The World Cup will kick off Thursday. So is it possible to make this soccer tournament, the world’s biggest, also the world’s best? For all the entertainment value of a good World Cup, the quality of play on the pitch is rarely the apotheosis of the art of football. For that distinction, I would nominate the Champions League. The past few seasons of Champions League play have featured explosive attacking displays by and against great teams with oodles of goals (when José Mourinho isn’t cluttering up the pitch with buses). The World Cup, by contrast, more reliably plods out low-scoring affairs most memorable for cynical efforts to stifle open play and to suborn referees.
Of course, the rules in both tournaments are exactly the same, as are many of the referees (though by no means all), so this phenomenon may be an interesting example of culture exerting more force than law. What does account for the difference?
Here are a few hypotheses:
Quality. Are the players simply better in the Champions League? Certainly the world’s billionaires appear to have spent drunkenly to bedizen the leagues of England, Spain, and Germany with the greatest players in the world. When oil is no object, one can assemble all-star squads with all the quality and none of the deadweight of places like Wales, Croatia, the Ivory Coast, Bosnia, and more. Some of those countries cannot hope to field teams anywhere near as good as Real Madrid or Manchester City. But what about national teams like Brazil, Germany, and Spain? They certainly appear to be chock full of spectacular talent at every position. Although some World Cup rosters may be uneven in their quality, the best squads in Brazil are surely as competitive on paper as the best Champions League clubs.
Familiarity. But are World Cup players simply too unfamiliar with one another, with the opposition, or even with the pitches they’re using? In the past few years, Lionel Messi has averaged about 53 games per season with Barcelona and less than 9 per year with Argentina. Yaya Touré has recently averaged 46 games per season with Man City and fewer than 10 per year with the Ivory Coast. If we believe attacking soccer requires greater understanding and anticipation than defense, then stable club teams would certainly grow to know each other far better than more ad hoc national selections. Champions League games also involve recurring opponents: in recent seasons, Real and Barça have played Los Clásicos against each other in La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup, as well as the Champions League. Most of these games take place in the Bernabéu and Camp Nou, rather than on neutral grounds, so players can also become familiar with away venues. In the World Cup, the stadiums are much less familiar, especially the ones being spackled together hours before the tournament begins.
The Stakes. Since the World Cup comes around only quadrennially, the stakes are very difficult to surpass. A special player may be lucky to play four times in a career and blessed by the gods to raise the trophy more than once, so even the most experienced footballers feel a unique tension. Managers, for their part, almost always approach the World Cup with a bias towards avoiding losses rather than taking risks.
Alas, few of these factors can be readily ameliorated, and this year in Brazil, scorching temperatures and dodgy pitches may also impede fluid play. But national teams with many players from a common club or two (like the Spaniards on Barça and Real, or the Germans on Bayern and Dortmund) are sure to be formidable. Perhaps the recent attacking success of teams like Atlético Madrid and Liverpool will inspire more marauding tactics for all. Let’s hope Brazil sets the right tone with a welcoming demolition of Croatia. Or vice versa for true entertainment.