The legacy of the 2018 World Cup? Equality

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The 2018 World Cup ended as the World Cup always does: with golden confetti attracted to blue blood, and with a golden trophy cradled in the hands of the elite. This time it was France, a gorgeous story and deserving champion. But also a continuation of what for many is a distressing trend.

There have now been 21 editions of the men’s World Cup. Only eight nations have won it. Six of the eight have done so more than once. Thirteen of the 21 winners have been repeat champs. Every four years, the drumbeat that accompanies international soccer’s ruling class is both familiar and ominous, a reminder of past dominance, foretelling of more.

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And yet for weeks, 2018 felt different. Before France’s inexorable rise crystalized, there were Croatia and Belgium, Sweden and Russia. There were another half-dozen now-forgotten, once-extolled underdogs who came before them.

Up until Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium burst into action Sunday, the story of the 2018 World Cup was the upsets. It was the success of non-traditional powers and the failures of behemoths. Not since 1966 had the semifinalists boasted so few past triumphs among them. Never had Germany, Argentina and Brazil all failed to reach the final four. And never have five consecutive men’s World Cups played host to eight different finalists.

Qualifying alone had its fair share of shocks, and the trend swept into Russia unabated, taking scalps left and right. Germany, sent home by South Korea, via Mexico and a Swedish scare. Spain, sputtering against Morocco and Iran, then stifled by Russia. Argentina, knocked out by France, but first bloodied by Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. Brazil, held by Switzerland, petrified by Costa Rica, beaten by Belgium.

There were other aftershocks and beneath-the-surface rumblings as well. Enough to demand an explanation.

Mario Mandzukic and Croatia made a surprise run to the final at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)
Mario Mandzukic and Croatia made a surprise run to the final at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Perhaps the explanation is happenstance. Perhaps it’s simply that Spain axed its coach on the eve of the tournament, that Argentina was a mess, Germany complacent, Brazil victimized by a concurrence of flukes in a one-off elimination match. World Cups inevitably give rise to sweeping proclamations that sound foolish in retrospect years later. Perhaps any pertaining to a supposedly weakened ruling class will be among them.

But there are other viable explanations. Reasons to believe the line between haves and have-nots is beginning to blur. Reasons to believe the upsets and close calls were a legitimate trend, and a sign of things to come.

There is not yet a new world soccer order. But the gap seems to be closing. This is the legacy of the 2018 World Cup.

Why the gap might be closing: FIFA politics

Here’s a statement that is less outlandish than it will initially sound: Sepp Blatter might have played a significant role in the excitement of the 2018 World Cup.

It might be a stretch. But let’s journey back to 1999, the first full year of Blatter’s FIFA presidency. One of his first major initiatives was a development program designed to funnel FIFA revenue down to the soccer federations of tiny nations such as Montserrat and Anguilla. The reasoning behind the scheme? Blatter claimed it was to close the gap. His critics saw the true motives: goodwill and re-election.

Blatter realized that the easiest way to curry favor with FIFA’s 200-plus member associations, each of which carries equal voting weight, was to appease the minnows. A $250,000 grant means nothing to England; it means everything to the Cook Islands or Bhutan, whose soccer federations require FIFA money to survive. And the vast majority of members fit the Bhutan profile much more than the England one. By increasing funding to those FAs, Blatter was essentially buying votes.

But perhaps, in a strange twist, there was some merit to his facade? Could his claim, almost 20 years later, be ringing true?

Blatter wrote in 2013 that the program “makes a modest but nevertheless important contribution to reducing inequality.” It “provides the member associations – especially the less privileged ones – with the necessary resources to implement large-scale soccer activities.” Isn’t that precisely the kind of thing that could explain the 2018 World Cup trend?

A FiveThirtyEight analysis three years ago answered that question with a resounding “no.” The issue is that FIFA’s grant money was often misappropriated, put not toward soccer development but rather into suit pockets.

Then again, one would expect the effects of equitable revenue sharing to gradually kick in over time. FIFA makes more money every men’s World Cup cycle than it did the last. It therefore has more money to pass on to members. Annual payments in 1999 were relatively meager. Nowadays, each of the 211 FAs gets at minimum $1.25 million per year. The idea is that $1.25 million helps the Panamas of the world more than the Croatias, just as it helps the Croatias more than the Germanys, relative to their respective other revenue sources. And that over time, that money will close the gap. (European nations also benefit from a UEFA scheme.)

In reality, the impact so far might be negligible. But current president Gianni Infantino, beholden to campaign promises, introduced an extensive program in 2016 that built on Blatter’s, more than doubling financial support for federations. It has also improved oversight in an attempt to ensure the money is spent appropriately. So even if FIFA’s distribution isn’t an explanation for upsets and excitement in 2018, it might be reason to expect more of the same in the future.

Why the gap might be closing: globalization

The main force behind the trend? It’s undoubtedly globalization.

Back in 1994, for its fourth of six consecutive World Cup appearances, Belgium took a squad that featured only two players employed by foreign clubs. The following year, a Belgian by the name of Jean-Marc Bosman won a landmark legal case that lifted various restrictions on player movement from club to club in Europe.

The so-called Bosman ruling is a big reason why Belgium’s 2018 World Cup squad featured only one domestic-based player. The other 22 played abroad – in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and so on.

And Belgium isn’t alone. It’s the most stark example, but a look at the rosters of other 2018 World Cup darlings reveals how their makeups have changed over the past seven cycles:

Where countries did not qualify for a given World Cup, their trend line continues on to their next appearance. Squads comprised 22 players in 1994 and 1998, and 23 thereafter. (Graph: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
Where countries did not qualify for a given World Cup, their trend line continues on to their next appearance. Squads comprised 22 players in 1994 and 1998, and 23 thereafter. (Graph: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
An “x” denotes a country’s absence at a given World Cup. Squads comprised 22 players in 1994 and 1998, and 23 thereafter. (Table: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
An “x” denotes a country’s absence at a given World Cup. Squads comprised 22 players in 1994 and 1998, and 23 thereafter. (Table: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Whether it’s a Belgian bolting for England or a Costa Rican coming to MLS, international-caliber players from second-tier soccer nations are leaving for more established leagues at increasingly young ages. They’re learning and developing under better coaches, with better teammates, against better opposition.

In a way, the same forces deepening divides in the club game – between ultra-rich and mid-table, between the Premier Leagues and the Jupiler Leagues – are inducing parity at international level.

What might this mean for the future of soccer?

Professional soccer is changing. The sport is healthy, but its structure is tenuous. The major unknowns are at club level, where the distinction between superclub and Average Joe FC is starker than ever. Sporadic rumblings about a breakaway competition among elites are becoming, well, less sporadic. Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, PSG and Bayern Munich met with FIFA officials in May to discuss lucrative options that would pit the seven European giants, and possibly others, against one another more regularly.

There is a sense that the current landscape is untenable. Bayern is heavily favored to win a seventh straight title in Germany, Juve an eighth in Italy. Barca and Madrid are reaffirming their duopoly in Spain. PSG is dwarfing all comers in France. The Premier League is competitive, but there is a widening gap – and tension – between the Big Six and the rest. Even on the continent, the Champions League group stage is increasingly dull.

It is entirely unclear what the ever-present and wildly popular club game will look like in five or 10 years. An inflection point nears. And therefore so does opportunity for a men’s international soccer revival. In its current state, it is captivating for one month every four years, mostly dormant otherwise. But it doesn’t have to be.

New competitions are on the horizon, with UEFA’s Nations League starting this fall and CONCACAF’s next. There is talk of a Global Nations League that would fuse the two and four others together into a worldwide league-style event.

For now, club soccer is still king. But frustration with its inequality is simmering. An eerily similar drumbeat is growing louder and more irksome.

Meanwhile, the 2018 World Cup offered hope. Hope that someday soon, that golden trophy might find new hands more regularly. Hope that soccer isn’t destined to become a struggle between rich and poor.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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