The opening ceremony was ostentatious, the stadiums are full, television, websites and papers talk almost exclusively about the event – and yet, the World Cup is in deep trouble. This affects pretty much all stakeholders in football – players, coaches, officials and fans. The crisis of the World Cup is due to the development of modern football in recent decades, which is summed up by two characteristics: Professionalisation and commercialisation.
Once the World Cup was considered the most important platform of the game. Every four years you could see the best football and the newest developments on an exclusive stage. Today the quality of a game at the World Cup usually doesn’t exceed the athletic and tactical level of a top game in moderate domestic leagues, like the Austrian Bundesliga. This is the result of the constant loss of importance of national teams. Previously, the best players of a country made up a team that would be stronger than that of any single club. Today, nationality as a distinguishing feature plays a marginal, virtually random role in professional football. Big teams engage the best players regardless of their origin.
The dominance of club teams is only partly due to their recruiting possibilities; a significant part of their strength consists in their daily work. Players practice tactics, movements, automatisms and so forth not with their national teams, but with their employers, the clubs. This highly professionalised area is nowadays usually led not only by one outstanding coach, but by a whole group of experts. Their work proves that good football is not the result of the class of individual players, but that you can be only successful as a true team. National teams lack this daily work, so it is not surprising that teams with well-established players have a huge advantage in big international tournaments. Reigning champions Germany started the 2014 World Cup final with six FC Bayern players, and in the 88th minute, Miroslav Klose left the pitch for Bayern-striker Mario Götze. We all know how the story ended. In the 2010 edition, champions Spain had ten players from only two clubs – FC Barcelona and Real Madrid – in the starting eleven of the final.
Such high concentrations of one particular club in a national team are exceptions, but you can see an obvious tendency among the World Cup participants: There is a high probability that they play in one of the five best leagues in the world. Nearly 50 percent of World Cup players earn their salaries either in the English Premier League, the Spanish Primera Division, the German Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A (although Italy did not even qualify) or the French Ligue 1. On first sight, this might be considered flattering for one club or another. It is a nice acknowledgment of your work to see your players compete at the World Cup. Plus, the tournament is still a prominent platform after all, and good performances can increase the player’s market value and bring in high transfer revenues. But the World Cup also poses a big risk that the clubs would rather avoid. Just ask the officials of Barcelona what they thought of the last edition. Their striker at the time, Neymar, was injured and their then-newest signing, Luis Suarez, was suspended for four months from all professional games for unsportsmanlike conduct at the World Cup. FIFA has established the World Cup Benefits Program, to pay compensations to the clubs of the competing players, but those fees can’t outweigh the financial risks of long-term injury in the highly commercialised game. The clubs would simply prefer their highly-regulated and stressed employees not to play additional matches – and therefore try to avoid their call-up for national games. This tension between federations and clubs can end in harsh conflicts and often leads to the retirement from the national team of rather young players.
The decline of the sporting importance of the World Cup, the concentration of the best leagues and the conflicts between clubs and associations are ultimately a symptom of the crucial question in modern football: Who earns the most money? And how? On the one hand there is FIFA, whose absolute cash cow is the World Cup. The tournament in Brazil guaranteed a turnover of about 4 billion euros. The federation competes with continental associations such as UEFA, which focuses primarily on their club tournaments: according to their latest Financial Report, UEFA made a turnover of 2.8 billion in 2016; 17. 88 percent came from the club competitions. The year before, they generated 4.6 billion, thanks to the European Championship, and still the major part – 53 percent – was earned through club competitions. Another huge player comes in the form of the biggest European leagues: In 2016/17, the top five generated 14.7 billion. The Premier League, with their 5.3 billion, had a higher revenue than FIFA makes at a World Cup or UEFA in a European Championship year. Thanks to the sale of television rights, football at the highest level is rolling in money. Therefore, institutions like FIFA, UEFA and the big leagues are in fierce competition for the biggest share of these funds. Although FIFA is trying its best, their main asset – the national teams – is too weak to compete with the clubs, who can rely on numerous regular domestic and international tournaments.
This will become even more marked over the next years. The World Cup will lose even more importance. That does not mean, however, that the end of FIFA is near. Their tournament still serves as a low-threshold event to promote football; participating countries use it to mobilize national pride and hosts try to impress the world with their well-planned display of modernity and pomposity. If the tournament has little else to offer, it is still alive as an event of commerce and folklore.