DOHA, Qatar — One of the upshots of the 2022 World Cup is how tight so many games were, particularly in the knockout stage.
I don’t mean in terms of result, I mean in the way the games actually unfolded on the pitch. I realize it’s largely subjective, and you might disagree, but you can well argue that only Argentina‘s quarterfinal and semifinal wins over Netherlands and Croatia were one-sided (although the game against the Dutch ended up going to penalties). The round of 16 was a bit different (Brazil, Portugal, France and England all recorded fairly comfortable wins), but the point stands. Most of these games were competitive and most hung in the balance until the very end.
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Why the great levelling? Partly it’s the one-game knockout formula. Players commit to the World Cup game in a way they might not in, say, matchday 7 of a 38-round club season with a Champions League clash coming up in midweek. Partly because there is no tomorrow, no “scheduled losses,” no chance to remedy which, often, tends to make teams a bit more conservative. And partly because, well, the teams we see in the World Cup aren’t as good as those we see in the top domestic leagues.
It’s not just a question of talent (though in many cases there’s that, too), it’s a question of “team.” And it’s understandable. Club football at its highest level is a carefully assembled puzzle, aimed at pleasing the whims and visions of some exalted coach. It’s like giving the world’s finest chefs the run of whatever ingredients they might want and letting them go to work.
International football is more like getting a chef from some diner off the highway and letting him work with a grab bag of ingredients chosen at random: alongside the prize truffle, you might get some moldy cheese or stale crackers.
Club football can create perfectly oiled machines. International football not so much … you jury-rig something together with whatever parts are in your garage. And, of course, you do it in double-quick time — most World Cup coaches had little more than four or five training sessions before their first game.
There are flaws and there are warts. You will rarely see sophisticated counter-pressing systems on display or perfectly calibrated patterns of play. Instead, broadly speaking, you get teams that are careful — not necessarily defensive, though some are, but more generally conservative since it’s a low-scoring sport and you can’t undo a conceded goal — and you get what might best be called “moments.”
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These might be refereeing mistakes (though there haven’t been many at this World Cup) or unforced errors or breakdowns in defensive discipline. And sometimes they are down to individual brilliance, either creative or athletic genius or, occasionally, an average player doing something extraordinary and pulling it off. It’s probably not a coincidence that the two finalists boast Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi: two guys who can deliver those moments more than most.
Obviously, to some degree, the above is part of club football, too. But there, it is often spread out. At the World Cup, it’s compressed and pressurized. And it often determines outcomes.
There are obviously plenty of reasons the World Cup is such a big deal. The quadrennial coming together of teams and fans from all over the globe gathers eyeballs more efficiently than any other competition (part of the reason FIFA’s projected income for 2022-2026, $11.5 billion, is nearly twice the estimate for 2018-2022). It offers watercooler moments for the world, based on watercooler moments of the past, shared by earlier generations. And, of course, in the space of a month you get the biggest stars in the world in a single place (well, at least the biggest stars from the countries that actually qualify).
But as to the games themselves, what makes them compelling isn’t quality or even entertainment. It’s the fact that it’s rare to see teams dominated and, until the very end, there is always the hope — and sometimes the likelihood — that the game will be decided by a “moment.” And the anticipation for those moments — even if they never arrive — is what keeps us glued to the game.