Few things excite me like a good football match. Even after years of watching Real Madrid play, week in and week out, and indulging in matches from leagues across Europe, there’s something uniquely special and different about the experience of witnessing a special moment firsthand.
I don’t have many opportunities to witness my favorite team and players in the flesh, as I’m located in the US, but I’ve taken them where I can get them: making my way to Houston during pre-season the summer after Ronaldo left to watch Real Madrid play Bayern and taking myself, alone, to the Rose Bowl to again watch Real Madrid, this time against Juventus. Football was never a major interest to anyone in my family but for some reason, nothing has ever interested me as much as sitting, screaming, and cheering for a win for 2 hours, especially in the midst of other Madridistas.
There are plenty of club goals I have a vivid recollection of. Watching Ronaldo take off his jersey after dropping Pique and sending a shot into the top corner of the goal, leaving Ter Stegen stranded. Rodrygo’s last year, when he hit a volley so exquisite that it would’ve been unfair for anyone to try and stop it. Zidane, who finished a move generated by some of the best players the game has ever seen, winning the most coveted club trophy against Bayer Leverkusen and demonstrating his abilities on football’s second greatest stage.
But that’s club football, and I think many of the players present for Real Madrid’s Champions League modern dynasty would hesitate when asked if they’d trade those titles and the glory garnered for a simple chance at winning on what is football’s greatest stage: the World Cup.
I don’t need to express the popularity of such a tournament – most football fans are well aware that each individual game brings in millions of viewers and that the 2018 World Cup in Russia averaged over a billion individuals tuning in. The World Cup is incomparable, even to those who aren’t interested. Living in the United States, I get to watch people dismiss football (soccer) year after year, instead choosing to focus their attention on the NBA, the MLB, or the NFL. It’s funny, though. No matter the amount of disinterest shown, every four years there’s something of a cultural shift as all Americans choose to focus their attention on the tournament that literally eclipses all else, rooting for their fellow countrymen to put the United States on the international stage in another manner (excluding 2018, of course).
The World Cup is unlike any other tournament, in that way. Ask a random bystander to tune in to the NBA or NFL playoffs without any context and, unless they’re genuinely curious about the storylines, they’re likely to brush it off after a match or two if not sooner. But ask them to tune into a knockout match in the World Cup, where tens of thousands of fans are cheering for their team by birthright and not by choice, and it’s easy to notice the difference in the passion. All fans yearn to watch their favorite team or player win a trophy but on this stage, it isn’t just a want. Every country sees winning the World Cup as an absolute need, whether they’ve previously been engraved as winners or they’re joining the tournament for the first time. That’s where the magic of the World Cup comes into play.
In 2010, I was barely 11 years old. I wasn’t an avid football fan yet, but my parents were interested and although I had absolutely no idea who the players were or what countries had the best chance of winning, I was enthralled. I remember Spain beating the Dutch in the final, courtesy of an Iniesta goal, and I remember writing "Vamos España" on a piece of lined paper, holding it to the window in the backseat of my parent’s car as we ran our errands over the next couple of days. I didn’t know who I was trying to engage or who I was celebrating with exactly but frankly, it didn’t matter. I was a part of something bigger than myself – something bigger than any of us. I witnessed a country's ecstasy as the final whistle blew and another country's absolute despair as their best chance at a title dissolved and slipped through their outstretched fingers.
I remember 2014, when underdogs Costa Rica made their way to the quarter finals, astounding both neutrals and passionate watchers alike. Germany’s absolute dismantling of a Neymar-less Brazil, Tim Howard’s record breaking performance against Belgium, and my dear Mexico’s heartbroken chants, which still ring on: "NO ERA PENAL!". I remember James Rodriguez’s goal for Columbia, a brilliant chested volley that bounced off the underside of the crossbar and ultimately led him to a stint at Real Madrid, even if he eventually proved he wasn’t up to par.
In 2018, a country whose population just barely edges over 4 million people fought their way through the bracket to the final. They were the underdogs, sure, but even against an undisputed super team like France it was easy to sense that Croatians and neutrals alike felt something in the air. It might’ve already been their best performance in a tournament, but none were complacent. Croatia didn’t just dare to dream – they dared to capitalize on their united front. Led by Luka Modric and with a lineup full of players who were willing to put their bodies on the line, they had one more statement to make.
Except, they didn’t. Just as soon as they had qualified for the final, France’s team cut through them and stamped their name in history as winners. Modric was named player of the tournament but as he accepted the award, which could be career defining for many, it was clear that it meant nothing compared to what he had missed out on: international glory. In the same tournament, hosts Russia were dismayed that they couldn’t make it further, even though they were never seen as likely challengers.
That’s the story of the World Cup, though. There’s no double elimination bracket, nor is there a guarantee that your country gets another go anytime soon. The years between World Cups are full of more urgent matters for players, whose careers don’t stop or get put on hold. Injuries are prevalent and aging is unavoidable. As a player, your chances are far and few between. It holds extra weight, not because the matches are played any differently than those matches played in between, but simply because it exists. Simply because it has been won by the best of the best for as far back as the sport allows.
Let’s look at Lionel Messi. As one of the greatest players of all time, it’s impossible not to face scrutiny whenever you lace up your boots. Messi’s won nearly everything: multiple Champions Leagues, La Liga titles, a Ligue 1 title, domestic tournaments, and even a Copa America title, finally. In the process, a player who touches the ball and dictates play as much as he does is bound to make mistakes: misplaced places, poorly taken shots, a lack of leadership on the pitch. Surely, you can look online and find your fair share of "Pessi" mishaps. But when it’s all said and done, if Argentina doesn’t win in Qatar next month, what’s likely to be seen as his biggest failure?
Failing to win the World Cup in 2014, where a fiercely competitive game against Germany left him coming up short. That’s not a far-fetched statement, either; almost any avid football fan (who isn’t an FC Barcelona supporter) would tell you that irrespective of Messi’s outstanding trophy cabinet and plethora of individual awards, he’s still missing one thing: the World Cup trophy, plated in gold.
Is that fair? Is it reasonable to challenge a player’s legacy, simply because he and his teammates failed to put the finishing touches on an otherwise incredible performance? Maybe not. But when the world is watching, even on a stage that happens so sparingly and is unbelievably difficult to win, the best players have an obligation to win. And if they don’t, they may never get another chance.
That’s the magic of the World Cup.