If only the World Cup could be about the football. Last week, Fifa sent a letter to the football authorities of the 32 competing nations to urge them to “focus on the football” and to ensure it is not “dragged into every ideological or political battle”. Which is fine so long as you are not gay, a woman, a migrant labourer, a believer in democracy or a person with a conscience – or indeed any of the people Gianni Infantino claimed to be in his risibly hypocritical speech on Saturday.
This is, of course, the same Fifa president who was at Davos earlier in the year and who last Tuesday spoke at the G20 summit in Bali, calling for a ceasefire in Ukraine for the duration of the World Cup – a laudably neutral position, providing you are unaware Ukraine has just recaptured Kherson and has momentum such that any pause in the fighting is of clear advantage to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Infantino, coincidentally, was awarded the Order of Friendship by Putin in 2019 after Russia had hosted the World Cup. How complicated these things are! Thank goodness Infantino overcame the ginger jibes to do the politics for us.
So to take him at his word and focus on the football – which is, after all, the reason Fifa exists – the idea that football’s authorities actually have the good of football at heart is laughably naive. Any governing body that cared more about the game would not deliver bloated tournaments such as the Euros that feature the mucky compromise of best third-place teams going through. That means a lot of games lack jeopardy, while teams who play later have the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to do to progress. It is not yet clear how the 48 teams will be arranged for the next World Cup but it is hard to see a good way, so we should probably enjoy the clean simplicity of eight groups of four while we still can.
In an ideal world teams would be turning up refreshed and prepared. There would have been a break after the domestic season ended so squads could have a couple of weeks together to fine-tune systems. Some sides have done that but any player based in England, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal or the Netherlands had a week. Clearly that is not enough. There have never been fewer than 16 days (and 20-24 is more usual) between the Champions League final and the start of a World Cup – which means most players have had around four weeks to prepare.
It is true that a lot of teams played in either the Euros or the Copa América last summer or in the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year and so, for some, the preparation is already largely done. But there has been little chance for teams to experiment or make changes since: in common with most of Europe, England’s past six games were all in the Nations League, and four of those came in June when the players were exhausted.
Come September for the final two Nations League games that also doubled as World Cup preparation, Gareth Southgate, to take one example, was left in effect with a choice of either picking Harry Maguire to see if he could still prosper with the national team despite struggling at Manchester United or trialling possible replacements on the left side of central defence. He opted to stick with what he knew so neither Fikayo Tomori nor Marc Guéhi is in England’s 26 while Maguire is almost certain to start, despite his indifferent form.
Southgate, presumably, would also have liked a friendly or two to see how Ivan Toney, or indeed James Maddison, fared in an England system before making the decision to select the latter and discard the former. But there has been no opportunity.
Will that matter? For teams that were fairly settled, perhaps not too much. Argentina won the Copa América and can rumble on. Senegal won the Cup of Nations and have essentially been building for four years. Injuries to Giovanni Lo Celso and Sadio Mané complicate matters but essentially they know what they are doing. But Ghana, for instance, have installed an entirely new coaching structure since the Cup of Nations and would probably have benefited from more than two friendlies between the summer and naming their squad.
The Cup of Nations offers clear evidence of the lack of preparation time. Because of the compressed calendar and Covid protocols, no side had more than a week of buildup and many found themselves training with reduced squads. So the first round of games was extremely risk-averse, with most teams preferring to sit deep and few having had time to develop the fluency to overcome such tactics. Those fixtures yielded only 1.12 goals per game, as against 2.06 for the rest of the tournament.
It may be that that checks the direction in which international football has seemed to be going. Portugal won Euro 2016 and France reached the final of that tournament and won the 2018 World Cup with grim cussedness, keeping things tight and looking to nick a goal from a set piece or via a moment of brilliance from a forward. It is that model, with limited pressing, that Southgate’s England largely follow.
Other contenders, though, seem to have moved on: it may not be as sophisticated as the top club sides but Spain and Germany, even Brazil and Argentina, play a form of pressing game. Perhaps the muscle memory is strong enough for them to be able to pick up their style straight away but, if not, there could be an advantage for the more rigid, lower-block sides such as England, France and Portugal.
But the point is less what a successful style is likely to be than that the schedule of the competition is having an impact upon, and perhaps even slowing, the evolution of the game. Judge Fifa on the football? Happily: apart from all the more serious issues, Fifa has failed the sport it is supposed to govern and protect.