Cup of dreams: A world apart, yet our very own
The Fifa World Cup kicks off today amid enormous interest in the quadrennial championship. This is perhaps because of the game’s inherent simplicity. This truly is the Coupe de Monde — the Cup of the World
To the average fan, the regular football season can sometimes be a blur. There are a lot of club games being played around the world, and one tends to zero in on a league or two to follow. Then, you pick a team, and try to follow its matches religiously. In the course of following it, you pick up bits about other teams as well. One thing leads to another, and you find your own rhythm, your own narrative, your own group of fans, and perhaps fantasy league. Over the years, it becomes a habit. You just do it.
When the international breaks come along, most fans hope that “their” players don’t come back injured. So, you watch the games with a fair bit of reserve because most of the time, these games lack context. The teams are trying out variations and players while hoping to get ready for the big tournaments. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t have the storyline that club football so readily provides — there, each season, each game matters; the rivalries go back years, but we don’t need to turn the clock back decades to see when they last met.
The club vs country debate in football has been settled for a long time now — and it might even be fair to say it wasn’t ever a contest. But somehow, every four years, that debate simply fades into the background as national pride and global obsession take over. The football World Cup may be far away from the madness of the jam-packed professional leagues, but it remains the most prestigious and cherished trophy of all.
A combined audience of 3.572 billion (according to audience data released by Fifa) meant that roughly half the world’s population tuned in to watch the 2018 football World Cup over one month. In addition, Nielsen research found that 3.2 billion people watched the English Premier League during the entire nine-month-long 2018/19 campaign.
The final on July 15 between France and Croatia in 2018, a surprisingly open contest France won 4-2, drew a combined global audience of 1.12 billion. Imagine all that interest packed into one match and you realise that the manner in which the World Cup takes over the world is unprecedented. No other event, not even the Olympics, comes close. You watch football every day, every month, every year, but nothing quite matches this.
So why does this happen? Why do we tune in? Why do we paint our faces? Why do we travel far and wide to watch the action up close? Why do we cheer for the underdogs, whose local leagues we’ve never watched and whose players we scarcely know? Why do we take sides? Why do we — as is the case with many Indians — watch when we have nothing at stake?
At the heart of the explanation is perhaps the game itself. Football is simple. You don’t need a ground to play it. You don’t need a goalpost. You can play it without shoes. If you can’t find 11 players, you can play with five or two or even one-on-one. The rules are simple enough, as is the objective — kick the ball, score a goal, and speak the universal language of football.
According to an online survey by IPSOS in 2022, 55% of all adults around the world say they plan to watch at least some part of the World Cup. Viewing intent exceeds 75% in the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Brazil, and in India, which isn’t anywhere close to qualifying for the tournament.
It perhaps helps that the World Cup, like the Olympics, has remained a quadrennial event. When it does come around, you take a break from your daily life and immerse yourself in the experience. For many, it has become a tradition of sorts, a social event that you share with friends at watch-parties. Perhaps it is this sense of community and this continuity that makes it special.
Then, there is the charm of a national side that stems from tradition and serendipity.
Club sides are curated. If you have the money, and many clubs now do, you can pick the best players to fit the required roles. One could argue that the best club team will almost always hold the advantage over a national side (though some in Brazil, Germany, France and Argentina may disagree). The main players for Manchester City, the English league champions, for example, come from Belgium, Brazil, England, Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Algeria, Norway, and Argentina. Real Madrid’s Galacticos were no different, and neither is Paris Saint-Germain, or any of the star-studded sides these days.
The chemistry of a national team is different. Not only do the players speak the same language, but their confluence is also an accident of birth rather than intent. Their common upbringing means they realise a World Cup trophy can change the conversation back home and bring attention to their country in a manner that few other things can. So, they unite for a common cause, unafraid for reputations, revelling in the chance to either stamp their authority or upset the applecart.
There are other storylines as well — Europe vs South America is the longest-running one; of late, Europe has come to dominate it, and Brazil or Argentina are itching to turn the tables. But the most heart-warming aspect of the World Cup is the underdog story — from the United States beating England in 1950 to North Korea beating Italy in 1966; from Cameroon beating defending champions Argentina in 1990, to Senegal dumping holders France in 2002. The list of upsets is long, telling you that you always have a chance, inspiring your team to shine on the biggest stage of all, and allowing you to dare to dream.
For, this truly is the Coupe du Monde — the Cup of the World.
The views expressed are personal