It’s Going to Be a Weird World Cup

Soccer talk is not for the faint-hearted. It is Wagnerian stuff, punditry on an operatic scale, served up with heaps of Sturm and sizable dollops of Drang. If you’ve watched a televised match and heard the arias of play-by-play announcers, you know the deal. Goals are astonishing, through balls are majestic, a well-played match is scintillating, staggering, stupefying. When the World Cup rolls around, every four years, commentators take the rhetoric to the next level, uncorking their ripest adjectives and throwing extra tremolo into their odes to “the beautiful game.” Even the sport’s most hard-bitten chroniclers get into the act. In his classic book “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” (1995), Eduardo Galeano, the flinty Uruguayan journalist and novelist who covered the World Cup for decades, described a “ritual sublimation of war,” waged by “warriors without weapons or armor,” in which “old hatreds and old loves passed from father to son enter into combat.”

It has been striking, therefore, to note the sober, even sombre, tone of the conversation surrounding the 2022 World Cup, which opened Sunday with Ecuador’s tidy 2–0 defeat of the host nation, Qatar, at Al Bayt Stadium, thirty miles up the coast from Doha. The twenty-second edition of the cup is certain to rivet humanity’s attention for the next month; in May, Gianni Infantino, the president of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, predicted that the tournament would draw a record-breaking TV viewership of five billion. Yet gloom is hanging over the event. The pre-tournament discourse was dominated by talk of exploitation and corruption. To put it politely, the Qatar World Cup is a moral debacle. The tournament was awarded to Qatar, a nation with no significant footballing pedigree, in 2010. In April, 2020, an indictment was filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, accusing FIFA officials of taking bribes to support Qatar’s hosting bid. (A trial is scheduled to begin, in federal court, in January.) Qatar’s multibillion-dollar stadium-building effort was accomplished by migrant laborers, largely from South Asia, whose working conditions have been likened to modern slavery. Humanitarian groups have estimated that thousands of workers died during the years-long building campaign. An analysis by the Guardian, published in 2021, put the number of migrant-worker deaths over sixty-five hundred.

In recent days, the fiasco has taken on elements of farce. At a press conference in Doha on Saturday, Infantino responded to criticism of Qatar’s treatment of laborers, women, and L.G.B.T.Q.+ people with a bizarre rant in which he likened his own experience as a red-haired child to that of oppressed minority groups. “Today I feel Qatari,” Infantino said. “Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker.”

Soccer fans cannot pretend to be naïve about the character of the game’s stewards or the realities of sportswashing. Previous World Cups have been held in Mussolini’s Italy (1934) and in Argentina during the military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla (1978). The 2018 tournament, hosted by Russia, was widely viewed as a propaganda coup for Vladimir Putin. Many of today’s top European club teams are owned by petro-states and oligarchs, who use soccer to launder their reputations and reap vast profits.

But it’s not just politics that is knocking the footballing world off its stride. The World Cup usually takes place in June and July, following the completion of the season in most professional leagues. Summer temperatures in Qatar regularly top a hundred degrees, so this year’s tournament was moved to November and December. To accommodate this schedule, league competition screeched to a halt midseason and players hustled to the Persian Gulf with just several days to spare.

For fans, this feels like a metabolic shock, a disruption of the soccer world’s familiar rhythms. The schedule also creates hazards for players, exacerbating the issue of fixture congestion, a logjam of games that, critics warn, poses an “unprecedented risk of injury.” It’s a problem that has been building for more than two years, since players returned from pandemic lockdown to an onslaught of league fixtures, tournament matches, World Cup qualifiers, and friendlies, without the benefit of the usual recovery time between games. Researchers have found that élite footballers suffered higher than normal rates of noncontact injuries following the COVID restart.

An injury plague is already hitting the World Cup. On Saturday, France, the defending champion, was dealt a blow when its superstar striker, Karim Benzema, was ruled out of the tournament after tearing his left quadriceps in a training session. Benzema won the 2022 Ballon d’Or, the award presented annually to the world’s best player. The Ballon d’Or runner-up, the Senegalese star Sadio Mané, is also injured, and will not see World Cup action.

The tight schedule may also take an aesthetic toll. At past World Cups, squads have had about a month between the end of the league season and the start of the tournament to build chemistry, put tactics in place, and get their act together in friendlies. This year, many teams had just a week on the training ground: enough time, undoubtedly, to establish the basics of defensive organization and practice some set pieces, but insufficient for working out the intricacies of attacking—the flashing, flowing movements that peel open defenses, yield goals, and turn soccer into, yes, a beautiful game, or at least an awfully pretty one.

The truth may come as a surprise to casual followers of soccer. The baseline level of play in international tournaments is simply inferior to the soccer on display in top-flight European leagues and tournaments like the Champions League, the annual battle of Europe’s best club sides. The World Cup is, of course, the sport’s marquee event and grandest showcase. “Ritual sublimation of war” may be pushing it—but there is no denying the electric atmosphere of knockout-round matches, when whole nations, and a good portion of the planet, tune into the same spectacle en masse. The cup is the most popular pop culture, the greatest show on earth. But it’s not, by a long shot, where you’ll see the best soccer.

The reasons, in part, are structural. Thirty-two countries are in the running for this year’s cup. (In 2026, the field will expand to forty-eight teams.) As always, some of soccer’s top box-office draws wound up missing out. Italy, a four-time champion, failed to qualify for the first time in sixty years. Other non-qualifiers include usually reliable Sweden, and two South American sides, Colombia and Chile, that have brought flair to past tournaments. A handful of soccer’s most exciting individual performers are absent. Norway didn’t qualify, which means World Cup viewers will not see Erling Haaland, the twenty-two-year-old goliath who has marauded his way through England’s Premier League in his first season at Manchester City. The biggest breakout star of 2022 is the previously little-known twenty-one-year-old Georgian Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, of the Italian Serie A club Napoli, an outrageously skillful winger whose devious travels through defensive lines call to mind both the young Lionel Messi and a hyena prowling the savanna for a midnight snack. Georgia’s national team has never qualified for a major national tournament, but its fortunes may shift in the Kvaratskhelia era.

In the meantime, there is Napoli, whose matches Kvaratskhelia and his young teammates have turned into world football’s must-see TV. Their slashing, goal-hungry style is unlike anything that will be on view at the World Cup. The same is true of Manchester City, probably the best team on the planet—certainly the most well-organized, intelligent, and star-studded. In part, this is a matter of cold cash. No national all-star team—not even Brazil’s—can rival the squads assembled by clubs like Man City, whose coffers are controlled by a sheikh, Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Mansour writes the checks, but the visionary behind Manchester City is its manager, Pep Guardiola, who has been at the forefront of a series of tactical and conceptual breakthroughs that have transformed soccer over the past decade and a half. Those innovations—new attacking formations, strategies for maintaining ball possession, an emphasis on holding high defensive lines and vigorously pressing up the pitch, the insightful use of data analytics—have created a faster, more fluid, more sophisticated game. But modern tactics are complicated and take time to implement, far more time than is available to the coaching staffs of national team sides, in the speed-dating sessions they squeeze in during occasional breaks from league play. As a result, the international game lags several years behind the club game in terms of refinement and technical evolution. World Cup soccer isn’t just a different sport than top-flight club soccer. It inhabits a different era.

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