The Russia World Cup has to save international football from crisis

Barney Ronay on 20 March 2018

As the friendly international spring break descends upon the season like a dose of Sunday afternoon blues, it has become a reflex response among those watching to sigh a little, to count the days, to see this severance from the teat of club football excitement as a draught of cold water, another unwelcome interruption from the dying hand of international football.

In many ways this sense of deflation is a credit to the way the Premier League is sold and packaged. If not quite a reflection of its enduring tensions. It is worth being clear on this point. When the current round of 82 mixed and varied international friendlies has been played, Manchester City will still be miles clear of the field, the Premier League season still reduced to a wrangle to avoid 19th and 18th place. Serie A will still be the only major European league with anything resembling a title race.

In the meantime international football, so often dismissed – with some justification – as a drowned world of by-rote mediocrity, is entering one of its periods of sharpened interest. Many of these games may look enjoyably obscure – Gibraltar v Latvia anyone? – or a selection of carefully staged geopolitical oddities (I bring you: Madagascar v Kosovo at the Stade Jean Rolland). But there is also something more tangible in train, the first real spark of the World Cup fuse, a kind of base camp for Russia 2018.

This will be the last round of friendlies before the club seasons end, a place where squads are trimmed and sharpened, tactical plans junked or fleshed out. And where we might get a sense of the look and feel of Russia 2018, European football’s last sensible international tournament before the inanities of the multi-nation Euros and Qatar’s winter-sun break.

History suggests there are three key on-field components to a genuinely memorable World Cup. The first is a high-functioning top tier of teams: a pedigree winner and at least one other side touched with a little greatness to chase them across the line.

This often turns on circumstance. The most vivid teams define themselves in fine tournament details. The good news for Russia 2018’s prospects is the likely winners look both impressively stocked and genuinely hard to separate.

Hence, in the current round of fixtures, some obvious moments of A-list gold. Argentina play Italy then Spain. Germany face Spain then Brazil. Chuck in France, who play Colombia, and history, and indeed most predictions of the future, suggest the winner will come from this bunch.

Toni Kroos has become the heartbeat of the world champions Germany.
Toni Kroos has become the heartbeat of the world champions Germany. Photograph: TF-Images/Getty Images

Germany are deserved favourites, with a method that seems beautifully grooved and some genuine depth in the player pool. Toni Kroos has matured into the real heart of this late-Löw team, all grizzled serial winners and fearless young talent. Germany do not exactly look irresistible. But they seem like a standard to beat, a default winner, supremely well-equipped to retain the title unless someone, somewhere can come up with a reason why not.

Brazil are better under Tite, with less in the way of Neymar-dependence and plenty of elite club football faces. Not to mention a hard core who have played club football in Russia or Ukraine.

Spain’s blend of ageing lions and sparky young guns is the usual seductive mix. Watching a midfield containing Isco, Thiago Alcântara and Andrés Iniesta might be an absorbing game within a game in its own right. France could probably pick a last-16 team from players who will not make their squad. Argentina have the greatest club footballer of all time and a rag-bag of talent and scufflers in support. There is enough here for the gears to click, the sense of destiny to take over, for at least one of the obvious A-listers to find its best rhythms.

The second necessity for a functioning tournament is interest elsewhere, a generational moment from one or two of the nearly-theres: think Poland ’82, Holland through the 90s, Romania at USA 94, Colombia last time out. Again the next week’s fixtures could offer some hope. Portugal are behind England in the UK betting, laughably, but they have a very decent chance of winning the World Cup. The game against Egypt looks fascinating, a chance for the form horse Mohamed Salah to pit himself against the annihilating boot of Portugal’s enduring golden god.

Can Mohamed Salah take Egypt to even greater heights at Russia 2018?
Can Mohamed Salah take Egypt to even greater heights at Russia 2018? Photograph: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

And throughout the week there are games that look like convincingly drool-worthy World Cup last-16 knockout ties. Poland, currently joint sixth in the Fifa rankings, play Nigeria. Nigeria play Serbia. Belgium’s blend of muscular defence, attacking brilliance and Roberto Martínez has a one-off against Saudi Arabia.

In the middle of which there is a genuine seam of talent, candidates for breakout success, a run to the semis, haunting penalty shootout agony.

Similarly the final ingredient – the breakout-team, the Cameroon 1990 – also looks intriguingly poised. There will surely be hints this week. South Korea face Poland, Iceland play Peru, Denmark take on Panama. Even England, defiantly touting around their assortment of bafflement and inflated expectation, could surprise everyone by failing to collapse under Gareth Southgate’s cautiously dogged hand.

So far, so familiar. But there is an added urgency too. Whatever your views on international football – and many younger fans, drawn more to individual players, do seem nonplussed by the spectacle of energetic mediocrity wrapped in a flag – it is undoubtedly entering a point of dramatic crisis.

Fifa is desperate for a successful World Cup. The club game continues to soar away into the stratosphere, sucking up coaching talent, setting an unmatchable bar of intensity.

Meanwhile, the World Cup continues to struggle under its self-imposed yoke of corruption and tailing interest, the political difficulties of Russia, even the disaster-in-waiting of badly applied VAR. There is a genuine sense of jeopardy. International football desperately needs this to work out. And it all starts here.

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