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World Cup 2014: Tired legs, fading glory

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2014 Vaibhav Vats

In his freewheeling autobiography El Diego, Maradona described the atmosphere before Argentina’s now legendary 1986 quarter-final against England: “This was revenge. It was like recovering a little bit of the Malvinas. In the pre-match interviews we had all said that football and politics shouldn’t be confused but that was a lie. We did nothing but think about that. Bollocks was it just another match!”

In the game that followed, Diego Maradona scored two goals: the first the most notorious and controversial goal of the 20th century, the second the most brilliant. Of course, Maradona wasn’t to know it then, but he was also participating in the last great world cup of the modern age.

Why have world cups declined? To answer this question, one may have to begin from the other end: Why were world cups so great?

The golden age of world cups lasted for 20 years, from 1966-86. Before World War II, the world cups were a fledgling and amateur affair. They remained so until about the early 1960s. Then, as domestic football grew more robust, the professionalization of the sport became complete. By 1966, football had acquired the competitive, Darwinian thrust that we associate with modern sport.

Brazil, who had breezed to victory in the world cups of 1958 and 1962, arrived in England to find a game transformed. Thus Eduardo Galeano wrote of the travails of Pelé in 1966: “Pelé was hunted down and kicked with impunity by Bulgaria and Portugal, who knocked Brazil out of the championship.”

A critical element in why world cups became such rousing and impassioned events was that most international footballers played domestic football in their own countries. International football was not merely an attritional battle between nations, the sort of competitive patriotism it has been reduced to today. It was far more gripping because it was a clash of rival footballing philosophies and cultures; it condensed in one place the many ways the world interpreted football.

The best instance of this came in 1974 when two club sides lorded over the game: the free-flowing Total Football of Ajax Amsterdam and the dour, but effective, industriousness of Bayern Munich. Ajax had won three European cups (what later became the Uefa Champions League) in a row from 1971-73, and the Bavarian club followed with its own hat-trick of titles from 1974.

The two dominant strains of club football clashed in the world cup final of 1974, when Holland faced Germany.

German pragmatism proved resilient for the second time, after they had similarly stymied the great Hungarian side led by Ferenc Puskas 20 years previously, and the defining image of the final remains that of a desolate Johan Cruyff lost among the celebrating Germans.

A trend began to gather force towards the end of that decade and by the 1990s, would reshape international football forever. The big European clubs, taking advantage of their financial dominance, began to scour for talent across the world.

Uruguay may miss the services of their best player—Luiz Suarez injured himself during an exhausting season with English club Liverpool. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Attracted by exponentially bigger pay packets, an exodus of players followed, especially from Latin America. This globalization of football is encapsulated best in the different journeys of that continent’s two greatest players: Pelé and Maradona. While Pelé spent his entire footballing career with his hometown club Santos (only coming out of retirement to play for the New York Cosmos in the autumn of his career), Maradona left Argentina to play for Barcelona at the age of 22 and spent his best years in Europe.

The dominance of big European clubs changed the landscape of club football, and consequently, international football. It led to an excessive centralization of talent, which means that the big European clubs today are mostly superior to international teams. The inevitable consequence of this is that the most feisty, thrilling and high-quality contests take place not in international football, but between elite club sides in the Champions League. If Bayern Munich or Real Madrid were allowed to participate, they would probably win the world cup.

Few games in the world cup are likely to rival the intensity of the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid at the end of May. “Madrid united and divided by final,” The Guardian proclaimed ahead of the game at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, describing the chasm between rich, pro-establishment Real and dogged, working class Atlético.

In the final, Atlético were two minutes away from fashioning one of the greatest fairy tales of modern sport, before a stoppage-time equalizer from Real extended the game into extra time. Real Madrid went on to win, fulfilling the club’s obsession for the Decima, a 10th European cup. In the open-top bus celebrations that followed, Iker Casillas, who captained Spain to the 2010 World Cup, declared, “This is probably bigger than winning the world cup.”

Yet the final, played between neighbouring clubs, was hardly a parochial affair. In addition to Spain, the game featured players from nearly all the major footballing nations: Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, Croatia, Uruguay, Germany, France and Portugal—venue of the final and home to Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s biggest star.

Clubs have become global monoliths, with a worldwide fan base and the fortunes of a country’s domestic football, and its national team, unlike in the 1960s and the 1970s, have been almost entirely delinked (Barcelona and Spain being the rare exception).

Two examples suffice: In 2008, when Manchester United won the Champions League, England could not even qualify for the European Championships.

Similarly, when Internazionale triumphed in the Champions League in 2010, Italy were humiliated in the world cup a month later. The latter was not particularly surprising, because the team from Milan barely had any Italian players, and did not play a single Italian in the Champions League final.

The big European clubs, on the whole, have become much more powerful than national teams, and they have used this power to cannibalize the football calendar. Earlier, the national teams would congregate a month—usually more—before the world cup; it was critical in forging camaraderie and tactical sophistication.

For many years now, the gap between the end of the club season and the world cup has been barely three weeks. This year, the Champions League final ended on 24 May and the world cup begins on 12 June—a gap of just 18 days.

It is not surprising then that world cups of the present day fare poorly in comparison with those 30-40 years ago; a big grouse in recent editions has been that players arrive tired and jaded. And, despite an avalanche of commercial hype, the passion of previous world cups has been replaced by an atmosphere of something ceremonial, ritual and altogether more banal.

In the world cups of the past two decades, there are almost no equivalents of games such as the hair-raising semi-final of 1970, played between Germany and Italy and later dubbed as the “Game of the Century”. The semi-final featured a young Franz Beckenbauer who dislocated his shoulder but continued nevertheless, carrying his arm in a sling. The match ended with five goals in extra time, with Italy winning 4-3.

Or consider the seminal 1982 encounter between Brazil and Italy. A dream midfield of Socrates, Zico, Éder and Falcão was felled by Brazil’s own refusal to settle for a draw, which would have been enough to see them through to the semi-final. The Brazilian side of 1982 is widely considered the greatest team never to win a world cup, and is still more revered than the world champions of 1994 and 2002. In a situation that is the complete opposite of today’s, 10 of Brazil’s starting 11 played for Brazilian clubs.

Today, the world cup remains relevant primarily as a great festival of football, a sweeping panorama of races, countries and continents that, every four years, reaffirms its claim as the world’s game. The romance of the world cup lies in its diversity, and it allows some of the lesser nations—such as North Korea in 2010—a share of the global spotlight. But let’s not pretend that it’s where the best football is played.

In 2010, as Internazionale prepared for the Champions League final, their manager Jose Mourinho called it “the most important game in the world”. “It is even bigger than the world cup,” Mourinho said, “because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can’t buy the best players.”

Four years later, Mourinho is still correct.

Vaibhav Vats is a writer based in New Delhi.

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