Yes, it’s official. This is the weirdest World Cup ever.
It was always going to be a little different… first one hosted in Africa, the massed Vuvuzela orchestra, the return of Maradona as cheerfully optimistic misfit manager with some odd ideas about defensive tactics, the mystery of the North Koreans. But then it turns out that the actual results aren’t following the usual script either.
As I write this, Italy are 3-2 down against Slovakia, about to finish bottom in arguably the easiest group of the tournament (especially given their high FIFA ranking and status as current champions). France are already out, having continued the boom-bust cycle they started in 1998. Germany have looked drab and uninspired, to match their forthcoming second round opponents… yep, that’s us!
We’ve also seen Spain made to look ordinary by a super-organized Switzerland, the usually strong Nigeria look like being the joint worst African performers, and we’ve had some surprise results from New Zealand, Serbia and North Korea. Press reports have focused on the supposed downfall of various top-eight teams (including England who haven’t done markedly worse than their first-round average) with the usual theories about excessive pay, over-long seasons, media over-expectation and so on.
There’s certainly something drastically wrong in France, Italy are learning the drawback of having a “lame duck president” so to speak, and it’s looking likely that Germany will be changing their head coach pretty soon. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think we’re seeing something a bit like what happened in men’s tennis about 10 years ago. The struggling lower-ranked teams are no longer there to enjoy their time on global TV and make up the numbers. There are no longer any easy games in international football, as the cliché goes.
The globalisation of the game and the rapacious behaviour of top clubs on the international transfer market have led to a more tightly-knit network of football activity reaching ever more countries. As a result, it’s actually unusual to find ourselves in the position of not knowing much about one of the minnows (North Korea) while, at the other end of the spectrum, the top teams have lost some of their mystique in the eyes of those minnows. An Algeria defender plays his club football with the England goalkeeper and a Ghana striker, and faces regular matches against hotshot strikers from Brazil, Spain, Holland and Germany. The football world is getting smaller.