If football was once the game of the working class, it certainly is not any more.
Club football is utterly money dominated, with star players earning eye-watering sums of money as foreign owners spend up big.
To win anything, you need money. And lots of it.
It trickles down, too, with ticket prices at most top clubs rising every year, fleecing the fan, while loyalty – that precious commodity that keeps supporters engaged – essentially becomes a thing of the past.
In many respects, football is the sport most out of touch with reality, and that is a shame.
But every four years the sheer beauty of football largely unaffected by money shines in the most glorious fashion.
There are no transfer fees in international football, no stars holding clubs to ransom because they want a move elsewhere and no disinterested players.
Instead, unbridled passion courses through the veins of each player at a World Cup for one key reason: The FIFA World Cup Trophy cannot be bought.
Even the world’s best players will generally only get three or four chances to play at a World Cup and they are not able to move to a bigger nation, or one who spends more, to win it.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have claimed every honour imaginable at club level but have never won sport’s biggest team event.
You cannot choose which generation you are born in and that element of ‘pot luck’ ensures a relatively even playing field.
Can you imagine Croatia, consisting of just over four million people, making the World Cup final if nations were clubs and could spend money?
Few could argue that this World Cup was less of a spectacle after Ronaldo and Messi’s teams [Portugal and Argentina] crashed out in the round of 16.
The absence of the star duo gave others more of a chance to shine, something that the likes of Croatian maestro Luka Modric, France whizkid Kylian Mbappe and Belgium attacker Eden Hazard took with both hands.
In what was a European-dominated event, Russia gave us so many unforgettable highlights, starting with the host nation’s tremendous 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia on the opening day.
Then there was Spain’s 3-3 draw with Portugal, Toni Kroos’ dramatic winner against Sweden, Mile Jedinak’s cool head from the penalty spot, Argentina’s St Petersburg late show, the eruption of noise that followed Peru’s first World Cup goal in 36 years, Germany’s early elimination and France’s 4-3 win over Argentina.
What is now considered one of the best major tournaments ever kept producing the goods as England exorcised its ghosts by finally winning a penalty shootout and Belgium came from the clouds to beat Japan, before Russia stunned Spain and sparked wild celebrations across the country.
And then an always entertaining tournament ended in a seriously entertaining final. How fitting.
Five key lessons to take from Russia
The World Cup belongs on free-to-air
SBS deserves major credit for stepping in at late notice to show nearly all of the World Cup after the Optus coverage debacle. Not only was SBS’ coverage terrific, ratings proved that the entire tournament – not just Australian matches – should be accessible to all.
Optus’ coverage was actually very good, too, but technical issues frustrated viewers. So much of a brilliant tournament would have been missed by Aussie fans if it was not on free-to-air, though, and something just feels right about watching football on SBS.
Australia needs a quality striker … desperately
No goals in open play in Russia said it all. To not win the Denmark match was incredibly disappointing for the Socceroos, who dominated proceedings.
The fact that 33-year-old midfielder Mile Jedinak has scored Australia’s last five goals in competitive football (four of which have been penalties) will concern new coach Graham Arnold.
Time to for FFA to embrace Australia’s ethnic diversity
Fairfax Media football writer Michael Lynch hit the nail on the head when, before the World Cup final, he said on Twitter that, “given the outpouring of support for Croatia in Australia by Cros and Non Cros, will FFA finally get it that the ethnic diversity of the country is football’s biggest asset”.
The A-League desperately needs new teams and there are countless established clubs across the country who would be a major asset to the competition but are overlooked due to ethnic ties.
To anyone with a ‘stigma’ about these clubs, please attend a game of theirs. You will not feel unwelcome or intimidated and you will probably love it. This writer does not have a shred of Croatian blood in him yet enjoys occasionally watching North Geelong Warriors and is always made to feel welcome by the friendly people of a great club.
Entry is cheap, you can stand on the fence and have a beer in the process. Give it a try!
Time to bid again
Australia’s bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup was an utter flop. But that does not mean we should not try again. Hosting a World Cup would do absolute wonders for the code … just think about it now. A month of top-level sport in our backyard, at friendly times, with millions of visitors from all over the world visiting our magnificent country.
The flow-on effect would be incredible for the future of football in Australia. And arguments that some have raised about the effect it might have on an AFL or NRL season are farcical, given the traditional timeslot of June and July. This is the biggest sporting event in the world. Our sports-mad nation would love it.
Just go …
Tempted to go to a World Cup? You should seek out anyone you know who went to Russia, or Brazil, South Africa or Germany.
They will tell you how it is something every sports fan should tick off the bucketlist. It is an amazing experience and one you will not regret.
James Willoughby was in Russia covering the 2018 FIFA World Cup.