This feels like an important World Cup. We (and by ‘we’ I mean all of us who care about the future of the game and its intregity as a sport) need an exciting, intriguing, fascinating World Cup of incident and interest. FIFA certainly need a good World Cup, but for rather different reasons that I hardly need to elaborate on in this blog piece.
It was Arsene Wenger who remarked immediately after the 1998 tournament that he thought that international football was in decline. Back then to me at least it seemed a preposterous statement. The Briitsh naton had been captivated by that year’s World Cup. Drivers hooted their horns after the first group game win against Tunisia (!), the nation ground to a halt on the night of the Argentina game. The competiton loomed so large in our culture that it seemed to suck in everything else in that summer. At Glastonbury one of the largest crowds that weekend watched the England-Colombia game on the big screen – pity any band which had to compete with that. TV audiences were huge – nearly 24 million people watched the England-Argentina second round game.
But something has happpened in the intervening years. There has been a marked waning of interest in the England team. No one really believes any more that they stand a chance of winning the thing. Misplaced expectation has been replaced by eye-rolling cynicism or worse indifference, both by genuine fans, who have always been more interested in their own clubs, and casual punters put off both by a combination of the modern game’s moral vacuity and all those bloody penalities failures. In Bristol and London St George flags are thin on the ground this year. Perhaps that is a good thing.
But there is something else too. Let’s be honest, when was the last truly thrilling World Cup? Tournament after tournament has been characterised by dull defensive football and a lack of genuine shocks and incident. From an England point of view 1990 was probably the last memorable Mondiale (despite the fact the foootball was largely dire). Before that 1982 was probably the last time I enjoyed the tournament unreservedly.
You never forget your first World Cup. This year is my 7 year old stepson’s and I hope that the football ignites the same passion for the game that started burning in me at the same age. I hope that he doesn’t become cyncial over time, at the corruption that has infected its ruling body, the predictablity of the competiton, or the never-ending failures of the England team. I wish for a romantic World Cup that fills him and all of us with joy and renewed faith that this wonderful sport can be redeemed, and reclaimed by those it truly belongs to – the ordinary people of the world.