11 October 2009 ~ Ever since the World Cup finals expanded to 32 teams, there have been few surprises in qualification. Sadly gone are the days of the 16-team tournaments of the 1970s, packed with quality players and memorable games, and largely free of mediocre countries making up the numbers. Since 1998, all the big teams have been there and that's kept the mercantile smiles of FIFA and its marketing drones firmly in place. Except at the 2002 finals, when a few "wrong" results saw the likes of Italy and Argentina eliminated early.
People moaned that it wasn't a proper World Cup if such teams were not still competing in the latter stages, as though countries like Turkey and the USA only showed up on the understanding that while they could stay for the first round of drinks and take a quick look at the celebrities, in no way would they be welcome to hang around for the cocaine and the after-hours orgy. This time around, though, there's been a slight panic in the pristine offices overlooking Lake Zurich, where the merest afternoon ripple on the water's placid veneer is enough to send the Swiss scuttling up the mountains with a gold bar in each pocket. On both sides of the world, a pesky loss of form has threatened to smudge the guest list to the Mad Blatter's TV party. Worried that the European play-offs might conceivably pair off Germany against France, football's cunning gnomes changed the rules half way through the game to introduce seeded pairings, rather than an open draw. Meanwhile, in South America they are talking about The Unthinkable, which is defined as Argentina's failure to make the finals, even though a betting man might have backed this outcome the moment the Argentine FA appointed a certifiable nutjob as their head coach.
It's true that a World Cup without Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, say, would not be the same as a World Cup with them. Yet most people would manage to get over it, aside from the salesmen striving to convince sponsors that this is the greatest sporting event of all, featuring football's finest players at the peak of their powers. The spectacularly talented but easily loathable Ronaldo, for example, has done little of note at his last two major international tournaments and there's nothing to suggest this time around would be any different at the end of another demanding domestic and European club campaign. The same applies to Messi. The World Cup has become too big for any one player to stand out and dominate the four weeks in the way that the nutjob mentioned above, Diego Maradona, did so imperiously in 1986.
And that's just the problem. So indebted are the world's vastly overpaid players to their clubs that they have nothing left over for the World Cup. It's more like a working holiday to increase your profile, while performing to your real potential in no more than sporadic patches. Over the course of the past three tournaments, magnificent games and startling individual performances have been subsumed by the proliferation of athletic journeymen and tireless watercarriers. Stories are centred on human interest, not actual achievement. For months in advance, all we hear about is revenue, stadiums and infrastructure, because the tournament has become an unwieldy monster mired in its own delirious greed, delusional hype and gargantuan self-publicity.
Worst of all, it's a bore. There are way too many games, the best players are knackered, the media's either jaded or wilfully complicit in the whole charade and the fans are duped into believing they're off on the journey of a lifetime, before being bilked for every last cent. FIFA trumpets the immense magnitude of The Event to gloss over the reality that the games themselves are a serial disappointment. Never mind substance, let's just worry about who shows up for the soccer spectacle. Spain – check. England – check. Italy – check. And down the list to Argentina, who will perhaps scrape in thanks to a play-off against the fourth-placed Concacaf team. Phew – check. Everybody important is on board, so close the door and sail away with the sponsors' booty locked in the hold. We'll worry later about where we're heading. In the meantime play some old Pelé and Cruyff videos for comfort and hope nobody notices that the sport itself is lost at sea, too bloated and weary to climb up out of its deckchair, let alone head back for solid ground to exhibit truly exciting football. Ian Plenderleith