Russia, inextricably linked in dubious tandem with Qatar, thanks to them winning the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 finals respectively, on the very same morally redundant day, in early-December 2010.
Mysterious, perhaps even Machiavellian hosts they make. Despite being deposed as the figurehead of FIFA in the autumn of 2015, the 2018 finals still find themselves sat within the tainted shadow of Sepp Blatter. The perceived sleight-of-hand that he presided over will leave a bitter after-taste until beyond 2022.
The first steps to FIFA redemption can begin here, however, they have their work cut out. Not much more than 24-hours prior the opening game kicks off between Russia and Saudi Arabia, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the FIFA Executive Committee will decide who the host of the 2026 finals will be.
We will either have our first three-way hosting of the tournament, by the lead-host the United States of America, alongside Canada and Mexico, or we will see the tournament return to Africa and the regular bridesmaid, Morocco.
The ‘smart money’
The smart money is on the former, although ‘smart money’ was what brought FIFA to its knees, so perhaps there will be a desire for something unexpected, in awarding 2026 to the latter instead? This is FIFA. When you consider that Chuck Blazer’s cats occupied an apartment of their own on the 49th floor of the Trump Tower, then nothing else could possibly come as a surprise.
FIFA are kind of left with no real option but to make the best of the hand it has dealt itself with. Awarding Morocco the 2026 finals, then overseeing a damn fine tournament in Russia would be a good way of moving forward. That isn’t meant to be anti-American. A US, Canada and Mexico 2026 will be a resounding success, just as USA 94 was, but only 32-years separating World Cups in the home of the free is too soon, as is a third World Cup in Mexico, although Canada would be breaking new ground.
The other question is, whether or not another World Cup would ensure meaningful change and improvements to the system of the MLS?
I know many who won’t be holding their breath on that one. Trying to love the World Cup is like trying to love the music of Morrissey, while attempting to fend off his political views. We all have that inner-child however, when it comes to the World Cup. Play it as cool as you like, you aren’t actually fooling anyone you realise?
International football is the enemy the supporter of the big clubs
I’ve done it myself. Moaned incessantly about international breaks, about players returning from international duty injured, lamented meaningless friendlies, rolled my eyes at England fans ‘On Tour’ as they lob white plastic chairs around picturesque town squares in former satellite-states of the old Eastern Bloc, and sworn with feeling at that awful band that tips up at England games and might even be sponsored by the equally awful ‘Pukka Pies’.
Like I say, it’s easy to be cynical about the 2018 World Cup and, indeed, much of the sideshow which surrounds it. Does anybody really get over their first World Cup? The tournament which sets the benchmark for all other major tournaments which follow. I know I never did.
España 82 is where it’s at for me in that respect. Wide-eyed and impressionable, it was everything I could have wished it to be. I was aged 8, and the World Cup is a wondrous thing when you’re at that age. Mexico 86 hit the spot, too. I was 12 and still wide-eyed, if not a little more street-smart. By Italia 90 I was a moody 16-year old, still expecting the greatest show on earth, but for the first-time left feeling that the World Cup had let me down. It was a stylistically beautiful event, but the football was largely shit.
By USA 94, the World Cup is still huge, but you downplay how excited you are when you’re 20. You repeat this trick at France 98 as a 24-year old. These eventually become tournaments you look back fondly upon from a retrospective distance, as they represent a time before marriage, before children, before things are truly expected of you. By Korea/Japan 2002, you’re 28 and following the crowd in being anti-international football. However, you still book two weeks off work to watch the knockout stages uninterrupted.
Italy’s ‘fuck you!’ success
Germany 2006 is your last stand with the World Cup. You’re 32 and you have a wider life to live. You’re selective with the games you watch and cynicism has kicked in for real now. Italy’s ‘fuck you!’ success brings a smile though.
South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014 pass in a blur of responsibility. Kids to look after, work to be done, a wife to communicate with, ageing parents to worry about. Contemporary football starts to feel far less important. You become your dad and start to reminisce about ‘the good old days’.
The closer a past World Cup sits on the calendar, the less I remember about it.
Russia 2018 though. I recently co-hosted a podcast series for These Football Times on the entire history of the World Cup, from 1930 to the present day. It was a joy to sit with Jim Hart, Gary Thacker, Dan Williamson, Stuart Horsfield and Chris Weir to talk about great deeds of World Cups of old.
We each walked away from that series having been re-energised. Suddenly looking forward to the 2018 finals; the reawakening of the inner-child. Many of those who listened commented of a similar feeling.
The thing I look forward to the most, is watching the teams which strike a link to those early World Cups I watched.
The great Scandinavian maverick
Peru have always been my South American team of choice. They were there at España 82, but have never returned until now. That kit; how could you not love that kit? They are in a hipster’s paradise of a group alongside Denmark, France and Australia.
Denmark will always mean Euro 84 and Mexico 86 to me, rather than Euro 92. It’s all about Elkjær you see? The great Scandinavian maverick. You can keep your prosaic march to glory in Sweden a few years later. It might have been a great script, but the football itself was largely awful to watch. The mid-1980s side played with style, with verve, with hypnotism.
France will always mean ‘Le Carré Magique’. The magic square. Platini, Giresse, Tigana and Ferdández.
They may not be those vintages anymore, but I will be losing myself in group C and group D, where Argentina find themselves up against Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. These two groups will then collide in the last 16. This is my part of the World Cup. Not Germany, not Spain, not Brazil, certainly not England.
I fully understand it if you feel you haven’t got the stomach for this World Cup, but take the time to scratch below the surface for the threads that speak to your inner-child and run with it.
You might just find it’s a more enjoyable tournament that you’d ever expect it to be.