Friday, July 11, 2014

Why I Don't Enjoy Watching The World Cup Anymore

World Cup 2014. Biggest tournament of the world's most watched and loved sport. Once every 4 years. Uniting the world's best footballing nations - across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia - under the golden tropical sun of Brazil, spiritual home of Joga Bonito. Samba time, baby!

Well, not really. It's turned out to be quite a disaster, actually. Not pleasant to the spectators to watch, not healthy for the sport to grow. It's a struggle to stay interested and awake.

I grew up watching the World Cup, ever since USA 1994 as a kid. But as years passed, my passion dwindles. The World Cup isn't what it used to be. It has lost it spark, lost its soul. Or maybe it has always been this way - a dreary overrated blockbuster of twenty two grown men chasing a ball for 90 minutes (or more than 2 hours, if the game stretches to extra-time and penalties).

The 'Divine Ponytail' at the World Cup '94 - My first love... and first heartbreak

1. The Heat And Poor Scheduling

The heat is scorching, the humidity is stifling. It's the first ever World Cup where games have been stopped for players to take cooling breaks. Numerous coaches and players - especially from Europe - have complained about the harsh conditions. Games are slowed to a pedestrian pace. Players huff and puff, only to tire after the second half.

"That's too bad," one may argue, "How do you think the South Americans feel when they play in the World Cup in Europe?". Fair point, but there's another dimension to consider - time. Almost all games have been scheduled either at 1.00 pm, 3.00 pm, 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm local time. Compare this to the usual kick-off times for:

  • The South America regional (CONMEBOL) World Cup qualifiers: 4.00 pm - 9.30 pm (the northerners, like Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, prefer to start early at 4.00 pm; the southerners, like Argentina, Paraguay, Peru, prefer to play after 7.00 pm)  
  • The Brazillian national league: 4.00 pm - 9.00 pm

So why are the World Cup 2014 kick-off times out of sync with the norm? Security concerns? Afraid of the dark? Of course not. The main factors are time zone difference, viewership volume and broadcast revenues. The overriding reason is money. An earlier kick-off time suits the rich Europeans, who are around 4 to 7 hours behind Brazil time, as they 'll catch most matches between Happy Hour and supper-time without worrying too much about staying up past bedtime. It's also good for Asian spectators halfway across the globe: at least when matches are pre-dawn, there's some room to adjust the body clock and conveniently take MC to miss work; but if matches only start when the sun rises, it overlaps awkwardly with office working hours. 

To little surprise, the 1.00 pm games have been played as if the players have weights tied to their boots. Seriously, who in the world plays football at an hour pass noon, when the sun is at its zenith? Not the Europeans, Africans, Asians, and certainly not people living in the tropics. It's insane, and even inhumane.

The result? Forget about the goals scored at the group stages, and focus on the actual performances. Teams taking it slow, trying to tire the opponent, then strike late. Teams grabbing an early goal, then sitting back. Half the battle is won by tactical use and conservation of energy. Skill and technique takes a back seat. Players can't give their all, because giving their half already drains their full tank empty.

Oh, it's not over yet. In 2022, Qatar will host the World Cup. Yes, Qatar - home of desert dunes, where temperatures can hit as high as 50 degrees Celcius in the summer. Stock up on sunnies and lotions, kids!

Burn, baby, burn!

2. Violence and Diving

Football is a contact sport. It's okay to shove your opponent's body, tackle their heels, so long as you touch the ball, or at least make a genuine decent attempt to. Sometimes the referee stops play, calls a foul and awards your assaulted opponent a free-kick. Sometimes, if the infringement is too rough, a yellow card is brandished. Two yellow cards in a match equals a red card - which results into a automatic sending-off, and a suspension for the next game. Two cards in the course of five matches (except the semi-finals) gets the player suspended for the next match. I'm probably missing out or misinterpreting the rules somewhere, but it's okay, because neither do the referees seem to know any better.

It's been an ugly battlefield out there in Brazil. Cynical body checks, rash tackles, and most notably, Colombian Zuniga's knee-high lunge from behind which fractured the vertebrae of Neymar, Brazil's Crown Prince, prematurely ending his World Cup.

At the other of the spectrum, diving is in the spotlight. Attackers going to the ground with no or minimal contact, attackers embellishing the impact by rolling, writhing and screaming as if they've been gunned down by a sniper in the stands. And then after the foul has been called (or not), they're back on the feet in full running, thanks to their miraculous regenerative abilities. Faking injuries is a common trick employed by teams in the lead to waste time, as well as keepers delaying goal-kicks and outfield players dithering on throw-ins.

The result? Players getting battered and bruised, the flow of play gets interrupted, dubious free-kicks and penalties awarded leading to match-winning goals. The end result is that the games have been blighted by controversies. Refereeing have come under severe scrutiny, particularly from the lesser lights claiming that the favourites are being unfairly favoured. 

What can be done? Tighten the rules and refereeing, obviously. Flash more yellow cards to deter dangerous play from defenders - this will also indirectly deter attackers to dive, as they are now properly protected and don't need to take justice in their own hands (or rather, feet ). Impose suspension retrospectively on blatant acts of violence and play-acting, to stop football into degenerating into pro-wrestling (if it hasn't already). To curb time-wasting, simply stop time when the ball goes out of play - like they do in basketball. Allow referees to view instant-replays. Simple, executable rules. FIFA can do more.

It's possible that the refereeing quality may have been heavily compromised - in contrast to top club football (more on this later) - due to FIFA's policy of diversifying its refereeing pool to include representation from lesser established regions like Asia, Africa and the Carribbeans. Recently, news leaked that FIFA had allegedly issued a directive to referees to award less cards. An unsubstantiated speculation which FIFA vehemently denies, but certainly not a spurious one - remember De Jong's flying kung-fu kick to Alonso's chest in the 2010 finals?

Bad tackles, bad dives, bad refereeing decisions are all not new to the World Cup. Pele, along with Brazil, was 'kicked out' of the tournament in 1966. Jurgen Klinsmann - a notorious diver in his prime - cunningly got a player sent-off and won a penalty in the 1990 finals against Argentina. Countries can cry injustice all they want, but none has the right to throw the first stone. Every team is tainted by sin.

It doesn't matter when and how the whole vicious cycle of violence and diving started. All that matters is that it ends. Football should be about kicking balls, not kicking legs and tripping over imaginary legs.

"I believe I can fly!"

3. Ascendancy of Club Football

Who is FIFA's greatest rival? UEFA, of course! In the past decade or two, as football turned professional in the European domestic leagues, club football has taken the football-frenzied world by storm. The English Premier League (EPL) has taken root in most male Asian's weekend schedule. Many argue that the Champions League - open to only the top-ranking clubs across the European leagues - packs more talent than the World Cup.

And why not? European football clubs recruit the best players across the globe. The money is good, the stage is set. The Spanish La Liga (SPL) is rich with Latin American stars. Large African contingents cross north to the welcoming English shores, and continental Europe where racist fervour still runs high. No longer can a superstar stay in his home country and be known as the football's greatest, like Pele in the 1960s. Much of Maradona's claim to glory and immortality - aside from the 'Hand of God' - comes from leading unheralded Napoli to dizzying heights in the Serie A. To be a legitimate world-class footballer, one must make it big in Europe.

What does it mean to the World Cup? The scales of balance have tipped. Players battle hard for glory in the EPL, La Liga and the Champions League. Trophies are won yearly, lucrative transfers and contracts are signed every few years. Top players are prone to retire early from international football, so to focus their energies solely on their club.

Modern players are often criticised for not giving their all when they adorn their country's stripes. Take Messi. Only after almost a decade breaking into the scene and all kinds of records (4 Ballon d'Or awards - most won by any player, 6 La Liga titles, 3-time Champions League winner, a ridiculous haul of 243 goals in 277 club games for Barcelona), has the diminutive wunderkid, aged 27, finally lit up the World Cup in Brazil and impressed his countrymen. In South Africa 2010, he failed to find the net for all Argentina's 5 games.

The World Cup can no longer claim to be the biggest footballing spectacle. Not when players feel more loyal to their club paymasters. Not when club managers frequently undermine their player's availability to be called up for international duty. With so few games and training time between them, players don't have time to gel in their national squads. It's rare to see a truly cohesive national side, unless if it's forged from a club backbone, like the Spain-Barcelona and Germany-Bayern Munich connections. It's also telling that Spain and Germany have been doing well in tournaments the same time their clubs (along with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund) have been dominating the traditional heavyweights from England and Italy.

Compare the games in these year's knockout rounds of the World Cup (tight, drab stalemates lacking urgency) and the Champions League (more goals scored, more shots attempted, more chances created). "Maybe it's because the pressure in the World Cup is greater," argues a friend of mine. Not quite. The stakes are higher in club football for the managers and players. First, the prize money and bonuses. Second, the impact to their livelihoods - a single bad season, or even a poor run of matches, can prematurely end a manager's tenure and relegate a player to the bench, both damaging their stock. Third, top clubs attract a higher fan following than top countries - a non-performing player will get torn to shreds in the media and social network throughout a whole season. Where the pressure is higher, the performance level is higher.

Youth tournaments, including football in the Olympics, have largely been ignored and derided - after all, if a rising star is truly stellar, he'll make it straight to the main squad and tournament. Chances are, at this rate, the World Cup may succumb to the same fate - a sideshow, overshadowed by club football. 

Who needs World Cup? I'm the King of the World!

Out Of Touch, Out Of Mind

Money, bad organisation, archaic rules, globalisation - such things will slowly kill the World Cup. 

Oh wait, there's one more thing: World Cup theme song. In 1998, Ricky Martin got us fist-pumping to 'The Cup Of Life'. In 2010, Shakira shook her bon bon in 'Waka Waka'. Granted, Anastacia's 'Boom' in 2002 didn't set off sparks, and Herbert Gronemeyer's 'Celebrate The Day' in 2006 sounded like 'World Cup: The Broadway Musical'. But nothing, nothing, comes close to the travesty that is Pitbull's 'We Are One (Ole Ola)'. Seriously, Pitbull? All he ever does is strut like a drug lord (by day) and pimp (by night). Mr. World Wide has as much talent in singing as Emile Heskey in scoring. Seriously, Pitbull? Good job, FIFA. Yet another proof that you're seriously out of touch with reality. This, and many other things that happened on the pitch, are best kept out of mind.

Goodbye, Brazil. Next stop, Russia 2018. FIFA really knows how to blow hot and cold, don't they? 

The World Cup sucks, for purist like me. It may still charm the casual viewer for years to come. But with so much physical brutality, cynical negativity and tepid performances, it's a matter of time before its mystical charm loses its lustre.

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