersey was the pinnacle of a player’s career, but as with most things, power goes where the money is. The riches available for a team appearing in the Champions League, for example, make one’s head swoon. Teams that reach merely the group stages get to share a pot made up of prize money and TV fees estimated to be the equivalent of around one and a quarter billion dollars, and it’s only getting bigger. World Cup prize money, in comparison, will total just over $358 million in 2014 (though the total money available, including appearance fees, is over half a billion).

On the playing side, many guys turning out for their national teams donate their “fee” to charity, so paltry is it compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars per week they get paid to play for their club sides. (Admittedly, for some fringe American players, World Cup bonuses provide a nice income boost.) And clubs themselves long since stopped viewing a player being picked for his national team as a point of pride—in fact, many managers are loathe to release their top players to appear in exhibition matches. After winning the Champions League with Real Madrid this year, Iker Casillas, who is also the keeper for Spain, called the victory more important than the World Cup. And Mexico’s best player, Carlos Vela, who played in the Champions League this past season, went as far as refusing a spot on El Tri’s World Cup roster (and has refused to play for Mexico since 2011).

Players now do their best work in their club shirts, not in the national team colors. If I want to watch great games featuring all of the world’s stars, then I can do no worse than watch the four quarterfinal games of this year’s competition. I got to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao (Portugal), Neymar and Oscar (Brazil), Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Toni Kroos (Germany), Eden Hazard (Belgium), and Wayne Rooney (England). I got to see Lionel Messi (Argentina). The games were vibrant, exciting, edge-of-the-seaters, filled with great goals and fueled by guys who’d played together for months and months. Meanwhile, national teams only play together a few times a year. The top stars know who pays their astronomical wages, and it ain’t their national team associations.

And then there are the players one doesn’t get to see in the World Cup, of which there are three main categories: players for countries who didn’t qualify; players for countries who will never qualify; and players who don’t get picked by their countries for some (usually petty, personal) reason. In the first category, the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, won’t be in Brazil because he plays for Wales, and they’re unlikely to ever qualify for a World Cup. (It’s the reason the great Welshman Ryan Giggs never graced the tournament, nor Northern Ireland’s Georgie Best before him.) In the category of “didn’t quite qualify” languishes Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the mesmeric Paris Saint-Germain forward, whose Swedish team was knocked out by Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in a two-game playoff. That playoff was actually depressing for fans of skillful attacking football—we knew it was either Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic who’d spend his summer with his brilliant feet up. Ibrahimovic, employing his usual modesty—his just-released autobiography is titled I Am Zlatan—commented that “the World Cup is nothing without me,” and he’s right. In the final category—players whose countries qualified but who remained unpicked by their coaches—sits Argentina’s Carlos Tevez (doesn’t get along with the coach), France’s Samir Nasri (ditto), and USA’s Landon Donovan, to name just three.

BUT WHO AM I kidding? I still plan to watch every single second of every game. We’ll watch it, because we’ve always watched it, and because it’s the World Cup. The World Cup isn’t going anywhere—it’s still the global focus for football, and few other events would see billions of people gathering around balky TV sets to scream and sing and curse. But here’s a modest proposal to finish, one which might add a wild card element to loan the tournament fresh legs: Let’s add an international team to the next World Cup, picked by a top coach (I nominate retired genius Sir Alex Ferguson). The team would be called Nations United, and would be made up of players from various countries—ones who didn’t get picked, will never qualify, or just missed out. If, like me, you’re not much of a tub-thumping patriot (note the English boy celebrating a Scottish goal as far back as 1978), this team might be one to get behind. Had it been in place this year, the side could have featured Peter Cech (Czech Republic, didn’t qualify) in goal; a back four of Branislav Ivanovic (Serbia, ditto), Marquinhos, Filipe Luis, and Joao Miranda (Brazil, unpicked); a midfield of Michael Carrick (England, unpicked), Francesco Totti (Italy, ditto), Samir Nasri (France, ditto), and Gareth Bale (Wales, won’t ever qualify); with Carlos Tevez (Argentina, unpicked) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden, didn’t qualify) up front. (Sorry, Landon, it’s time for youth so I’m siding with Jurgen Klinsmann—though at least you display more class than Klinsmann’s son.) That team could win the World Cup, or it could flame and burn in a fire of egos and unfamiliar talent. Either way, like a mind-bending goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it might bring us once again to our feet.

Luke Dempsey
Luke Dempsey is the author of the forthcoming book, Club Soccer 101, which publishes in September. Follow him on Twitter @clubsoccer101.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.