I’ve been to every World Cup since 1990 and hope to be in Moscow on June 14 to see the next one kick off. Here’s my unsolicited advice on how to watch the tournament.
Don’t expect quality. This year, the opening match may be the nadir: Russia and Saudi Arabia are the tournament’s lowest-ranked sides. But hardly any team at the World Cup can match the best club sides. Belgium’s coach, Roberto Martínez, recommends living with it. “It’s normal,” he told me. “At club level you have between 50 and 60 training sessions in pre-season. Then you play 38 games and become good by practising and understanding and anticipating things. Then you almost play without thinking.”
By contrast, he said, a national team knows each other much less well and faces more pressure. He shrugged: “The only good thing is that the opposition has the same problems.” World Cups aren’t particularly good. They just matter.
Use a second screen only for lesser games. Bantering on social media will make Russia-Saudi Arabia more fun. Even many journalists in the stadium will spend the match online. (In Johannesburg once, I almost had a fist-fight with my neighbour, whose noisy Skype session with his wife distracted me from the game.)
But when your team are playing, or it’s France against Germany in the knockout rounds, try to live the match as people did pre-internet, when it was the only thing in their brain. (An older friend of mine can still recite radio commentary from 1950s matches.) These will be your strongest football memories — or possibly some of your strongest memories, full stop.
Carefully choose your companions for a big game. You’ll remember who you watched with, and you will always be able to date the memory to the very day. If you have children aged six to 13, they will remember for ever, so stage their big screenings with special care. I can still see my grandparents watching the Holland-Argentina World Cup final in our living room on June 25 1978.
Don’t make or listen to predictions. I predicted that Brazil would win the last World Cup. Before you laugh (they lost the semi-final 7-1 to Germany), they were the bookmakers’ favourites too. World Cups are too random to predict. In a 38-match league, a team can compensate for one bad day, but not in this tournament. Most knockout matches are decided by a single goal or a penalty shootout. The difference between going home ignominiously and becoming immortal is often a matter of a referee’s judgment or a few inches on a couple of shots.
World Cups aren’t particularly good. They just matter
Hardly any other sport allots such a big role to luck. In rugby or basketball, the team with most possession usually wins.
There are 54 outs in a baseball game, and usually more than 100 points in a tennis match, so one bad bounce rarely matters. But in football, a weak team can get one lucky break and spend the rest of the game hanging on in front of their own goal.
Live the tournament totally, but don’t take it seriously. “The essential absurdity of football — that it has become so important — is nine-tenths of the poetry,” writes Phil Ball in Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football.
Most fans understand, even while they are screaming at the screen, that this isn’t serious. After England’s eliminations, people go to work the next morning. Suicides fall during World Cups, probably because an entire nation living the same event briefly creates a community that draws in even the loneliest people, as Stefan Szymanski and I wrote in Soccernomics.
Nor, for all the hysteria, is there much hooliganism. There have been zero noteworthy violent incidents at the past four World Cups.
Don’t imagine that World Cups affect real life. Contrary to the hype, a successful tournament can’t keep a president in power or create racial harmony in a country. A World Cup vanishes like a dream. It often reflects sociological reality, but doesn’t shape it.
Don’t trust everything you see. Some outcomes at World Cups are fixed. When South Korea were co-hosts in 2002, their defeat of Italy probably wasn’t just an innocent episode of terrible refereeing. Soon afterwards the referee, Byron Moreno, was suspended in his home country, Ecuador. In 2011 he was jailed in Brooklyn after landing at New York’s JFK airport with heroin hidden in his underpants.
The writer Declan Hill has produced evidence to suggest that the crooked gamblers who operate in most national leagues fixed at least one recent World Cup match. And Michel Platini, organiser of the 1998 tournament in France, casually revealed last month that the draw was manipulated to raise the chances of a Brazil-France final (which materialised).
The best moments at the World Cup are away from the football. In Brazil for the 2014 tournament, I spent 24 hours in Manaus in the Amazon. In my one free hour, I went for a walk, turned a corner, and there it was: the mighty river. A man was washing his hair in it, and chickens were wandering in the shallows. That was probably the only time I’ll ever see it.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.