Gianni Infantino and Fifa failed in football by missing the rise in Qatar | World Cup 2022
If only the World Cup could relate to football. Last week, Fifa sent a letter to the football authorities of the 32 competing nations urging them to “focus on football” and ensure that it is not “drawn into all the ideological battles or policies”. Which is fine as long as you’re not gay, female, migrant worker, pro-democracy supporter or someone with a conscience – or in fact one of the people Gianni Infantino claimed to be in his hypocritical speech of Saturday.
This is, of course, the same Fifa president who was in Davos earlier this year and who spoke last Tuesday at the G20 summit in Bali, calling for a ceasefire in Ukraine to the duration of the World Cup – a commendable neutral position, foreseeing you don’t know that Ukraine has just taken over Kherson and has such momentum that any pause in the fighting clearly benefits Russia and Vladimir Putin. Infantino, coincidentally, received the Order of Friendship from Putin in 2019 after Russia hosted the World Cup. How complicated these things are! Thank goodness Infantino overcame the gingerbread jokes to play politics for us.
So, to take his word for it and focus on football – which is, after all, Fifa’s raison d’être – the idea that football authorities actually have the good of football at heart is ridiculously naïve. Any governing body that cared more about the game wouldn’t come up with bloated tournaments such as the Euros that feature the mucky compromise of top third-place teams. This means that many matches are safe, while teams playing later have the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to do to progress. It’s not yet clear how the 48 teams will be laid out for the next World Cup, but it’s hard to see a good path, so we should probably enjoy the pared-down simplicity of eight groups of four while we still can.
In an ideal world, teams would arrive refreshed and prepared. There would have been a break after the end of the domestic season so the teams could have a few weeks together to fine-tune the systems. Some teams did, but any player based in England, Germany, Italy, France, Portugal or the Netherlands had a week. This is clearly not enough. There has never been less than 16 days (and 20-24 is more usual) between the Champions League final and the start of a World Cup – meaning most players have had around four weeks to prepare.
It is true that many teams played either the Euro or the Copa América last summer or the African Cup of Nations earlier this year and therefore, for some, the preparation is already largely done. But teams have had little chance to experiment or make changes since: as in most European countries, England’s last six games have all been in the Nations League, and four of them them took place in June when the players were exhausted.
In September for the last two Nations League games which also doubled for the preparation of the World Cup, Gareth Southgate, to take an example, had the choice of choosing Harry Maguire to see if he could still thrive with the national team despite its difficulties. at Manchester United or test possible replacements on the left side of central defence. He chose to stick with what he knew so neither Fikayo Tomori nor Marc Guéhi are in England’s 26 while Maguire is almost certain to start, despite his indifferent form.
Southgate, presumably, would also have liked a friend or two to see how Ivan Toney, or even James Maddison, fared in an English system before making the decision to select the latter and reject the former. But there was no opportunity.
Will it matter? For fairly established teams, perhaps not too much. Argentina won the Copa América and can continue. Senegal won the Nations Cup and basically built for four years. Injuries to Giovanni Lo Celso and Sadio Mané complicate matters but they basically know what they are doing. But Ghana, for example, have had a whole new coaching structure in place since the Nations Cup and would likely have benefited from more than two friendlies between the summer and their squad’s appointment.
The Nations Cup offers clear evidence of the lack of preparation time. Due to the compressed schedule and Covid protocols, no team had more than a week of buildup and many found themselves training with reduced squads. Thus, the first round of matches was extremely cautious, with most teams preferring to sit deep and few having had time to develop the fluidity necessary to overcome such tactics. These matches yielded just 1.12 goals per game, compared to 2.06 for the rest of the tournament.
This may verify the direction in which international football appears to be heading. Portugal won Euro 2016 and France reached the final of that tournament and won the 2018 World Cup with dark jealousy, keeping things tight and looking to score a goal from a set piece or via a moment of brilliance from an attacker. It is this model, with limited pressing, that Southgate’s England largely follows.
Other suitors, however, seem to have moved on: it may not be as sophisticated as the top club teams, but Spain and Germany, or even Brazil and Argentina, play a form of pressing . Maybe the muscle memory is strong enough that they can pick up their style straight away, but if not, there could be an advantage for stiffer, lower-block teams like England, France and Portugal. .
But the point is less what a successful style is likely to be than the timing of the competition impacts, and perhaps even slows, the evolution of the game. Judge Fifa on football? Fortunately: apart from all the more serious problems, Fifa has let down the sport it is supposed to govern and protect.