The World Cup produces better “Moments” than actual quality play
DOHA, Qatar — One of the results of the 2022 World Cup is how close so many games were, especially in the knockout stages.
I don’t mean the result but the way the games actually unfolded on the pitch. I realize this is largely subjective and you may disagree, but you can certainly argue that only Argentina’s quarter-final and semi-final victories over the Netherlands and Croatia were one-sided (although the game against the Netherlands ended on penalties). The round of 16 was a little different (Brazil, Portugal, France and England all had fairly certain wins), but the point is made. Most of those games were contested and most hung in the balance until the very end.
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Why the big leveling? Partly it’s the one-game KO formula. The players are committed to the World Cup game in a way they wouldn’t, for example, on Day 7 of a 38-round club season with a Champions League clash midweek. Partly because there is no tomorrow, no “planned losses”, no chance to remedy, which often makes teams a little more conservative. And partly because the teams we see at the World Cup are not as good as those we see in the top domestic leagues.
It’s not just a question of talent (although in many cases there is), it’s a question of “team”. And it’s understandable. Club football at the highest level is a carefully assembled jigsaw puzzle designed to satisfy the whims and visions of an outstanding manager. It’s like giving the best chefs in the world the choice of ingredients they want and letting them get to work.
International football is more like grabbing a chef from a diner off the Autobahn and having him work with a bag of random ingredients: alongside the prize truffle, you might get moldy cheese or stale crackers.
Club football can create perfectly oiled machines. International football not so much… You tinker something together with the parts that are in your garage. And of course that’s done in no time at all – most World Cup coaches hardly had more than four or five training sessions before their first game.
There are bugs and there are warts. You will rarely flaunt sophisticated counter-pressing systems or perfectly calibrated playing patterns. Instead, by and large, you get teams that are cautious – not necessarily defensive, although some are, but generally more conservative as it’s a low-scoring sport and you can’t undo a goal – and you get what is best called “Moments”.
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These can be refereeing errors (although there weren’t many at this World Cup) or unintentional errors or breakdowns in defensive discipline. And sometimes they stem from individual brilliance, either creative or sporting genius, or the occasional average player who does something extraordinary and pulls it off. It’s probably no coincidence that the two finalists can boast Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi: two guys who can deliver those moments more than most.
Obviously, to some extent, the above also pertains to association football. But there it is often distributed. At the World Cup it will be compressed and put under pressure. And it often determines the results.
There are obviously many reasons why the World Cup is such a big deal. The four-yearly gathering of teams and fans from around the world attracts more attention than any other competition (a reason why FIFA’s projected revenue for 2022-2026 is almost double that at $11.5 billion). as the estimates for 2018–2022). It provides water cooler moments for the world based on past water cooler moments shared by previous generations. And of course, within a month you get the biggest stars in the world in one place (well, at least the biggest stars from the countries that actually qualify).
However, what makes the games themselves so compelling isn’t the quality or even entertainment. It’s the fact that teams are rarely dominated and there’s always hope – and sometimes probability – until the very end that a “moment” will decide the game. And the anticipation of those moments—even if they never come—keeps us hooked to the game.