My first experience of the World Cup—at least as a marginally intellectually-competent ectoplasm—came in 1978. An English kid obsessed with soccer, the thrill of that World Cup, held in Argentina, will never be matched. To hear once again the BBC theme music takes me back to my nearly 10-year-old self, allowed to stay up past 8:45 by dad to watch a final group game between Scotland and the Netherlands. (England hadn't made the World Cup that time around). We—me, my elder brother, Dad—assumed our usual football-watching positions, laying like dead fish on the living room floor, peering up uncomfortably at the small TV, perched as it was on some wobbly high table. Up on our elbows we held our chins in our hands, rapt, Dad making every pass, taking every shot, his foot jerking up and down on the nasty brown shag carpeting. If I've ever been happier than that night, I forget.
Scotland-Holland was a classic game made unforgettable by Archie Gemmill's mazy solo goal in the second half. "This hard little professional," in the words of British commentator David Coleman, picked up the ball at the right corner of the box, beat three despairing Dutch tackles, and dinked the ball over the on-rushing keeper. Back in Britain, those three English fans leapt up from the floor and danced around like happy salmon. Scotland had to win by three goals to advance to the next round, and this goal made it 3-1. There was a chance ... but by 10:30 Scotland were out. (The game had ended 3-2.) The Tartan Army came home proud but defeated, like James IV's forces after the Battle of Flodden Field.
And then the rest of the 1978 World Cup continued, and we lay entranced, especially by the play of the silky, muscular Argentine side. Their names still rattle around my head: Mario Kempes, Daniel Passarella, Alberto Tarantini, Daniel Bertoni, Osvaldo Ardilles, and Leopoldo Luque. (My brother still sometimes calls me Luque in honor of the great center forward.) The final was a magical event, punctuated by reams of ticker tape raining down on two of the finest sides ever assembled. Facing Argentina on home soil was another silky, muscular side, the Scot-vanquishing Netherlands, with the van de Kerkhof twins and Neeskens anchoring a midfield behind legends Rep and Rensenbrink up front. The compelling game went to extra time where Argentina scored twice to win the World Cup at home.
Quickly, the trickle of foreign talent moving around became a torrent, leading to the game being unrecognizable from the one we watched in 1978.
The point, though, was that I'd never seen most of these players actually play the game. True, even then some players left their countries to play elsewhere, but domestic leagues around the world were mainly peopled by players from home. The Division One champions in England in 1978, Nottingham Forest, featured a squad of five Scots and the rest English. So seeing Mario Kempes jink his way through a Dutch defense featuring Ernie Brandts and Ruud Krol was the height of exotic. We simply never saw these geniuses on a field unless the World Cup came around. The world was smaller; globalization was years away; TV coverage of football was extremely limited; Dad was alive.
But the 1978 World Cup was a watershed moment. Right after that tournament, three of Argentina's starting 11 left to play in Europe (Tarantini and Ardilles for Birmingham City and Tottenham Hotspur in England, and Bertoni for Sevilla in Spain). Quickly, the trickle of foreign talent moving around became a torrent, leading to the game being unrecognizable from the one we watched in 1978. The globalization of football via the free movement of its top stars has since killed one of the crucial aspects of watching World Cups years ago: the elements of discovery and surprise.
FAST FORWARD TO THE 2014 World Cup and the English Premier League that has just finished. Manchester City, which just won that competition, has a squad featuring 29 first team players, just five of whom are English (and only two of whom—James Milner and Joe Hart—regularly played). The stars of this championship-winning side will all feature in the coming World Cup: David Silva for Spain, Yaya Toure for the Ivory Coast, Edin Dzeko for Bosnia and Herzigovina, Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta for Argentina, Fernandhino for Brazil, and Vincent Kompany for Belgium. (Plus Joe Hart, and—sadly—James Milner for England.) So to a fan of the English Premier League or of the Champions League (or the Copa Libertadores in South America), there's nothing new to see here. And it's not just Manchester City who will send most of their team to the World Cup. Much of Spain's squad (the current World Cup holders), hails from either Real Madrid or Barcelona—and at one point a couple of years ago, it seemed like "Spain" was merely a Lionel Messi-less Barcelona. The Bayern Munich team who lost to Real Madrid in the European Champions League semi-finals in 2014 will send most of their team to the World Cup, too. Even the 23-man Brazil squad features just four home-based players—Victor, Jefferson, Jo, and Fred—while the rest play in Europe.
The real power in the modern game is now with the clubs. Back in 1978, and before then, to pull on a national team jersey was the pinnacle of a player's career, but as with most things, power goes where the money is. The riches available for a team appearing in the Champions League, for example, make one's head swoon. Teams that reach merely the group stages get to share a pot made up of prize money and TV fees estimated to be the equivalent of around one and a quarter billion dollars, and it's only getting bigger. World Cup prize money, in comparison, will total just over $358 million in 2014 (though the total money available, including appearance fees, is over half a billion).
On the playing side, many guys turning out for their national teams donate their "fee" to charity, so paltry is it compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars per week they get paid to play for their club sides. (Admittedly, for some fringe American players, World Cup bonuses provide a nice income boost.) And clubs themselves long since stopped viewing a player being picked for his national team as a point of pride—in fact, many managers are loathe to release their top players to appear in exhibition matches. After winning the Champions League with Real Madrid this year, Iker Casillas, who is also the keeper for Spain, called the victory more important than the World Cup. And Mexico’s best player, Carlos Vela, who played in the Champions League this past season, went as far as refusing a spot on El Tri’s World Cup roster (and has refused to play for Mexico since 2011).
Players now do their best work in their club shirts, not in the national team colors. If I want to watch great games featuring all of the world's stars, then I can do no worse than watch the four quarterfinal games of this year's competition. I got to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao (Portugal), Neymar and Oscar (Brazil), Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Toni Kroos (Germany), Eden Hazard (Belgium), and Wayne Rooney (England). I got to see Lionel Messi (Argentina). The games were vibrant, exciting, edge-of-the-seaters, filled with great goals and fueled by guys who'd played together for months and months. Meanwhile, national teams only play together a few times a year. The top stars know who pays their astronomical wages, and it ain't their national team associations.
And then there are the players one doesn't get to see in the World Cup, of which there are three main categories: players for countries who didn't qualify; players for countries who will never qualify; and players who don't get picked by their countries for some (usually petty, personal) reason. In the first category, the world's most expensive player, Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, won't be in Brazil because he plays for Wales, and they're unlikely to ever qualify for a World Cup. (It's the reason the great Welshman Ryan Giggs never graced the tournament, nor Northern Ireland’s Georgie Best before him.) In the category of "didn't quite qualify" languishes Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the mesmeric Paris Saint-Germain forward, whose Swedish team was knocked out by Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal in a two-game playoff. That playoff was actually depressing for fans of skillful attacking football—we knew it was either Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic who'd spend his summer with his brilliant feet up. Ibrahimovic, employing his usual modesty—his just-released autobiography is titled I Am Zlatan—commented that "the World Cup is nothing without me," and he's right. In the final category—players whose countries qualified but who remained unpicked by their coaches—sits Argentina's Carlos Tevez (doesn't get along with the coach), France's Samir Nasri (ditto), and USA's Landon Donovan, to name just three.
BUT WHO AM I kidding? I still plan to watch every single second of every game. We'll watch it, because we've always watched it, and because it's the World Cup. The World Cup isn't going anywhere—it's still the global focus for football, and few other events would see billions of people gathering around balky TV sets to scream and sing and curse. But here's a modest proposal to finish, one which might add a wild card element to loan the tournament fresh legs: Let's add an international team to the next World Cup, picked by a top coach (I nominate retired genius Sir Alex Ferguson). The team would be called Nations United, and would be made up of players from various countries—ones who didn't get picked, will never qualify, or just missed out. If, like me, you're not much of a tub-thumping patriot (note the English boy celebrating a Scottish goal as far back as 1978), this team might be one to get behind. Had it been in place this year, the side could have featured Peter Cech (Czech Republic, didn't qualify) in goal; a back four of Branislav Ivanovic (Serbia, ditto), Marquinhos, Filipe Luis, and Joao Miranda (Brazil, unpicked); a midfield of Michael Carrick (England, unpicked), Francesco Totti (Italy, ditto), Samir Nasri (France, ditto), and Gareth Bale (Wales, won't ever qualify); with Carlos Tevez (Argentina, unpicked) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden, didn't qualify) up front. (Sorry, Landon, it's time for youth so I’m siding with Jurgen Klinsmann—though at least you display more class than Klinsmann's son.) That team could win the World Cup, or it could flame and burn in a fire of egos and unfamiliar talent. Either way, like a mind-bending goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it might bring us once again to our feet.