By Dileep Premachandran
At the end of every calendar year, The Guardian puts together its list of the world’s 100 Best Footballers. The last exercise involved 169 experts from 63 countries. Of the 100 they chose, only four—Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (now at Manchester United), Leonardo Bonucci of AC Milan, Ciro Immobile of Lazio and Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy—were not playing in the UEFA Champions League, the game’s premier club competition.
As many as 28 of the men on that list will not be in Russia this summer. Injuries, an occupational hazard, claimed a few, but the majority are absent because their teams haven’t qualified. Italy, four-time winners of the World Cup, lost out in a play-off to Sweden, while the Netherlands, beaten finalists in 1974, 1978 and 2010, didn’t even get that far. Chile, Copa America winners on the last two occasions, also failed to escape the ultimate-fighting cage that is South American World Cup qualifying.
Those numbers give you a clue as to why many no longer consider the FIFA World Cup the greatest show on turf. For the layman, the four-year extravaganza is something to savour. For the football connoisseur, the Champions League long ago surpassed the World Cup. That’s borne out by the men on the sidelines as well.
The world’s best football coaches will be watching the competition either from their sunbeds or a TV studio. The likes of Pep Guardiola (Manchester City), Jose Mourinho (Manchester United), Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool), Zinedine Zidane (who led Real Madrid to three straight Champions Leagues before quitting earlier this month), Carlo Ancelotti (Napoli), Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid) and Max Allegri (Juventus) have never coached a national side. Most of them never will.
In contrast, only Spain’s Julen Lopetegui and Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli have coached in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Neither has reached as far as the semifinal. For almost every coach urging his team on in Russia, the World Cup is an audition for the big club jobs, a means to a lucrative end.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when it was considered impossible for even the top club sides to be as good as the elite national teams. When Brazil won the World Cup in 1970, the team boasted Gérson, Tostão, Rivelino and Pelé. Each was the fulcrum of their club sides, and together they, and Jairzinho, who scored in all seven games, provided an attacking quintet of irresistible quality. On the sideline as their coach was Mario Zagallo, who had won the World Cup twice as a player.
The influx of money in the 1980s changed everything. Suddenly, the Silvio Berlusconi-owned AC Milan could sign Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, the spine of a brilliant Dutch side that won Euro 1988. Across town, Internazionale boasted the German trio of Lothar Matthäus, Andreas Brehme and Jürgen Klinsmann, who won the World Cup in 1990.
Playing together for 10 months a year, and capable of hiring the world’s finest players, club sides soon reached a standard that national teams could seldom dream of. Guardiola’s Barcelona team, which won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011, with Lionel Messi (Argentina), Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, David Villa (all Spain) and Dani Alves (Brazil), played football of such quality and fluidity that they elevated the game to performance art.
But as simple and beautiful as it looked, hours and hours of preparation had gone into each movement, the kind of time national coaches no longer get with the top players. When Brazil won in 1970, Zagallo had them in a camp for months, and the focus on physical fitness played a huge part in their triumph in the altitude and heat of Mexico.
This time, Tite, the Brazil coach, didn’t meet most of his players until there was less than a month to go for the tournament. In the case of Marcelo and Casemiro, key members of Real’s Champions League-winning side, they didn’t start training with the national team before early June. To then except the kind of cohesion you see on the field from Barcelona or Real is simply unrealistic.
What the World Cup does still have, which the Champions League—the playground of the filthy rich—no longer possesses, is the ability to surprise and charm us. At some point over the next month, there will be a player from Iran, or Tunisia, or Panama that few have heard of who pulls off something that makes him a household name. It happened with Cameroon’s Roger Milla at Italia 1990, and Senegal’s El Hadji Diouf in Japan and South Korea 12 years later.
Whether we see another Cinderella story is another matter. The leading nations have such strength in depth that upsets are highly unlikely. When North Korea beat Italy in 1966, the element of surprise played a huge part. The Koreans, who came from isolation and went back to oblivion, were unknowns in the truest sense. Now, with video analysis and extensive number-crunching, there are no mysteries anymore.
When Spain take on Iran, it won’t just be the highly rated Sardar Azmoun that they pay attention to. Every single Iranian player would have been scrutinised, every little weakness detected. For the smaller sides, overcoming that is now the biggest challenge.
The Champions League, which makes the rich clubs even richer, hasn’t seen a surprise final since 2004, when FC Porto defeated AS Monaco. In 20 World Cups going back to 1930, only eight nations have lifted the trophy. Four others have made the final and lost. Each of those nations has been from Europe or South America. For the African teams and those from Asia, that is the historical burden they’re up against.
Dileep Premachandran is a sports columnist for News18, The Independent, Mint Lounge and Arab News. He was formerly editor-in-chief of Wisden India.