It is the biggest sporting event in the world, more focussed and more dramatic than the Olympics, which are a bit like a coalition government having to carry a few partners along! To be fair, the Olympics have different objectives, many of them noble, but the football World Cup transcends almost all barriers.
Even in India where for six weeks football moves from being a small, vocal, passionate community to one that embraces all. It is interesting that the World Cup isn’t a gathering of the top thirty two footballing nations, or indeed of all the greatest contemporary footballers. No Ibrahimovic or Bale for example. But it is fascinating to watch for reasons beyond spectacular goals or meltdowns. And I have been interested to see it from two specific points of view, both related to some extent.
There are stars at this World Cup playing at a level far above that of their current teammates. Or, as with Didier Drogba, who recently did. When Drogba played for Chelsea, and was one of the finest finishers in the world, he was surrounded by players of equal or comparable ability at what they did; whether it was tireless midfield play, goalkeeping or just sending through passes for the strikers to convert into goal. He was a great finisher but the quality of the supply was often outstanding too.
Then he plays for Ivory Coast, a team with a fair sprinkling of talent, but inconsistently spread. You look at him and you want to see Drogba of Chelsea muscling his way into the box and powering shots into goal. But you don’t see that too often because now Drogba is a product of the passes he is getting, of the openings created for him. And these are not good enough anymore.
A different beast
That is probably more dramatically true now of Cristiano Ronaldo who is a different player for Real Madrid than he is for Portugal. Or is he? At Real, Ronaldo is the jewel in the crown but it is a crown studded by fine diamonds. Yes, he creates openings but more often he is the finisher; capping an outstanding supply chain. With Portugal that doesn’t happen. So when the supply is lacking does he move further back in search of it? Does he scrap around and try to create openings for himself? And if he has to do so, is he Ronaldo any longer?
More important do elite players, like Drogba was and Ronaldo is, become slaves to their supply? Are they now capable only of dazzling in a certain environment? In a sense then, when they soar, are they being propelled, in some fairly significant part, by the skill of others? So then, should we really expect to see Ronaldo of Real playing for Portugal? Or the Drogba of Chelsea, of the years gone by, playing for Ivory Coast?
Some years ago I remember asking Gerry Armstrong, an excellent football pundit, why we weren’t seeing the young, dynamic, occasionally breathtaking Wayne Rooney of Manchester United playing for England?
He smiled and said “because he isn’t playing with Ronaldo”. When he played with Ronaldo, Armstrong said, Rooney’s game too went to another level. But at England, he said, he wasn’t playing with anyone of that class and so his game dropped too. Maybe we need to keep that in mind when we see the stars playing in different company.
There is another aspect that fascinates me. In cricket, players play for their country round the year and are then thrown together into this frenetic mixer called the IPL. Fourteen games, high pressure cricket, full houses, different ownership, extensive travel but more important, learning to play alongside those you considered rivals. Or maybe, those you don’t even know. Can you play for each other then? Can you trust each other? It is an important part of the IPL.
At the World Cup, on a much more gigantic scale, it is similar, except that you are now expected to give your all for your country while playing with those you may have never played with before. You can respect a fellow footballer but a lot of team sport is also about respecting a fellow person.
And they don’t spend enough time with each other to be able to do that. And so in football, unlike in cricket, playing for your country is the adjustment you have to make. And that is why I have asked in the past: is Drogba of Chelsea or of Ivory Coast, is Messi of Barcelona or of Argentina? What comes first?
Is that why Germany and Spain are more consistent? Because Bayern Munich is not too different from Germany and Barcelona is not too different from Spain?
That you are playing alongside similar quality, alongside people you already respect? Within football then, is the Champions League a greater team sport than the World Cup? Oops!
I am looking forward to seeing some great action. And to seeing how players rise, and fall, in different environments.