Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The Real World Championship

    This is a column I never thought I would be writing. Growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was taught, and thought, that the World Cup was the ultimate level of football, the pinnacle of the greatest sport in the world.

    It was at the World Cup that the truly great players came to the fore, and it was also the place that the journeymen and charlatans were exposed and humbled. It gave birth to the legends of Pelé, Beckenbauer, Müller, Moore, Cruijff and - above all - Maradona. It was the ultimate, and we knew exactly what we would get for three weeks or a month every four years. Now I am not so sure.

    This is not yet another column laying into referees, or berating the fact that Italy, France and Portugal went out while Senegal, Turkey and Korea marched on. On the contrary, this has made this World Cup the most exciting, inspiring World Cup ever. No, what I am getting at, what has become evident to me while watching the games on the BBC, is that the World Cup is no longer the ultimate level of football.

    There must be lots of reasons why the quality of football has been a below what we expected this past month. It has been very hot and humid, all the teams can defend better and are much more organised, fewer attackers find their way onto the pitch these days. Etc, etc. Forget those. I think - no, I know - why I (and many, many others) have felt that the quality of football on show seems down. It is because I am used to seeing football of a higher quality week in, week out - not necessarily in England, but always in the Champions League.

    I have written this down loads of times before, but it is a point that can never be understated. The inception of the Champions League in its full format and pomp has radically changed football. It has made the game faster and so much more competitive, while not only keeping the overall level of quality but rather extending it to places the World Cup simply cannot match.

    Think for a second about the two teams that are going to play in the Final on Sunday. Once this would be seen as a clash between the twenty-two greatest players on Earth. Now this statement has hardly ever been borne out in actuality, but the basis for this idea held - and strangely, still holds - in much of the world. The Brasil 1970 side is considered by many to be the best XI ever to run on a field, while their own 1982 version and the 1974 Dutch Masters are often picked to finish as close runner's up in that particular vote. But is it really true? I am not going to get into the merits and deficiencies of these particular teams here, because this article is very much about 2002, but I challenge anyone to even suggest that the Brazilian or German teams that will meet in Yokohama are in the top ten teams in the world today. Times have changed, and no national team can find five or six players who can truly be considered among the planet's best, let alone eleven.

    And no, I am not saying that Ronaldo or Michael Ballack are not world-class players - of course they are - but instead that Brasil or Germany (or any national team) cannot ever hope to have players of matching quality in every position. Moreover, I don't think that any team - national or domestic - can boast such a team. Even Real Madrid has weak links: while Helguera is a magician, Hierro is ageing and the likes of Karanaka or Campo hardly pass muster in support. Zidane and Figo are peerless in their positions; Makelele and Cesar are not.

    But these top Champions League clubs do have so much more strength in depth, and boast the best players from five or six countries at the same time. That makes them better. Brasil are devoid of world-class defenders. To change that they must go out and create new players, from schoolboy and youth level. If Real, Arsenal or Bayern need a new, world-class defender they go out and buy one. It is a simple idea, but is one that works in 2002. I watch Liverpool play every week. They can include the best players from Poland, Finland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Senegal, Norway and England in their starting lineup, and they are not even in the top four Champions League teams - yet. But that just goes to show the strength in depth of these squads. England struggled to find a player for the left side of midfield - Liverpool, Real, Arsenal and Bayern have four or five different options here at least.

    This means huge competition. El Hadji Diouf is in the process of joining Liverpool, and comes to Anfield as the undisputed star of Senegalese and African football. He is - if fit - guaranteed to start up front for his country. At Liverpool he is at least third choice, and is competing with Jari Litmanen just to have a place on the bench. That also ignores the claims of Vladimir Smicer and Milan Baros to a strikers role. When Diouf gets his chance he will have to play out of his skin just to keep it - as does Michael Owen. It means Liverpool play better, win more, and advance all the time. There is no such pressure on Diouf for Senegal. Now this may make him more confident, and may mean he plays well against weak defenders, but regardless of what he does he knows he will be back up front in the next game. And that is not a good thing.

    The point I am trying to make - laboriously as always - is that because there is such competition not only between the Champions League teams, but also within each team, the quality of football played shoots ever upwards. The difference in standard between 1992 and 2002 is immense. In 1992, Sampdoria, and Barcelona emerged from the first 'leagues' without too much of a problem, but while the football on show was good, it was hardly much better than that displayed in Italia 90 or even Euro 92. This past seasons' Champions League has seen tremendous football, with seven or eight teams playing the type of stuff we have been missing in Japan and Korea. 1:0 games are rare in big Champions League showdowns. Obviously defences do get packed and spoiling tactics are used when a team can happily settle for a draw, but think back to the Deportivo/ Man Utd battles or Liverpool/Roma at Anfield. These games were full of attack from the first to the last, with teams full of superstars testing themselves at levels this World Cup has not even dreamed of.

    Tactically, the Champions League is miles ahead as well. The World Cup is full of has been - or never have been - coaches. For every Trappatoni there is a Phillipe Troussier or Winni Schäfer. Even England's saviour Sven hardly has the most inspiring record in club football - his biggest successes came at Lazio and Benfica where his teams were regularly beaten in the Champions League. Where are the Ferguson's, Houillier's, Cuper's and Del Bosque's? The truth is, with a very few exceptions, the World Cup is home to a whole host of second-rate coaches. Before this summer Guus Hiddink couldn't have given his services away in Europe, and it remains to be seen if the big boys are going to come calling even now. Yet he is being hailed as an innovator for the way he has turned Korea around. On the whole, the type of football being played in the World Cup was being played in the Champions League in 1997 or 1998. In other words it is four years behind the best.

    And is this going to change in time for Deutschland 2006? Don't bet on it.

    When Italy was in revolt over its elimination by Korea, a large number of European voices were calling for UEFA to pull out of the World Cup and go it alone. While this was never going to happen this time, who is to say that it would not do so in the future, especially if the conspiracies were proven? Way back in 1993 Silvio Berlusconi, then merely a billionaire TV magnate and Milan owner, was talking about the end of International football as we knew it. Club sides would become the new International teams he said - Milan and Juve would represent Italy, Real and Barca would do the same in Spain. Between them and the other G14 teams they would cherrypick the best players from all around the world to fill their shirts. At that point they would stop being Brazilian or Argentinian, and would become honorary Italians or Englishmen. To some extent that already happens. Roberto Carlos represents - and belongs to - Real as much as Brasil. Ronaldo is owned for all intents and purposes by Nike. Playing at the World Cup is still important because it gives a huge shop window, with all its billions of TV viewers, and not even the Champions League final can match that. Yet.

    One day though, a Ronaldo or Zidane is going to get seriously injured while playing for their nation, and their playing days will be over. As well as being a human tragedy, it is a massive financial disaster for a G14 club. Michael Owen can be expected to make at least $10 or 20 million for Liverpool each year, Ronaldo even more for Inter and Nike. Will the clubs allow that much revenue to be lost? Not likely. And then the old club-versus-country debate will start again. But in the future the clubs will win every time. Money talks - $150 000 per week from Inter is just as tempting as a World Cup medal I am afraid.

    And that will mean that some of the best players will not be going to the World Cup, not wanting to risk injuries - like Steven Gerrard - or even because they do not want to jeopardise their club careers. I know I keep going on about Liverpool, but there is another case in point here. Germany have played in this World Cup without their most complete defender. Yes he was injured this summer - very, very seriously as it happens - but he made the decision not to play in the World Cup a long time ago, when he was very much a fit player. With Markus Babbel at full back (or centre back) Germany would have someone to complement Oliver Kahn very well, but staying in the Liverpool team was more important for him two years ago. Times have changed, and Babbel - or Roy Keane - will not be the last to give up on Internationals.

    Luckily, the World Cup still has so much more than football to drag us in. I have watched fewer games in full than I did in 1998 this time around, but the World Cup is much, much too big to ignore - even if you have Baseball to distract you. I am not going to stop watching the World Cup just because the games are not as 'good' as the Champions League. Tactics and technique are one thing, passion and drama are another, and this is where the World Cup still stands out. Just.

Enjoy the final.



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