Mark Perryman draws some lessons from the first week of World Cup 2018, as England prepare to take on Panama.
It’s a well-worn footballing cliché that you can only beat the team in front of you. But in most regards, England taking until the 91st minute to secure victory over Tunisia doesn’t look good. Nevertheless, with three points in the bag, and a widely-expected second victory against Panama on Sunday, England’s third match versus Belgium no longer looks as critical as it might have done. If last 16 qualification has been secured by Monday, and the certainly beatable likely opponents of Senegal, Japan or Poland who are next up after Belgium, thoughts will inevitably turn to a possible quarter-final .
Without doubt this is English progress, of sorts, but let's not go getting above ourselves. Our natural status is beaten quarter-finalists, prior to that golden day in ’66 it was the best we’d ever done, and we’ve only bettered this the one time since, at Italia ’90 all of 28 years ago. Sven was the last England manager to get us to a quarter-final, at World Cups 2006, 2002, and another at Euro 2004 for good measure in-between. If we make it this time Gareth Southgate will have got us back to where we belong, amongst the top 8 World Cup nations, but unless the team proves otherwise still a long way short of being among the top 4. It was ever thus.
Thankfully the games are all being played out against the backdrop of a happy clappy Ros! Si! Ya! In contrast the build-up was full of dire predictions of heavy-handed policing, neo-nazi hooligan gangs, racist attacks, homophobia and the grimmest environment imaginable to ‘enjoy’ for watching a World Cup . The build-up was the same for South Africa’s World Cup 2010, muggings, car-jacking, a race war was what travelling fans were promised, nothing of the sort happened. And again for Brazil 2014, political unrest combined with Favela drug gangs was what was predictd to ruin the World Cup for travelling England fans. Once more, no such incidents occurred.
None of this getting the hosts so spectacularly wrong will be explained as England prepare to head home. And before you know it the same lazy predictions will be rolled out for the next time. But actually, it's even worse than that. When the football begins we go from one extreme, destination hellhole, to another, football paradise. The truth is Russia does have problems - an authoritarian regime, Greater Russian nationalism, massive inequalities of wealth distribution, racism, homophobia and a violent fan sub-culture. None of these were ever going to be allowed to ruin a World Cup which is Russia’s unmatchable opportunity to showcase the best of its nation to the world. And none of them have gone away either just because a game of football is underway. As with the England win against Tunisia, the whistle blows and all sense of perspective is booted out of the window.
We already know it will be Qatar hosting the tournament in 2022, followed by the successful joint bid of USA, Canada and Mexico for 2026. And England is apparently considering a joint British bid for 2030 with the Scots and Welsh FAs, which will face competition from the Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay joint bid, and no doubt more to come too. These tri-nation hosts are a result of the World Cup’s expansion from the current 32 team format to a gargantuan 48. The global reach of football is continuing so some kind of increase is justified, as it was when the tournament grew first from 16 to 24 nations for Spain ‘82, then again to 32 for France 98 and the same since then.
But 48 is too big a jump, it creates too massive a tournament, too many games, many of which will be meaningless, and too big a disparity in ability. 40 would have been a much better compromise, 8 groups of 5 rather than the current 8 groups of 4, a step-up of 8 teams as every previous expansion has been. With all the extra places awarded to the under-represented continents, ie anywhere but Europe and South America, so sorry Scotland!
This would have also preserved the feasibility of single host nations too. Every previous one has helped define how a World Cup is consumed and remembered almost as much as the football on the pitch and the eventual winner. The one exception, joint hosts Japan and South Korea in 2002, just about worked. Thanks to the extraordinary success of the Korean team and their Red Army of supporters as they reached the semis, while Japan largely defined the consumption of the football and Brazil’s eventual victory in the Tokyo final.
So here’s an idea. 2030 is the centenary World Cup. The first one took place in Uruguay which England, like most of the other European nations, shamefully chose to boycott because South America was too far away and the footballing world revolves around Europe, or in England’s case, ourselves, or so they liked to think. Why not award the hosting of 2030 now to Uruguay, and abandon the expensive and corruptible bidding process? The world of football to give every assistance to this one small nation to host it. Organise it as a celebration of one hundred years’ worth of the growing international appeal of our game, the people’s game. Fly in the face of all that FIFA has become.
Well, like England reaching the semi - even my optimism of the will has its limits - we’re allowed our World Cup dreams aren’t we?
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football and their England World Cup T-shirt is available from here.