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‘FIFA World Cup no longer the biggest prize in world football’

Yes, the FIFA World Cup throws up the odd upset and a clash between top nations but it is also a tournament where the best don’t always play and coaches get little time with teams leading to a dip in quality

football Updated: Jun 10, 2018 17:23 IST
John Gregory
John Gregory
FIFA World Cup 2018,World Cup 2018,Pele
2018 FIFA World Cup will be the 20th edition of the event.(AFP)

Every four years the phrase ‘football fever’ is often used once the Fifa World Cup starts. I am sure it is a term widely used in India as well. However, is it still the biggest prize in world football? Perhaps not.

Without sounding old and saying ‘used to be better in my day’, it’s evident now that playing in the World Cup is no longer the Holy Grail for a top professional footballer. Instead, a big contract at one of the many super clubs around Europe and perhaps winning the Champions League is considered to be the pinnacle.

Also, the best players in the world don’t necessarily play in the World Cup. Back when I was developing as a player someone as talented as George Best never got to play the World Cup (He was 36 by the time Northern Ireland qualified for the 1982 World Cup). For years, Ryan Giggs (Wales) was limited being a spectator to the spectacle and now his compatriot Gareth Bale, perhaps the scorer of the greatest goal in a Champions League final, will suffer the same fate as unlike the European Championships the World Cup hasn’t yet expanded, thus making qualification difficult for the Welsh.

Two or three decades ago, the World Cup used to be a platform for non-Europeans in particular to announce themselves and get spotted by the top European clubs. Whereas today, there is such a huge migration of non-Europeans to European leagues that the exposure of the World Cup is not as essential.

Pele needed it, Neymar didn’t

Nowadays talented players get scouted and spotted in their early teens as football clubs jostle for the best from all around the world. The competition for securing the signature of such hidden gems is as fierce as for a proven worldclass player. The legendary Pele needed the 1958 World Cup to announce his arrival whereas Neymar was already a superstar even before the 2014 edition in his home country.

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I am not one of those who would constantly question the commitment levels of a modern day footballer compared to the professionals of my time but, perhaps with good reason, the desire of most current footballers playing in the World Cup won’t be as great as when they represent their clubs. It’s true that the great Lionel Messi has said that he would happily swap all his honours with Barca at club level for one World Cup success with Argentina but there are also cases of players refusing to play for their national team until bonuses are cleared; like in 2014 when a plane full of cash had to be sent to get the Ghana players interested again.

One also wonders how much was the Brazilian team hurt after losing 1-7 to Germany at home in the semis four years ago as most of them were already multi-millionaires because of what they earned at club level and, on a daily basis, plied their trade far away from South America.

Bigger challenge for coaches

I can imagine how difficult it has become for national team coaches as well. Yes, one could argue that it is a more relaxed environment compared to a coach at club level as the daily pressure isn’t there but, trust me, when you can’t even get a group of 20 players fit and committed together for a session, it is as good as not having a job.

Naturally, it becomes very hard to get the same collectiveness both on and off the field. The players are technically not yours as their salaries are paid by clubs. So, to get the players to do exactly as you want creates its own problems. Coaches don’t get much time to practice tactics, system, positions etc. As a result, the quality of the tournament dips drastically with the teams lacking cohesion and drab affairs become a common theme.

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This challenge obviously has been there in the past as well but it has got more and more difficult nowadays because the super European clubs now control the world game and, to be more precise in this case, the national federations.

With so much money from television now, there is too much at stake for clubs and hence they push their top players to the limit to overcome the relentless pain barriers. This often results in mysterious pull outs during international breaks even though the same player might be seen in action for his club at the very first weekend after that. Very clearly, the clubs dictate to the national teams now. Back in my day and maybe even till the late 90s, it used to be the other way round.

The importance of international breaks for a national team coach cannot be overstated. It is his only chance to work on something and get some sort of continuity. Unfortunately, clubs and even players now often make a mockery of such breaks, choosing to play or train at their discretion. It can therefore be argued that teams go into a World Cup underprepared, something which will never be tolerated at club football where the accountability of players goes beyond national pride.

What’s in it for the viewer?

I think most importantly as a viewer, the quality seen week in week out in the top European leagues is far superior to the World Cup. A modern day football fan almost everywhere in the world now has access to quality football on television nearly every week. Whereas even 20 years ago, a World Cup every four years would be the only chance for a football fan to watch some of the best players in the world. In England, the FA Cup final used to be like that. In a calendar year it was the only game LIVE on television and hence it used to be an occasion that every football fan would look forward to. From purely a viewer perspective, the World Cup and FA Cup final have suffered similar fates.

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This is not to suggest that the World Cup has become unwatchable. Speaking for myself, I will certainly try and watch as many games as possible, with special backing for the Three Lions led by Harry Kane. The odd upset, clashes between two giant nations and ultimately the final showpiece game will always make the Fifa World Cup a global event. But it is no longer the marquee event in the football calendar, not even once in four years.

(John Gregory is the current head coach of reigning Indian Super League champions Chennaiyin FC. He recently received an LMA Special Achievement Award for becoming the first Englishman to win the ISL.)

First Published: Jun 10, 2018 17:23 IST