What’s wrong with the World Cup?

The World Cup kicks off tomorrow in Brazil. I’ll probably put up a preview of sorts between now and then, but today I want to focus on the event in general.

Sir Alex Ferguson says there hasn’t been a good World Cup since 1986. I don’t agree. However, I concede that no World Cup has lived up to the hype since then, and I doubt that this one will.

The main problems with the World Cup are these in my opinion: (1) with too many teams, and teams selected based on geography rather than merit, the group stage (in which all teams compete) lacks sufficient quality, (2) with the world’s top players competing in so many matches during the soccer season, the top teams (which consist of the world’s top players) rarely live up to their potential in the knockout stages of the tournament, and (3) modern soccer tactics tend to diminish some of the sport’s excitement.

Let’s start with the “inflation” problem. When I started following the World Cup, only 16 teams competed at the World Cup. The field expanded to 24 teams and then to 32, its current size.

Much of the expansion was designed to accommodate weak footballing continents (and to secure the votes of their Federations for those seeking top office in the FIFA bureaucracy). For example, Africa gets five places now, but only one (lately Ghana) ever seems to advance to the Round of 16. North America gets four slots but rarely fields two decent sides, if that (typically Mexico and, in alternating Cups, the U.S.). The situation is similar with Asia.

Europe typically gets 13 or 14 slots, depending on whether a European country hosts the tournament. It struggles to fill the final few slots with quality teams.

Consequently, the typical World Cup normally features around eight teams (one-fourth of the field) that, prima facie, don’t belong on such a big stage.

In addition, another eight teams or so, while good enough in principle, simply fail come together to produce quality football. In 2010, for example, three giants — England, Italy, and France (all past winners) — stunk out South Africa.

With only about half the field playing well, many of the group stage matches are dull encounters, even for those of us who love the sport.

In theory, the tournament should be redeemed in the knock-out stages, as the weaker teams are winnowed out. Unfortunately, the play of the top teams rarely reaches the heights we expect in a world championship competition.

Consider Spain, winner of Euro 2008 and 2012 and winner of the 2010 World Cup. Given these achievements, many consider the Spanish team of these years the best national teams in soccer history.

But Spain’s play in South Africa was somewhat disappointing. Spain lost its first game to middling Switzerland and struggled to defeat a good but not outstanding Holland team in overtime in the final. Only in its semi-final against Germany did the Spanish really shine.

In 2006, Italy hit the heights as a defensive entity, but was pretty ordinary in attack. Brazil won in 1994 and 2002, but no one rates those teams in the same category as the great 1970 team. Indeed, the 1994 side was a rather pedestrian outfit that defeated Italy on penalty kicks after an excruciatingly mediocre scoreless two hours.

Why don’t the potentially great teams play great? My theory is that much of the blame lies in the long season that precedes the World Cup.

These days, the top players mostly play for very big teams in Europe. And these days, these teams often play 55-60 games in a season that extends from mid-August to mid-May.

The long season wears players down. For example, during England’s World Cup tune-up games, Wayne Rooney has looked a shadow of the player who excelled for Manchester United during most of this season(Everton young-gun Ross Barkley looks more like Rooney than Rooney, and some are saying he should take Rooney’s place in the starting line-up). Spanish star Diego Costa, who broke down in Atletico Madrid’s last two matches, has looked nothing like the goal-scoring machine who led his club to the Spanish crown.

I haven’t even mentioned the star players who will miss the World Cup due to injury — Marco Reus of Germany, Frank Ribery of France (arguably the two best players in the German league this year), Colombian superstar Radamel Falcao, England’s top two choices at right wing (Theo Walcott and Andros Townsend), and so forth.

The soccer season has always been a grind. But in the old days, top players were less concentrated on super-European teams and super-European teams played fewer matches (there was no Champions League, with its glut of teams and its group stages).

Whatever the reason, it seems indisputable that soccer’s attacking superstars have trouble producing their club form at the World Cup. For example, the game’s top forwards, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, have failed to dominate (and Ronaldo has also failed to dominate during European Championships). I’m hoping that these two will play like Pele, Cruyff, and Maradona this time around, but I’m not counting on it.

Of course, Pele, Cruyff, and Maradona didn’t have to contend with modern defenses. The trend in soccer is to protect central defenders from one-on-one encounters with star attackers. Teams do so by pinching their full-backs into the middle and dropping their midfielders deep.

This tactic is more or less compelled by the way soccer is officiated now. Referees allow center backs less leeway in defending than before. Without protection, the risk of seeing center backs sent off for fouling and the risk of free kicks being awarded in dangerous positions are too great.

Note, however, that the struggles of modern attacking stars aren’t entirely down to changes in tactics. These stars face the same tactics during club matches against top defenses and still manage to shine. That’s why I fault the long season.

These criticisms raise the question of whether the World Cup is worth watching. The answer depends on who you are.

If you’re a major fan of the sport, the World Cup remains an irresistible feast. College basketball fans watch the NCAA tournament wall-too-wall even though it too is overhyped.

Sports fans who like soccer in small doses can maximize their enjoyment by focusing on matches played by a favorite team, such as the U.S. The 2010 tournament wasn’t outstanding, but fans who followed the U.S. were treated to two immensely exciting matches — the come from behind draw against Slovenia and the amazing last minute victory over Algeria. The other two matches, a draw against England and an overtime loss to Ghana in the Round of 16, weren’t bad either.

If your team turns out to be one of the many that isn’t up to it, you can simply adopt another that shows the potential to be around for the long haul.

I’ll be supporting the U.S. and England, both of whom are in difficult groups. By the Round of 8, I’ll probably have found another team to back, assuming that my two have left South America.

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