Let’s say you got into United States soccer during the last few years. You want to watch the national team in action; you see that they’re set to play a World Cup qualifying match, like they are tonight. You know that doing well in the World Cup is, essentially, the ultimate goal of United States soccer, and that not qualifying for one would be a catastrophe. The stakes are high. But here’s what you see when you tune in for the World Cup qualifier: a bunch of guys who just took thousand-plus-mile flights to train for a few days with teammates they only see every few months, playing on a terrible-looking field in a game managed by suspect referees. It doesn’t look like Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan are even in the country. The United States loses to, let’s say, Jamaica. The announcers sound a little disappointed, but it doesn’t really seem to be a big deal. Your only solace is that you are not a German fan watching your team play the Faroe Islands in a 6,000-seat stadium.
Meanwhile, the World Cup is still soccer's best spectacle, an epic, one-in-every-four-years bonanza — but it’s not the showcase for the best soccer in the world. Goals have declined ever tournament since 1990, which doesn’t necessarily mean players are getting worse — but does suggest that games are getting less interesting, likely the cumulative effect of managers whose players rarely get to play together adopting a lower-risk defensive approach. “Everyone always looks forward to the World Cup as if it’s going to be the greatest thing ever,” said Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson after the 2010 tournament, “but you have to go back to Mexico ‘86 for the last good one.”
The epic national chauvinism of soccer fans is perhaps the game’s most defining characteristic. Every World Cup game — even, or especially, in the modern era — has more viewers than there are atoms in the universe, we’re constantly being told. With all this audience and all this energy, why are most international games, especially those between World Cups, so tepid? The short answer is that soccer's global popularity has, perversely, undermined global soccer competition. As in other sports, the money that you/we pour into our fandom is responsible for many of the things that make fandom so aggravating.
The structure of the international game, august soccer historian Colin Jose explained to me, was determined at a time when players' services were much less in demand, fewer countries were interested in playing, and power was less centralized. Every continent is awarded a pre-selected number of World Cup slots and holds its own tournament (formats vary by region) to determine who fills those slots. So, from the very start, the system is designed not to produce the kind of big powerhouse cross-continental matchups that would be fun to watch between World Cup years. And, in a situation analogous to college football's BCS system or the United Nations, individual continental organizations have outdated power structures. Their member countries don't necessarily have the interests of the average soccer watcher foremost in mind.
In Europe, for example, Germany and the Faroe Islands enter the World Cup qualifying process at the same level, a result of a regional system which treats each nation equally. Germany’s won three World Cups; the Faroe Islands have won zero World Cup games. Meanwhile, Germany's team members are playing upwards of 60 games per year with their club teams under ultra-Belichick-ian managers in an environment where everything they eat, drink, breathe, and think (well, soon enough) is monitored. It’s a routine totally dedicated to the success of the club. Then they're asked to play bursts of international games in less than a week every few months with guys they only see a few times every year.
“Take, for example, a player that plays in England on a Saturday where the temperature is 40 degrees and it’s pouring with rain,” Jose said, “and he arrives in Central America the next day where it's hot and humid and 90 degrees. Remain in that climate and play perhaps four games in 10 days, then fly back to cold and rainy Britain. Consider the impact on his system, then consider that in his absence he could lose his place in his club team." And you don’t want to lose your spot with your club team because that’s your career and therefore where you make your money. Like, a-whale-filled-with-100-dollar-bills amounts of money. To give you a sense: Premier League television rights sold for more than $4.8 billion dollars in June. Manchester City spent $64 million on players … on the last day of the summer transfer window. Total wages in the Premier League have risen by 14 percent to over $2.5 billion over the past year.
Money aside, even, it's understandable that someone used to playing big-time club matches is not going to be very excited about the stakes of the kind of lopsided matchups that the qualifying system presents. There's almost an incentive for top players to skip games until, say, a game against Guatemala, like the one the United States is playing tonight, is a do-or-die reckoning. And so while players might be gung-ho about the World Cup (and biannual continental cups), their only reason to be committed to their national teams before the moments those tournaments actually begin is patriotism and/or patriotism-related guilt. Which is enough, actually, to get almost all of them to play most of the time. But it's not enough to make the games much fun.
So, what to do, then?
“There are already too many games in the season for the big clubs,” Jose said, “and playing in the off-season is not a good idea. Players need a break or they become jaded. The World Cup and the European Championship impose a strain on players who have already played a long season. So we need to reduce the number of games played in the regular season and in qualifying for international competition.”
It's a nice thought. But while it’d be great (for the players) to cut down on the club schedule, that’s just not going to happen because the clubs have all the money. More games means more money, and “you get less money and we go play for someone else” is a negotiation non-starter. It does seem the best first step — taking, say, a quarter of the games out of the club schedule — but the clubs will never allow it.
More realistic — but still totally unrealistic — is FIFA giving in and recognizing the novelty that international soccer has become, requiring teams to only play in their continental tournaments and the World Cup. At the World Cup, you'd ration out spots based on recent performances in previous major tournaments. So, if North America gets four teams, the top four teams at the Gold Cup qualify for the next World Cup. If Europe gets 13 teams, then the top 13 teams at the Euros go to the World Cup. If the 13th- and 14th-place teams need to play a consolation game at the tournament, then so be it. You would watch. This system wouldn't improve the quality of play, but it would at least amp up the relevance of the games that remained. Less drastically, you could install a tiered World Cup qualification system so that bigger countries don’t join in until the latter stages, at which point they'd be playing higher-stakes games against fellow big names.
Could this happen? Well, FIFA is still FIFA — an obliviously and stubbornly corrupt greased pig of an organization. So: no. Furthermore, friction between club and country is getting worse. The most commonly envisioned Ghost of Soccer Future scenario is one in which the world's biggest club teams, unburdened by bureaucratic obstacles and obligations, create their own Super League that doesn't have to answer to anyone. (Current national leagues are ostensibly supervised by FIFA.) Fan interest in the Super League would make TV ratings for the English Premier League look like a mid-season NHL matchup between the Nashville Predators and the Reno Catdogs. With that much money going directly to the players — unlike national-team loot, which might go toward hot-tub repair at some mid-level national-association official's second home — patriotism starts looking less and less important.
Of course, the intensity with which national-team fans want to see their squads play/win/humiliate-other-teams-in-a-way-that-avenges-perceived-geohistorical slights is a strong one, and one imagines someone will eventually find a way to harness it. But you're going to see (or, more likely, ignore) some even less inspiring USA-Barbados matches before things get better.