There was a time when the World Cup brought us the finest football the planet had ever seen, and did so every four years. No longer. Best not think what Real Madrid or even Manchester City might do if they were playing in the 2018 World Cup in Russia when it kicks off in June. That would spoil things. It’s important to get our attitudes right before we start.
These days it’s clear to everyone that international teams are scratch sides. You must look elsewhere in football for the lofty pursuit of excellence. International football has been run down and devalued by the big clubs and the top European leagues. The England manager’s job was once seen as the ultimate honour in football – now it’s a kind of booby prize.
But a World Cup offers something that club football can never bring, and that’s unity. During a World Cup we are, for once, all together. The greatest prize in club football is the Champions League, but that’s strictly for football fans. The World Cup is for everybody. That includes the legions who don’t like football, even those who actively hate football. Everybody gets sucked in, some more or less against their will, by the powerful forces of public fascination.
The beauty, of course, is that this process of national unification doesn’t require success. The thrill of disappointment becomes a vivid shared experience: a potent, unforgettable moment in national life when everybody is caught up in the same thing at the same time.
England have brought us a series of classic disappointments across the years, many of them by way of the penalty shoot-out: they’ve won just one in eight attempts in international tournaments, beating Spain on penalties in the quarter-finals at Euro ’96. But England are by no means narrow – they can deliver disappointment in many other forms as well: Beckham’s sending off, Rooney’s sending off, that collapse against Germany, 2016’s Euros defeat against Iceland…
Along the way there are usually moments of rejoicing. You need these fleeting, vanishing hopes of greatness to savour the crushing defeat that follows. Sure, an England success would be wonderful, but what matters is the journey – from unrealistic hope to shared and glorious disappointment.
It’s also important to get your attitude right for the Winter Olympic Games, which take place in South Korea in February. You may say, “I know nothing about these sports and know no one taking part. Why bother?” But the truth is that all sports are the same: an attempt to win, to go beyond personal limits, to find genuine excellence. When these essentials come in unfamiliar form, they can be all the more satisfying.
The two-week festival of slithering and sliding works like this: watching a bit will do very little for you, but watch a lot and it becomes enthralling. In 2002 more than five million Brits stayed up past midnight to watch the curling and Rhona Martin propelled the stone of destiny to win GB the gold medal.
Russia is banned, but untainted athletes may compete under a neutral flag. Let’s hope the brilliant figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva – aged 18, unbeaten in two years – will turn up. She’s threatening a no-show but for most athletes the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She shouldn’t miss it, for our sake.
What should our attitude be towards the Commonwealth Games, held in Queensland, Australia, in April? If you dismiss the Commonwealth Games as Olympics Lite, you miss the point of a great sporting festival. Here are 70 nations brought together by history: the only major sporting games based on politics rather than geography. It will bring us a very good athletics meet and a decent swimming gala, another chance to cheer for Adam Peaty.
But the true identity of the Commonwealth Games is found among the outliers: in the lawn bowls and the netball we trace some of the history that unites these unlikely nations. Beyond that we see how sport unites everybody: in the simple joys of winning and losing, striving and failing, and, occasionally, succeeding.
A long with these three hardy quadrennials we have the usual stuff of the sporting round. In a few weeks the Champions League will be back and into the knock-out stage, with five English clubs involved. But can they go any further?
A crucial moment for both individuals and teams comes when they realise that the difference between being very good indeed and being the best is, in truth, enormous. Manchester City have been reasonably magnificent – but do the players feel they have the right to beat the traditional champions of Europe, like Real Madrid? Often there’s a mysterious sense of being unworthy, and it can affect even the best.
But that never bothered Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Last year they were supposed to play minor roles in tennis, but instead they shared the four grand slam tournaments between them. Could they do it again? And Serena Williams is planning a comeback after the birth of her first child; well, we’ll never doubt the fire and desire there.
Another year, too, of fire and desire in the sporting arenas of the world: 2018 is going to be a great year of sport. Like all other years.