Competitions

Competitions

How was it for you? Some personal reflections on the 2014 World Cup

Dr John Beech

Posted: July 14, 2014

Writing a review directly after the finish of the World Cup is, as Swiss Tony might have put it, a bit like making love to a beautiful woman, and then writing an assessment of your relationship over a post-coital cigarette.

This may seem a laboured analogy, but there are some significant similarities.  Was the World Cup what you would have wanted in the long run?  Is the high level of emotion engendered appropriate in the longer term?

The World Cup has two implicit objectives that do not necessarily overlap: as entertainment, to produce the most exciting football over a three week-period, and, as football’s quadrennial showcase, to produce a worthy champion.  Have these objectives been simultaneously achieved?  Are there lessons to be learned for future World Cups?

Unarguably the World Cup produced a number of highly predictable outcomes, ranging from a spectacular array of both goals and saves, to the usual display of distinctly dodgy haircuts, this edition being particularly strong on the former and producing a Premier Cru Supérieur with the latter.

There was plenty of beautiful football and mercifully little of what a Scottish friend describes as “tippy-tappy shite”.  Unarguably, as ever, it caught the public imagination – I saw a Group B game in a nearly full fan park on the concourse of Munich Airport.

Perhaps the place to begin a review is with the viewing experience.  Little cheer for home fans, again predictably.  Except that is for viewers in Scotland.  Although before they get too smug at England’s dismal performance, it’s worth pointing out that qualifiers for the Round of 16 included Uruguay and Costa Rica, both of which have smaller populations than Scotland (not that that offers much in the way of compensation to England fans!).

The viewing experience was generally good in terms of production, once you had (fairly quickly) got used to the individual style of the broadcaster.  Much more worrying, and indeed distinctly irritating, was the problem of shadow across the pitch in the first games of the day, and in the Final itself.  At one point in a Sao Paolo game I was aware of the aperture on the camera changing as the operator struggled to cope with the very different exposure requirements of the light and dark parts of the pitch.  In the Sao Paolo stadium the problem was not the more common gentle curve from the shape of the stadium roof but a shadow cast from superstructure right across the pitch, resulting in a massive L‑shaped block of darkness across the final third.  With all the other issues surrounding Qatar 2022, little comment has been raised over this issue, perhaps a more important reason for playing games with a closed stadium roof than the much-discussed issue of temperature and air conditioning.

In the UK we were subjected to the commentary and punditry of either the BBC or ITV.  As always, the Beeb won clearly in my book, in spite of Mark Lawrenson.  As for the quality of punditry, I wouldn’t pick out Phil Neville for condemnation.  To me, easily the most irritating pundit was Glen Hoddle.  Apart from speaking the semi-esoteric language of the professional footballer rather more markedly than his fellow pundits, he seemed incapable of completing every fifth sentence.   Halfway through every fifth sentence he would suddenly stop and start a new sentence on a different subject.  It was if we, the viewers, were watching a recording with a bad splice covering the removal of some perhaps offending material.

One thing I really didn’t enjoy was the ‘replay’ logo.  It was probably just me, but I really found it irritating for some reason – for goodness sake, a simple flashing ‘R’ in the corner of the screen would have sufficed.

Branding

Oddly for FIFA, branding was a relatively low-level affair, confined mostly to the rather comical players were required to wear off the pitch, and a single pitch-side advertising board in each stadium.  There were occasional flashes of vacuous FIFA straplines such as ‘For the Game; For the World’.  Quite so.  Much more prominent was the advertising of official sponsors.  But did we really have to have uniformed air hostesses at the medals presentation?

I’m sure they would all claim a massive return on investment through the leverage of shared brand values and the consequent synergy.  Hmmm.  It’s hard to see the sharing of brand values between, for example, FIFA on the one hand and Continental Tyres or Castrol on the other.  Now a certain conceptual synergy between Listerine and FIFA I can at least picture.  After all, the former gets rid of a bad taste in the mouth…

The format

The secret to a good World Cup is ensuring a fine balance between the predictable (the better team actually winning each match) and the unpredictable (the ‘underdog’ winning any particular match).

The current structure of a group phase followed by a knockout phase goes a long way to establishing that fine balance.  Providing the number of games each team plays in the group phase is small enough there are not a sufficient number games to allow a regression to the mean of performance levels.  It’s the same principle that is applied in snooker, where in the first round players compete to be the first to only five wins, whereas in the later stages of a tournament they compete over a much longer of games to ensure that the form of the players is more accurately reflected in the final result.

If we look at the actual results of the group phase, we can see interesting differences.  The Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina and Belgium all managed to pick up the maximum 9 points, while Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, France and Germany achieved the next highest possible points score of 7.  Cameroon, Australia and Honduras finished their groups pointless, while Japan, England, Iran, Ghana and South Korea only managed a single point.

For these teams, three matches seem to have established a clear form guide.  On the other hand, Ecuador and Portugal, both going home have gained four points, must have felt that they were unlucky not to have had a kinder draw with their group.

There is a clear argument that the groups could have produced more balanced competition by seeding.  Julien Guyon has proposed a better system of allocating nations to groups by using seeding to ensure better competitive balance.  While I have a lot of sympathy with his approach, a small part of me is against it – don’t we all enjoy seeing at least one good gubbing during the World Cup so long as it is not the nation we support?  Undoubtedly Brazil’s collapse in the semi-final was not the gubbing many would have predicted, but at least it should see an end to match stats as a serious reflection of how a game went!

One outcome of the current format is the sheer number of games over a short period – regularly four games a day in the early stages, for a fortnight.  While is a dream for the die-hard fan, it does push one’s stamina and, in the case of a few games, will.  Dare I express the heresy that this is too much football?  Seriously, I do wonder what pressures it puts on domestic relationships.  I live in a civilised household of three, but am the lone football fan.  Fulminating quietly as I watched a game on the smaller television in the back room following a democratic vote of which Midsummer Murders was the winner (philistines the pair of you!), I wondered whether, genuinely, the World Cup is the cause of increased domestic violence.

All in all, I don’t think that FIFA have got the format badly wrong after tweaking it over recent editions.  There are other issues though which I think can be handled better.

Refereeing

When it’s our won team on the receiving end of a poor refereeing decision, we get highly excited; when it affects another team, we tend to be more philosophical.  What is at stake however is the very essence of ‘fair play’ and hence the integrity of the game,.

We have finally reached the stage where FIFA have introduced goal-line technology, although, in best FIFA tradition, they managed to make enough of a mess of it to confuse at least some of the pundits.  We repeatedly saw instant replays showing whether X or Y was offside, or Z had handled the ball.  It was clear that referees, fallible as any human is, and having to make snap decisions, did sometimes make the wrong decision.  This is entirely understandable and forgivable, but not using the available technology instantly to verify, and if necessary overturn, decisions.  I would advocate a system similar to Grand Slam tennis, with a team’s manger being able to make three appeals for an instant replay and reconsideration by the referee.  This could at least be trtied as an experiment in 2018.  Yes, it would disrupt the game to a small extent, but no more so than stopping the game for an injury, something everybody manages to live with.

Then there is the question of diving.  This does seem to be the curse of modern football in particular.  The picture doing the rounds on Facebook claiming that football is a game of 90 minutes of pretending to be injured whereas rugby is a game of 90 minutes of pretending to not be injured has some merit.  Generally I am not in favour of retrospective punishment, but I would like to see some retrospective punishment of individuals who are shown to be blatantly diving.  The World Cup is no place for some of the amateur dramatics we saw, and surely such behaviour brings the game into disrepute, a chargeable offence.  Unless it is clamped down on, its incidence will simply grow, to the detriment of football as a sport.

Much the same can also be said of the attempts to push the envelope of gamesmanship.  Krul’s aggression towards the Costa Rican penalty takers for example left a mouth in want of Listerine.  The ‘beautiful’ game had at least temporarily disappeared.  As it did with the infamous biting incident.

Future World Cups

So, some increased use of technology and a tightening up on unsportsmanlike behaviour aside, I would not wish to see that many changes in operation for the future.

There are, however, some specific issues for 2018 and 2022 that are highlighted by what has happened in 2014.  In particular, the automatic qualification of the host nation may be the de rigeur etiquette of such competitions, and Brazil’s automatic qualification will hardly have sent a ripple of dissent through the game, but Russia will need to step a gear for 2018 to avoid at least a little dissatisfaction.  As for 2022…  It strikes me as extraordinary that among all the voices raising objections to the choice of Qatar as host, we hear very little complaint that a country currently ranked by FIFA at no. 100 with a ranking score of 330 points, less than half the 741 points of the current no. 32, Sweden, with 741 points, and less than a third of England’s points, will benefit from automatic selection.  This has all the makings of considerable embarrassment for both FIFA and Qatar.  The first appearance of “plucky little Qatar” in the Western media will undoubtedly make me wince however predictable it is.

The broader perspective

Nagging away at the back, I confess, of my brain throughout the tournament has been the worrying ability to lose all sense of perspective.  The Cup provided am illusion that all is for the best in the best of all football worlds.  It was all too easy, even for our own football media to be distracted from the complete implosions of Hereford United and Salisbury City, and the worrying takeovers at Oxford United, Reading and Sheffield Wednesday.  Why would they bother with news items on these clubs like these when there were stories like this to be written?  With a similarly sense of priorities, deep problems with the domestic game in Brazil have attracted little attention.

The World Cup has also provided temporary relief for the Brazilian government from the protests against hosting it.  Or has it just provided a diversion for Western media correspondents in Brazil?  Certainly we have seen some utterly banal commentary on things Brazilian.  When it comes to protest, Qatar 2022 may claim an unwanted record, this surely a story that should have had mainstream media coverage.

While we academics continue to ponder long and hard on the vexed question of just what exactly the economic impact of the World Cup will be, we largely forget a much a great cost – the lives lost directly as a result of the World Cup.  The lives lost by construction workers will most readily come to mind, and will continue to be an issue for 2022.  But then there were the lives lost by accident in over-exuberant celebration.  Most shockingly was the news that people had been murdered when simply enjoying a beer watching the World Cup on television with their mates in Kenya, and likewise in Nigeria, and not for the first time, a similar attack having occurred in Uganda during the last World Cup.

Whether we had a ‘worthy winner’ or not just doesn’t seem quite that important any more.

Perhaps I’m just being curmudgeonly in not rushing to address this question – I usually am.  Not to avoid the issue though, Germany were the better team on the night (note the use of the comparative you media pundits; there were only two teams playing).  Actually I’d be rather more interested in what in particular a Ghanaian fan, or even an Algerian fan, thought of Germany winning.

The FIFA rankings, not an especially useful data set, did indicate the likely performance of most nations, with the notable exceptions of Spain, Portugal, Italy and England:

Rank Team Points Outcome
1 Spain 1485 Eliminated at the group stage; 3 points
2 Germany 1300 Winners
3 Brazil 1242 Eliminated in the Semi-Final; 4th as a result of the playoff
4 Portugal 1189 Eliminated at the group stage; 4 points
5 Argentina 1175 Losing finalists
6 Switzerland 1149 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage
7 Uruguay 1147 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage
8 Colombia 1137 Eliminated in the Quarter Finals
9 Italy 1104 Eliminated at the group stage; 3 points
10 England 1090 Eliminated at the group stage; 1 point
11 Belgium 1074 Eliminated in the Quarter Finals
12 Greece 1064 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage on penalties
13 USA 1035 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage
14 Chile 1026 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage on penalties
15 Netherlands 981 Eliminated in the Semi-Final on penalties; 4th as a result of the playoff
16 Ukraine 915 Did not qualify
17 France 913 Eliminated in the Quarter Finals
18 Croatia 903 Eliminated at the group stage; 3 points
19 Russia 893 Eliminated at the group stage; 2 points
20 Mexico 882 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage
21 Bosnia and Herzegovina 873 Eliminated at the group stage; 3 points
22 Algeria 858 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage
23 Denmark 809 Did not qualify
23 Côte d’Ivoire 809 Eliminated at the group stage; 3 points
25 Slovenia 800 Did not qualify
26 Ecuador 791 Eliminated at the group stage; 4 points
27 Scotland 786 Did not qualify
28 Costa Rica 762 Eliminated in the Quarter Finals on penalties
29 Romania 761 Did not qualify
30 Serbia 745 Did not qualify
31 Panama 743 Did not qualify
32 Sweden 741 Did not qualify
33 Honduras 731 Eliminated at the group stage; 0 points
37 Ghana 704 Eliminated at the group stage; 1 point
43 Iran 641 Eliminated at the group stage; 3 points
44 Nigeria 640 Eliminated at the round of 16 stage
46 Japan 626 Eliminated at the group stage; 1 point
56 Cameroon 558 Eliminated at the group stage; 0 points
57 South Korea 547 Eliminated at the group stage; 1 point
62 Australia 526 Eliminated at the group stage; 0 points

 

Was it a memorable world Cup?  Certainly, but too often for the wrong reasons.

It’s worth noting that instead of finishing with a high, FIFA find themselves once again embroiled in scandal, and the host nation is not covering itself in glory off the pitch either.

Oh that the beautiful game was once more beautiful!

About Dr John Beech

John Beech is an Honorary Research Fellow at Coventry University.  He is the author/co-author/co-editor of a range of books, book chapters and journal articles on various aspects of sports management and English football management in particular.  He is an International Professor at the Russian International Olympic University in Sochi, Russia, and has held the post of Visiting Professor at FH Kufstein University of  Applied Sciences in Austria, and at the Instituto de Empresa (IE) Business School in Spain.  He currently lectures in Sochi, Kufstein, the JAMK University of Applied Sciences at Jyväskylä in Finland, the Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences in Salzgitter, Germany, and Karlshochschule International University, Germany.

He is the curator of three sports news portals dedicated to Football FinanceThe Business of Sports Management  and  The Business of Events Management