The noise is deafening, the atmosphere electric, and the tension palpable. The ball is fired across the box only for a defender’s desperate lunge to intercept. The ball is played back in, a poor touch but it sits up nicely. He steadies himself, clearly aware of the momentous nature of the occasion. ‘This is it’ screams the commentator. He fires the ball past the flailing body of the keeper. The net ripples and the world erupts. He rips his shirt off and wheels away in celebration as his teammates swarm in. Iniesta had just won the World Cup for Spain.
From the favelas of Brazil to the streets of Liverpool, this is a moment that every football fan in the world has dreamt of. There is something incredible about the tournament that draws both fans and players in. It does not matter that the games are often low-scoring and not always interesting. It does not even matter that many fans are forced to watch the game at obscure and inconvenient times of the day given the global nature of the event. Nevertheless its appeal is undeniable. 3.2 billion viewers watched the men’s tournament in 2014, with over 1 billion people watching the final. The beauty in the World Cup is that it is open to so many people to watch yet to so few to participate in. Until 2026 only 32 teams participate each tournament, with each squad comprising just 23 players. This mean that each tournament only 23 players get to experience the ecstasy that comes with being world champions. The fact that the tournament only occurs once every four years only serves to add to this as for many players they only get one or two World Cup cycles and are almost completely reliant upon the players around them to achieve their goal. One only has to look to the great Dutch sides of 1974 and 1978, who, despite their attacking brand of ‘total football’, twice fell short in the final, leaving them with the unwanted tag of being the greatest side never to win the World Cup. The brilliance of the World Cup is its exclusivity and inclusivity. The tournament is a myriad of contradictions and is beautiful for it.
The exclusive nature of the tournament is not just limited to the players either, with few fans getting to experience the joy of seeing their nation becoming champions of the world. Since its inception in 1930, only eight nations have won the tournament, with three of them just winning it the once. This includes nations traditionally viewed as being football powerhouses, with France, Spain and England all limited to the one World Cup victory. On top of this, a number of sides that have won it last did so decades ago, with Argentina last winning in 1986, England in 1966 and Uruguay in 1950. On top of this, only 12 countries have ever even contested the final. Sweden made their only appearance in 1958, Hungary have not made it since 1954 and Czechoslovakia does not even exist anymore. This means that most of the fans have never seen their side become champions or even make a final. The women’s tournament is even more exclusive. Since its inception in 1991 only four nations have won it, and only six have contested the final. The exclusivity of the tournament is part of the beauty of the World Cup. Most fans will spend decades hoping their county lifts a trophy that they probably never will, making it so easy to become obsessed with doing so. Every football fan dreams of their nation being crowned champions of the world.
The ironic thing is that winning the World Cup does not quench the desire of fans to see their side win it. To understand what the World Cup means to football fans, one only has to look at England’s relationship with the iconic tournament. Ever since England lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966, the nation has been obsessed with returning to its former glory as the champions of the world. From Gazza’s tears in Italia 90, to penalty heartbreak against Portugal in 2006, or Laura Bassett’s heart wrenching own goal against Japan in 2015 that stopped the Lionesses from doing what the men could not. Perhaps The Lightning Seeds, Skinner and Baddiel summed it up best in the iconic hit ‘Three Lions’:
Three lions on a shirt
Jules Rimet still gleaming
Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming
For despite all the heartbreak in the last 52 years, English fans have never stopped hoping that they would triumph once more. The Jules Rimet trophy continues to gleam in a metaphorical sense, for even though the trophy was replaced post-1970, the memory of possessing it lives on in English football, a spectre that haunts them on the international stage. When Kenneth Wolstenholme uttered his legendary words ‘they think it’s all over… it is now!’ he was right in saying that England had ended their quest for World Cup glory, but what had not ended was the country’s love affair with the trophy. As any Brazilian would tell you, the fact that they have won the tournament a record five times was of no consolation as they were thrashed 7-1 by Germany in the 2014 semi-finals. When it comes to the World Cup, winning it only makes you want it more. It takes over a nation, consumes it every four years. July in a World Cup year in England sees cars and houses adorned with so many England flags that you could be forgiven for thinking your neighbour was just a little too patriotic for comfort. There is something about the tournament that makes fans think that it is their year, the time to end their World Cup hoodoo or continue their world domination.
The thing about the World Cup, is that it is so difficult to describe what makes it so special. It is simply magical filled with incredible moments. Who could forget Luis Suarez’s handball against Ghana in 2010 and Asamoah Gyan’s subsequent penalty miss? It was a moment at which you could feel the eyes of a continent upon the player, billions of people willing the ball into the goal to see Africa finally achieve World Cup success. When the ball clipped the bar on the way over you could feel the hearts of every neutral break, African hopes shatter and the collective will of the world calling upon their deity to strike down Suarez. Moreover, every fan knows of the iconic ‘Hand of God’ moment when Maradona robbed England, before singlehandedly slaloming his way through the defence like they were not there. Genius and dark arts in the same game, made even more iconic by the fact they occurred on the greatest stage of all.
The World Cup makes great moments greater, turns memorable into legendary, stars into greats. It is the World Cup that spawned arguably football’s most incredible moment. With the 2006 final between France and Italy delicately balanced at 1-1, the legendary Zinedine Zidane finally succumbed to the taunts of Marco Materazzi and headbutted him in the chest. Fans were left to watch as one of the greats of the game left the pitch for the final time in disgrace, walking past the very trophy he had given everything to win. The sight of Zidane walking past the golden figure is perhaps football’s most iconic ever picture. It shows what the World Cup means to those who desire it. Everything.
Then there is the trophy itself. It stands just over a foot high, little more than the length of an average ruler, and depicts two figures holding up the globe, with two green bands around the base. It is both ugly and beautiful, tacky and elegant, bold and understated, but above all, desirable. It is the figure that every player wants to lift. It is the perfect metaphor for the World Cup. It is an imperfect, often ugly thing yet it is also brilliant and beautiful, and for one month every four years, everybody wants to win. Who will it be this year?