The Changing Football Map

Tomorrow, FIFA will decide which country will host the 2018 World Cup.  For good measure, FIFA will also decide the 2022 World Cup host too.  Like everything out of FIFA, the World Cup selection process is secretive, lacking oversight, devoid of accountability, and probably corrupt.

The 2018 edition will be going back to Europe, and why not?  Europe has not hosted the World Cup since 2006.  How can the continent possibly survive without the tournament for a full 12 years?*  Europe and FIFA successfully drove out all competitors once Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, made it clear that he wanted the 2018 tournament to be in Europe.  The finalists for 2018 are Russia, England, a joint bid by Spain and Portugal and a joint bid by the Netherlands and Belgium.  Russia is the bookmakers’ favorite with Spain/Portugal a close second.  England has fallen to a distant third because of the English press (which, horrors!, exposed FIFA corruption.)  The Netherlands/Belgium bid has no chance because (1) they did not play FIFA’s corruption game, and (2) the tournament would be far too socially conscious for FIFA to handle.  FIFA wants a legacy damn it, not the greenest tournament ever.  Besides, Russia has oil money.

Mercifully, the 2022 tournament will not be held in Europe.  The contenders are the United States, Australia, Qatar, South Korea, and Japan.  The United States and Australia are the frontrunners.  Both will give a great tournament; both have the stadia, the money, and the infrastructure.  Both also have a public that FIFA wants to win over (football in both countries refers to different and far more popular sports among the home crowds.)  Australia has some advantages: (1) Oceania has never hosted the World Cup while the United States hosted in 1994; and (2) the United States will not give FIFA carte blanche to do what it wants (Sepp Blatter even tried to convince Barack Obama to urge MLS to follow the international calendar–an ironic move coming from FIFA which wants all government out of football oversight.)  However, the United States is still the United States: it is rich, it could host the tournament tomorrow if need be, the crowds will be massive, and the tournament it hosts tomorrow will be spectacular from an organizational point of view.  Also, a United States tournament will be more convenient for European television audiences than an Australia tournament.  Qatar is the favorite according to the gambling in London, but it just seems so unlikely that a small state in Persian Gulf would get the tournament even with all the oil money involved.  The heat of the Middle East would present problems for players and fans alike.  Also, to the rest of the world it would look like FIFA was bought and sold.**

Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 edition and are desperate to get away from one another.  They did not want a joint bid last time, but were basically told  by FIFA it would be the only way to get the World Cup.  The South Koreans and the Japanese have a healthy hatred for each other (stemming, like so many things, from World War II and the Japanese refusal to recognize their war atrocities toward the South Koreas), and they are very big rivals in pretty much everything, sport and beyond.  South Korea virtually has no chance and Japan has only a slightly better one.   All three Asian countries will have absolutely no chance if China decides it wants to enter (win) the competition for the 2026 Olympics. China however, has said very little.

The impending announcement of the 2018 and 2026 World Cups is a good time to reflect on how the focus of power in football has shifted and will continue to shift.  Thursday’s announcements will most likely confirm that the old guard (i.e. Western Europe) has been swept aside in favor of football’s nouveau riche.

Football originated in Britain.  A lot of revisionist history says ancient China or the Aztecs, or the Romans, or some other ancient civilization.  But the sport we know as football (and also rugby, and American football, and probably Australian rules football and Gaelic football) originated in England.  The rules of Association Football*** were formalized in England in 1863 and spread to the rest of the United Kingdom (hence called the “Home Nations.”)  The first international football match took place in 1872 between England and Scotland (a 0-0 draw).  Through British citizens living abroad, football spread to the rest of the world.   For decades, the Home Nations (meaning England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were not so strong) were the top footballing nations, but the rest of the world caught up to the Home Nations without them noticing.  The Home Nations did much to help this along.  The English especially patronized the rest of the world with their arrogance and belief that football was their birthright, to the rest of the world’s annoyance.  This arrogance continues today, despite England’s utter failure to win anything since 1966.  England did not immediately join FIFA and then left in 1928 until 1946.  Therefore, England did not attend a World Cup until 1950, and Scotland first attended in 1954.  By 1950, the world had undeniably passed them by.  On November 25, 1953, after the great Hungarian Golden Team demolished England at Wembly and beat them even worse in Budapest, the English finally, reluctantly, figured it out.  Even today, the English hatred of Germany in football is less a reaction to World War II than to the fact that Germany always wins when it matters.  (Even more galling, the Germans think the Dutch are more their rivals, and the English are afterthought.)

Had the English (and Scottish) been paying attention, they would have seen that the world surpassed them as far back as the first World Cup.  At the 1924 and 1928 Olympics the Uruguayans dominated the Europeans (sans Great Britain, which withdrew.)  In 1930, the Uruguayans dominated again on home soil.  Although Uruguay was the first great South American team, its two far larger neighbors Argentina and Brazil soon surpassed it.  Decades later, Uruguay is an also-ran in South America who fights to qualify for the World Cup.  The 2010 World Cup brought Uruguay back into prominence: Uruguay finished 4th, the most successful of all the South American teams.  Uruguay, particularly Diego Forlan, were great fun to watch; whether you loved them or hated them, you must admit they produced some of the most entertaining matches in a largely dull tournament.  While one hopes that this is a new dawn for Uruguay, the truth is that Uruguay were blessed with an easy draw throughout the tournament.  Under different circumstances, would Uruguay have done as well?  I cannot say, although I suspect probably not.

In Central Europe. the great Austrian Wunderteam of the early 1930’s vied with Italy, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.  Each of these teams (except for Switzerland) had their moments in the sun.  Totalitarianism, or the end of totalitarianism ruined many of these teams: Austria was absorbed by Germany in the Anschluss in 1938.  When the two countries separated, Austria was never the same.  Hungary’s Golden Team of 1952-54 disbanded after the Hungarian uprising–many team members left their country (some, ironically, for Franco’s Spain.)  Hungary was never the same.  Yugoslavia exploded into civil war and terror.  Croatia has had spectacularly mixed results–either reaching the latter rounds of major tournaments or failing to qualify for them entirely.  Serbia has made the last two World Cups, but finished bottom of their group both times.  The other former Yugoslav republics have fared either the same or worse (Slovenia, the smallest nation population-wise in the 2010 World Cup, did a spectacular job eliminating Russia to qualify, but faltered in the group stages.) The two nations that were formerly Czechoslovakia have had similar mediocre records.  Only Germany and Italy have maintained consistent success.

In the 80 years since the first World Cup, only eight times have won: Uruguay, Italy, (West) Germany, Brazil, England, Argentina, France, and Spain.  Uruguay and England are no longer contenders (despite what the English fans and the English media think.)  At some point in the not-so-distant future Italy will may fall by the wayside, especially as the best teams in Serie A are made up of mostly foreign players.  Only time will tell.  Argentina is at a crisis point: they have not won an international tournament since 1993 despite waves of talented players.  The last time Argentina reached a World Cup final was 1990 (they lost).  Now they have the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi.  If not now, when?

It is unthinkable that only five teams (Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, and maybe Italy) are capable of winning the World Cup.  New nations have to take their place at some point.  The great Tim Vickery has said on numerous occasions that only Colombia has the population in South America to join Argentina and Brazil on the world stage.  Colombia however, has yet to pull itself together, and a great Colombian team is nowhere on the horizon despite a proud heritage.  It seems inevitable that Russia and Turkey, two nations with crazed football followings and plenty of resources, will join the European elite.  Yet after both did well at the 2008 European championships, they faltered in World Cup qualification.  This is not the first time.  The Netherlands alone is the one country that has not won the World Cup that creates talented players and consistently good national teams.  They deserve a World Cup victory sheerly for that.  However, their continued success depends on the financial stability of the club sides’ youth academies and the ability of once storied clubs to sell their rising stars.  In other words, the Netherlands is extremely dependent on a good financial market.

African teams are consistent disappointments.  They have neither the infrastructure nor apparently the competency to create good teams.  The players, unsurprisingly, appear to have more loyalty to the clubs that treat them well than to the national associations that exploit them.  Every once in a while there is a Cameroon, or a Senegal, or a Ghana who rise to the World Cup quarterfinals, but who cannot put it together.  On home soil, the African teams fell hardest.  South Africa alone has the ability to push through to the next level, but as 2010 showed, that is a very long road ahead.  While Africa has produced exceptionally talented players, it has yet to produce a star on the world stage.  Africa’s greatest player ever, the Mozambique-born Eusebio, played for Portugal.  (Like France, Portugal’s national football team benefits from colonialism and immigration.  In a Portugal side, it is not altogether rare to see a player who is too good for his native African side or not good enough to play for Brazil.)

Mexico, like the African teams, can never step up to the biggest stage when it matters most.  A Mexican self-destruction is par for the course.  One bad decision, like in this year’s World Cup match against Argentina and the house of cards falls apart.  If any national team needs a sports psychologist, it is Mexico.

Then there are countries that should be competing for World Cups titles but are not: the United States, Australia, India, China, South Korea, and Japan.  Some are easy to figure out why.  Indians barely notice football, they prefer cricket and field hockey.  The I-League is a relatively recent (but growing) phenomenon.  China’s football federation is so corrupt that it has set back the men’s team 20 years and practically eviscerated the women’s team.  Australia and the United States, like India, prefer other sports.  Unlike in India, football has established a toehold in Australia and the United States as a niche sport.  Both are years away from good results though.  It will come for Australia but slowly.  The Australians need the World Cup to speed up the process.  The United States has simply failed thus far: the United States Soccer Federation has been unable to push football into minority communities, which is shocking especially given the large Latino population in the United States.  This lack of successful outreach is harmful for long term prospects for an American team and a national league that is more than fringe.  Japan and South Korea, I think they will always be strong in Asia.  I cannot see them pushing through yet.  Both performed well at the 2010 World Cup, but not nearly well enough.  South Korea’s run to the 2002 semifinals was dubious to say the least.

Until then, the ancien regime will dominate the World Cup.  The football map has changed, but not in the way one might hope.  The faces are still the same, but there are fewer of them.

Footnotes:

*In contrast, South America–the other continent from which a winning national team could come from–last held the World Cup in 1978.  Providing everything goes okay (a major if) the next tournament to be held in South America will be the 2014 edition.  Therefore, South America has not hosted the tournament for 36 years.  Part of this is Colombia’s fault.  They were supposed to get it in 1986, but Colombia in 1986 was not a good host.  As a result the tournament went to Mexico.  Since 1978, the following continents have hosted the tournament: South American (1978); Europe (1982); North America (1986); Europe (1990); North America (1994); Europe (1998); Asia (2002); Europe (2006); Africa (2010); South America (2014); Europe (2018); Not Europe (2022).  Europe also hosted the tournament in 1934, 1938, 1954, 1958, 1966, and 1974.  By 2022, Europe will have hosted 11 of the 22 World Cups.  Remember that the next time Europeans complain about Americans hogging the world’s spotlight.

** Not that appearances matter.  Another problem that no one I know has spoken about is what would happen if Israel qualifies?  Has the Qatari government given assurances that Israeli players and fans could enter the country?  There have been problems in the past with Gulf States and Israeli tennis players.

*** Dear fellow Americans, if a British person ever makes fun of you for calling the sport soccer instead of football, please remind them that soccer is British slang for “asSOCiation football.”  The game was called soccer because Association Football was too clunky a name, and it needed to be distinguished from Rugby Football (“rugger”), which separated into a distinct sport after the Football Association created the Laws of the Game.

Music I listened to while writing this post: Podcasts again, mostly football related.

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