Best World Cup ever? Three reasons why it wasn’t

The just-concluded World Cup is being hailed as many things — great, the greatest in a while, the greatest ever.

It was certainly unique, as Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy says: an unusually high number of own goals, an unusually low number of red cards and fouls. (Granted, you could attribute the latter to the notion that holding is now basically legal.)

At The Ringer, Ryan O’Hanlon argues that this World Cup was the best in decades because of its unpredictability: “There was something so refreshing and so thrilling about sitting down each morning and not having any clue about what might play out.”

At my former employer USA TODAY, Martin Rogers was impressed: “(T)here was a treasure trove of treats to keep a worldwide audience occupied and wove a gripping narrative over the course of a month and more.”

All good points, as is the lack of scoreless draws, but here’s the counterargument I’d make:

1. Sorry to be Debbie Downer, but now is simply not the time to normalize Russia. 2022 probably won’t be a good time to normalize Qatar, either, unless we get proper investigations of the people who are literally working migrant workers to death and unless Qatar liberalizes its LGBTQ policies (among other things). We’re not going to have a World Cup worth rooting for until 2026. (Maybe not even then, the way things are going in the USA and Mexico right now.)

2. Defense now has the upper hand (literally — again, refs, please blow the whistle when a defender has someone in a bear hug) over possession soccer, resulting in few goals from the run of play. O’Hanlon’s piece at The Ringer actually reinforces that point, showing how France succeeded with a defensive mindset and managed to score four times against Croatia while barely possessing the ball in the final third.

You could argue that’s a fun thing to watch — Mexico’s blistering counterattack was consistently thrilling — but we don’t want soccer to become a sport in which you only need to watch the counters and the set pieces. And seeing Spain flail helplessly against the Russian defense was one of the most frustrating experiences of the World Cup, especially given Point 1 (normalizing Russia / giving Putin more time in the spotlight). Also sad — Harry Kane was brilliant on set pieces but, like his England teammates, simply couldn’t find the net from the run of play.

3. Maybe too much unpredictability isn’t such a good thing. The World Cup is supposed to reward the best teams. When the group-stage chaos left us with a lopsided bracket, a lot of terrific teams (Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico) were dismissed from the action all too soon.

We did end up with a worthy champion — and, though Croatia didn’t win a knockout-round game in regulation, a worthy finalist.

The atmosphere was terrific throughout. And this Cup broke so many records that the Guinness site had to create a long roundup to account for them all. But the USA still holds the attendance records:

1994: 3,568,567 total, 68,626 average

2018: 3,031,768 total, 47,371 average

North America will break that record in 2026 — at least the total, given the expansion.

Let’s hope national teams have learned how to score from the run of play by then.




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