Why The World Cup Trumps The Champions League

The April 5, 2010 ESPN The Mag has an interesting piece written by Doug McIntyre (“World (Up) Stage: South Africa Gets the Buzz, But the Champions League Has the Goods,” p.82) that argues the UEFA Champions League is superior to the World Cup. McIntyre rattles off a few arguments, none of which are necessarily false: a) Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson say so; b) Club teams have unique advantages over national teams, mostly that they can spend money on quality reserves and aren’t inhibited by nationality rules; c) Club teams train together longer, have more complex systems and the best are specifically put together to win high-level competitions, d) There is more parity (citing Round of 16 exits by Chelsea and Real Madrid), and e) The spotlight shines just as brightly, more often. Doug McIntyre is a fine writer, and by writing this and simply by summarizing his piece, I’ve paid him a compliment and provided free advertising for The Mag. That said, rather than drive my editor nuts by addressing each contention in turn, I’ll just put it quite simply: He’s wrong. And it isn’t close. The chasm in the disagreement is so apparent, that one could conceivably concede McIntyre’s arguments and ask a reader or viewer to simply weight them against the World Cup’s overwhelming advantages. I’ll discuss that route in a moment. For now, allow me to make a few general responses to the general tenor of McIntyre’s argument, which seems to rely on higher quality play and parity.

The higher quality of play argument at its core is the least compelling. This isn’t the age-old argument about the “passion of college football, Saturday night on campus, with its spread offenses and whacky overtime” against the high-quality “three yard z-in route and perfect tackle setting up 2nd and 7” brand of football played in the NFL. Everyone knows the NFL is the best you can see, and yes, outside of some folks in Texas, Oklahoma, and the southeast, no one gets that randy when you argue the NFL is a better product (of course it is—college football is just more fun!). The World Cup features most the players who toil in the Champions League for various clubs. There are notable omissions, mostly players who come from footballing nations that fail to qualify, and a handful of players who are “retired” internationally (Brad Friedel, Ruud van Nistelrooy?). To be certain, there are a few countries (not many, but a few) who have no players who play for Champions League clubs—but the reverse of that is true as well—quarterfinalist CSKA Moscow feature only five players, for example, that will potentially see the pitch in the World Cup this June. Only one of those players, Serbia’s Milos Krasic, figures to start for a World Cup side. Point being—McIntyre’s claim here is answered back by the overlap in the player pool—and his only possible “offense” on this argument is the claim that the systems and formations are more complicated and, due to higher training time, create a higher quality of football. There may be something to this argument—but I’m willing to bet a top international side on its best day plays just as compelling a brand of football as a European Club Championship semifinalist.

The parity argument is somewhat more complicated. On the one hand, McIntyre’s right that in the current format the European Championship has produced 11 champions in about 20 years. That’s pretty good parity, and that’s before you mention that a Lyon or Bordeaux or even CSKA could find their way to the semis this year. Yet World Cup semifinals usually involve a Cinderella—Croatia (1998) or hosts South Korea (2002), come to mind. To be certain, only seven countries have hoisted the Cup, but nine nations who have never hoisted the Cup have finished second or third. Any football fan understands that once you finish second or third in a knockout-style competition, it’s a red-card here, a questionable penalty there, and a new nation joins the world elite.

At base, the difference in championship parity is simply rooted in there being more top-quality clubs in Europe than there are top-quality footballing nations. Seeding supports this—FIFA ranks the eight it thinks ought to make the quarterfinals—a good number given that there are about eight elite footballing nations in the universe. Even that differential is closing—while it is increasingly difficult to become an elite European club—countries like Cote D’Ivore, Australia, 2004 Euro Champion Greece and yes, the United States, are rapidly closing the gap on longstanding international football powers.

Beyond those arguments, what does Doug have? Because Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger said so? Grow up, Peter Pan. That’s not an argument. Those guys might have a small stake in that fight and who died and made them Chuck Norris anyway? This silly little “shares the spotlight, more often” argument is shameful. A Champions League final on a Saturday in front of a world-wide audience is nice, but does not a World Cup audience make. Let’s talk Q-ratings, pal. Watch this summer—it won’t be close. This doesn’t, I don’t think—disparage the Champions League in any way. It’s mighty compelling stuff, as anyone who watched a better Bayern side battle for a lead it deserved yesterday against Manchester United will attest. It just isn’t the grandest event in all of sport.

Throw out the Olympics (the summer ones, people, not the ones with dudes in leotards), which run on the same four year time-table, and to say the World Cup is anything short of just that—the grandest event in sport, is to engage in a sad self-deception. You don’t have to believe me. Ask the people in war-tattered Ivory Coast in 2006, as a country laid down its arms and halted an ethnic conflict threatening to tear it apart as a nation-state, to cheer for Didier Drogba’s Elephants in 2006. Ask Thierry Henry, who, after years of dealing with the freaky fascist pasts and virulent racism embedded in European club culture, started an anti-racism campaign with Nike “Stand Up, Speak Up”, which culminated in five-million plus fans wearing black and white “Solidarity Against Racism” armbands at the 2006 event in Germany. France is far from perfect on this front too, but Henry’s finest hour on a pitch was holding his country’s flag on Bastille Day in Paris in 1998, not a Champions League medal.

Take a moment and ask a South African. Last weekend, they came together to honor the memory of 69 men and women slain fifty years ago in Sharpeville, South Africa. It was the first peaceful stand by a large protest group against Apartheid to garner international attention, and the bravery of these men and women caused a thirty year crackdown on liberation movements and opponents of Apartheid. That racism culminated in thousands of dead, and the forced removal of at least 600,000 from their homes. Eventually, apartheid was defeated, and the spirit of a people could no longer be held down. As they host the Cup this summer, the eyes of the world will turn to a new nation, and, to honor those at Sharpeville, they’ll make an overarching theme of the Finals the elimination of racism in international sport. Find me a Champions League match that offers that along with its high quality football and I’ll sell you some snake oil on the cheap.

It isn’t just the revolutionary political statement for peace that makes the World Cup so special, either. It’s the football. It’s the trophy. Ask John Terry if he’ll think much about that fateful Champions League penalty if England can hoist the trophy for the first time in 44 years this summer. Ask Didier Drogba how much that early exit with the Blues hurt this year if he can find a way to lead an African side to their first ever Cup. For the players, these games are far more important. They should be. With all due respect to Lord Stanley’s Cup—this is the greatest trophy in sport. For us Yanks, it will be a special day when one of our own is an integral cog on a European club champion. We’ll be proud, and we’ll still be obsessed with winning the World Cup, just once, before we die.

You don’t have to believe me. Ask a fan, and pick one with a longstanding, heartfelt connection to a European club that is threatening to win in Europe this May. Ask them if they’d rather see their country win a World Cup. I’m willing to bet it won’t be close. They might even shed some hooligan tears.

As for me, I’m not much of a crier. I don’t cry during losses at all—never saw the point. I’d rather stare aimlessly at the wall or go to bed. I cried during a couple victories—notably, when Aaron Boone homered off Tim Wakefield in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, when the Gators beat UCLA to win their first basketball championship in 2006, and as a youngster, when Carlos Baerga’s looping fly ball dropped harmlessly into the glove of Marquis Grissom on a cool Atlanta October night in 1995, and the Braves were finally champions of the world. I’ve cried during a couple films—most notably, when Mickey Hart saves the would-be-perfecto-ending Davis Birch home run in the eighth inning of “For Love of the Game,” it was Niagara Falls. I cried during Band of Brothers, when I realized men like my grandfather had fought in the Bastogne cold, and as they awaited the next Nazi artillery barrage, a man with a few spare saltines was like the neighborhood ice-cream truck driver. I cried then because it explained why my grandfather loved saltines and thought of them as a treat until the day he died. Outside of that, I’m not much of a crier – more of an even-keeled cat. But an American World Cup? Well, you can ask Doug McIntyre. But as for me, Niagara Falls.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com or @nwb_USMNT.

Filed Under: April 2010

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  • John

    I much prefer the world cup but the champion’s league has better players. That is a fact backed up by the economy of the game. The best players play for the richest clubs, all of whom reside in Europe.

    The World Cup will never truly represent strictly the best teams in the world because some countries are basically automatically given a spot. Korea, Japan, USA and Mexico have gone to several world cups in a row due to the extreme weakness of their groups. This is obviously a good thing for world soccer but it is by no means fair. You would have to be pretty biased to contend that the U.S, Japan or Korea would go to as many world cups if they were in the european qualifying…even as top seeds.

    Also some countries have an overabundance of talent that is not shown at the cup but is in the champion’s league. Brazil could send 3 or 4 teams to the cup and Argentina 2 or 3. These guys typically play in the champion’s league.

  • John

    I also thought your point about CSKA Moscow missed an important point. They are a Russian team and alot of Russian players stay at home as it is a league with a decent standard (like the portugese, greek, dutch leagues) and some money. Russia is not going to the World Cup. It feels like cherry picking when you choose this team as the one without world class players on it.

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    Thanks for your comments, John. I don’t disagree with you, for the most part. Russia failed to qualify, and I could have utilized Bordeaux or Lyon as examples as well– so I’m not sure my CSK example is too off the mark.

    That said, my piece certainly wasn’t an indictment of the Champions League– just an argument that it is a better event and that player overlap solves many of the Champions League Advantages. While I wholeheartedly agree that a few nations could qualify two teams, notably Brazil and Argentina– I don’t think the Americans, in particular, qualify due to weakness of group. Certainly it helps to play in the region they play in– but in Europe I imagine they would be favored in a playoff fixture, even if drawn to a difficult final group. Also, I am hesitant to criticize CONCACAF completely– I’d love to see Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, or even France come and play Costa Rica @ the Saprissa on a humid June night or play @ the Azteca, ever. I think they’d sing a different tune. A road game at Andorra, for example– is not the challenge that a Costa Rica, Mexico, or even El Salvador presents.

  • John

    I feel the USA team would do well in Europe, they just wouldn’t go as often. They would go when they have a good team, much like the mid level European nations. In CONCAF i really think they go every time.

    But I agree in general with the article. The World Cup is bigger and I for one am salivating over what an in form messi could do this year.

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