The FIFA association football World Cup is played every 4 years. It is the most watched and followed scheduled event in the world. This year for the first time the World Cup is held in Russia from June 14 to July 15. Just over 200 countries of all shapes and sizes attempt to qualify for the tournament. These including anything from Montserrat to China, but now only 32 football teams remain.
Starting off with the Champions League final at the end of last month, we will continue our quest to explore European football’s cultural aspects. Therefore, this article introduces you to a series, where each European participant in the 2018 World Cup will get their own cultural introduction. What is football to Russians, the English, Croatians etc.? This article itself will be on World Cup itself and its history.
The FIFA World Cup is a massive political prestige project. It requires a large investment in infrastructure, which is not just stadiums, but also transportation, hotels, and other such support structures to make sure the tournament is a great experience for everyone. Especially because the ability to deliver this experience showcases the host country’s abilities in general. Hosting a World Cup rejuvenates a country’s football as stadiums and other facilities are modernised, but also means the general national infrastructure has to be updated. This can both lead to needed modernisation finally happening, but also to financial challenges.
Host and politics
Hosting a major global sporting competition is not something new for modern day Russia, as they successfully hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. The Russians well know the value of especially this tournament. If Russia representing football well, this will appeal to Western European fans of the game, who Putin’s government are trying to connect to with through their international propaganda outlets. Can Russia leave the average European with a positive image of their country, then this might be a political soft power win. Something which could lead to less support for current sanctions against the regime. Sanctions introduced after Russia used the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and the 2014 Sochi Games as public diversions to invade neighbouring Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). So who knows what to expect from Putin this summer…? This coming month is surely not going to be a time for poking the Bear.
However, this is not the first time the tournament has been used for political gain. Countries such as Italy, Germany and Spain (the last two will be covered in their articles), who at times experience issues of national identity have all benefited from hosting and/or winning the tournament. Some people go as far as saying Italy only really has a singular national identity, when the national team plays, and especially when they win. Regionalism is put aside for a time, while the nation celebrates. Fascist Italy also prioritised the World Cup greatly, which in part is believe to have won them the tournament in 1934 and 1938 (and the fact they in Piola and Meazza had one of the best attacking duo in history leading an all round strong team).
Before we get to Italy’s domination late in the 30s, we have to start earlier. FIFA (“Fédération Internationale de Football Association” in French – “International Federation of Association Football” in English) was founded in 1904 at a time, when the amateur football tournament at the Olympic Games was growing in popularity. Eventually FIFA took over the Olympic Football tournament, but disagreement over the amateur state of the competition, as well as the sport being dropped for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, lead FIFA to organise their own tournament. Legend has it that in the late 1920’s Uruguay and Argentina each claim themselves to be the best national football team in the world, and that was also a prime motivator for the tournament. The 1930 World Cup was held in Uruguay, only with European participation in the last minute as the trip by sea took weeks, and most European states where not up for footing the bill. The final ended up being a game deciding the claims of legend, where Uruguay beat Argentina at home in Montevideo by 4-2. The game itself is also the stuff of legend, where Uruguay came back from being 1-2 down, and the spectator count is widely disputed (number between 50k and 200k have all been mentioned).
After three successful games in the 1930s, the Second World War made it impossible to carry out the tournament again until 1950. That year, in Brazil, Uruguay won the tournament for the second time beating the host in the final (Uruguay had boycotted the games in 1934 and 1938 over disagreements about hosting, and the European unwillingness to to go to South America in 1930). A interesting anecdote is that Brazil is the most winning team in World Cup history, but they have never won at home (hosting the tournament in 2014 as well), actually they out of 5 wins have only got one in South America. This also makes them the only country to win more than once outside their home continent. 1950 was also the first time British teams would participate, along with most other boycotts ending.
From 1950 onwards the tournament slowly developed into what we know it as today. 1954 was the first televised World Cup. In 1958 Brazil won for the first time, and established themselves as the tournament’s eternal favourites, as they would win 3 of the 4 next World Cup with a team lead by the legendary Pelé. However, it would take 24 years before Brazil would win again.
To this day Brazil is the only country to have won the World Cup 5 time. Italy and Germany (including pre-unification West Germany) follow with 4. Argentina and Uruguay each have 2 wins. England, France, and Spain have only 1. The Netherlands how been in the final 3 times, only Germany have lost more finals with 4. 2018 non-participants Hungary and Czechoslovakia have both played 2 finals over 50 years ago. Also back in those day 2018 participants Sweden reached the final at home, but lost to Brazil.
1962 in many ways marks a departure for the tournament. Before and including 1962 you saw many different teams in the final, but since then only the big 8 (Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France, England, Spain, and the Netherlands) have been participants in the World Cup final. This year with Italy and the Netherlands out, then it might seem as if there are more options for a surprise to make an impact.
This World Cup
The favourites are always Brazil. No matter their qualification or earlier games, they are always a spectacle and the darling of the “beautiful game” as they call it. They should face a fairly easy group, the same is the case for Germany, France and Argentina. However, you never know what team just plays the best, when they get to the World Cup. So nothing is certain. Group H of Colombia, Poland, Senegal and Japan is likely to yield some kind of surprise. The first three in the group having world class attacking players, who could compete for the tournament’s topscorer award, while Japan is know for their strict discipline and willingness to fight.
Another matter which this group displays well is how often the money and fame of European club football. This often means people tend to overemphasise the known players in Western Europe. While they often overlook the hardworking team-players you find in Asian squads such as Japan, Korea, and Iran.
For the average fan of the game, the tournament is just as much about the known, as experiencing the surprises, who hit the global stage for the first time. Stars are made out of nothing, and often these new stars are sold to the top European clubs for millions of euros after a long bidding war throughout the summer. These World Cup stars are also likely to just have had a singular great tournament. Something they might not be able to repeat for a future club. However, the opposite also is not at all rare. Where players who are stars of their European top club are burnt out after a long season, and can have a terrible World Cup. Combining all these factors you get the uncertainty and surprises of the World Cup. Making it just as much a epic of stories, as simply a football tournament.
Especially interesting is group B, where Spain and Portugal are absolute favourites. However, Iran’s discipline is potentially the exact team and tactic that can annoy their Iberian style of controlling passing football. Portugal and Spain might completely rout the Iranians, but they might also both struggle. This could introduce an unexpected variable.
The World Cup is after all not just a clash of national teams, but also of styles and cultures of football. There are deep political undertones, and scores to be settled. All of this will be explored in the coming series of articles. Just about one per day featuring a European participant that plays on that day until we are through them all.