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World Cup might not be greatest show on earth

Fans of of Saudi Arabia cheer and chant before the start of their soccer match against Japan. (REUTERS)
Pick your party. The last month has seen extraordinary outpourings of joy across the globe, from the celebrations in Jeddah after Saudi Arabia’s victory over Japan to the scenes in Melbourne and Lima this week as Australia and Peru became the 31st and 32nd sides to qualify for Russia.
It didn’t matter that one leg of each of the six playoff games finished 0-0, it didn’t matter that there was little in the way of quality because the feeling that this really mattered carried the viewer through.
It’s easy, as somebody who watches most of his football in England, to become cynical. It’s at least 30 years since international football really was the highest level of the game, and it’s 20 years since anybody carried on even pretending that it is. The Champions League, the Premier League, are just better. The players are better, the pitches are better, the refereeing is better, the managers are better and the football is better because club managers get to work with their players day in day out, a luxury denied their international counterparts. But around this part of the cycle, people like me start to feel guilty. Maybe we shouldn’t regard international football as an unwelcome intrusion into the“real” football.
Maybe we should be more understanding of what the international game means to nations who aren’t fortunate enough to host one of the best leagues in the world. Football, after all, is primarily about emotion and excitement and drama; the technical and tactical stuff is a means to that.
I should perhaps at this stage point out that I’ve been to 20 international tournaments (three World Cups, eight African Cups of Nations, four Euros, two Copas America, one Asian Cup, one Confederations Cup and one Under-20 World Cup). I’m predisposed to liking international football. Like many people of my generation, it was the World Cups of 1982 and 1986 that really inspired my love of football. Tournaments, with their concentration of drama, with narratives that unfold over three or four weeks, are a distillation of what is best about the game.
And yet I also know that much of next summer’s World Cup will be boring. The vast majority of managers with a couple of weeks to work with their players before a tournament will focus on defending. Nobody wants to be on the end of a memorable hammering, like the 8-0 one Saudi Arabia suffered at the hands of Germany in 2002. It’s a particular issue given all but five or six teams next summer aren’t that good. A narrow defeat or a penalty shoot-out exit is explicable in a way that going down 4- or 5-0 is not. Players, similarly, are desperate to avoid being the man remembered forever for a costly error. Caution and conservatism will reign.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps the World Cup should just be a global festival of football and hang the quality. Although it does seem odd to celebrate the game by staging an inferior version of it.
The solution is a smaller, more concentrated finals tournament, and fewer games involving sides just looking to avoid a beating.
I’ve said this before and been accused of elitism, but then working out who’s best does seem to be an integral part of sport. I’ve been accused of not understanding what it means for fans to travel to a tournament, but only the wealthiest can afford to go anyway. How many ordinary fans from Lagos or Panama City, or London or Paris for that matter, can afford the trip to Russia? If fans are the concern, far better would be globalized qualifying — have Argentina play in Abidjan, have Germany play in Caracas, have Spain play in Muscat — building to a smaller finals: spread the tournament wider and increase the concentration of quality at the end.
Done right, if FIFA took seriously its stated mission to raise standards, it should lead to improved infrastructure in a range of nations whose football desperately needs it.
Obviously it won’t happen. There are far too many vested interests in the way, far too many people protecting their own income and status. And that means, unfortunately, that the best bit of the 2018 World Cup has probably already ­happened.
• Jonathan Wilson writes regularly about world football. He has written five books, including the 2009 Football Book of the Year