World Cup teams do not play at the same level as the top club sides
World Cup is compelling viewing but not because of the quality of soccer
National teams are not as well trained as top club teams
Club teams are more balanced in terms of roster personnel
I get this every four years. "Well, the quality has been poor in this World Cup, hasn't it?" "I'm bored, teams are too afraid to lose." "I don't seen anyone playing well, do you?" Part of it is easy to explain. The past always seems more exciting, maybe because we remember the good bits. (Or maybe because we were all younger back then.)
But part of it can be explained away differently. For a start, even to the casual fan, there isn't much which is exotic about the World Cup. If you're a regular reader of this section, you could probably name at least a couple players on every single team (OK, with the possible exception of North Korea). So you don't really get the joy of discovery the way you might have done in the past, when the soccer world was a far more heterogenous place and cross-pollination was rare.
As for quality -- or lack thereof -- it's not that difficult to explain. Simply put, the teams we watch in the latter stages of the Champions' League and at the highest levels particularly in La Liga and the Premier League, are better and generally play better soccer. Why? Well, first of all, they've been assembled with a plan, not thrown together by accidents of birth. If Brazil was a club team, you can probably bet that either Maicon or Dani Alves would be sold and another player -- perhaps a central midfielder, perhaps a striker -- would be bought with the proceeds. You don't need the two best rightbacks in the world on the same team, because, unless you play one out of position, on will sit on the bench, contributing nothing.
Same goes for Uruguay. Wouldn't it sell, say Edinson Cavani and look to buy a creative midfielder? And surely England would have ditched Frank Lampard a long time ago to pick up a goalkeeper or centerforward, no? But clubs sides aren't just better assembled: they tend to execute better. And it's no mystery why. They train together just about every day for 11 months out of the year. That gives a coach plenty of time to work on tactics and schemes, the types of things that give a side an identity. And, incidentally, a corollary to this and the point above is that club sides can buy players who fit into a ready made system. If I need a quick, electric winger I can go and sign, say, Alexis Sanchez or Jesus Navas. But if I'm a national team coach, I might be stuck with Dirk Kuyt. (Not that Kuyt is a bad player, but rather he may not fit my tactical vision.) The flipside is also true. As a coach, my brand of football may not be contemplate a big, strong target man but if I have, say, Didier Drogba at my disposal, he's simply too good to leave out, so I have to change.
Bottom line is that managing internationally means adapting systems to players and not the other way around. The final point is that, simply put, club sides have better players. OK, so maybe Spain, Argentina or Brazil would be contenders to win La Liga or the Premier League. Would Germany, with Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski up front? Would Holland with a 35-year-old left back, plus Joris Mathijsen and Johnny Heitinga in the back four? Would Uruguay, Ghana and Paraguay even finish in the top half? And those are the eight quarterfinalists. Look beyond that, to the 16 teams that were knocked out in the group stage. Or even the eight who lost in the Round of 16. Go ahead, go player for player. You'll likely find a bunch of guys who'd struggle to make an impact at a top four club, not just in Spain or England, but in Germany, France, Italy, Brazil or Argentina as well.
That established, does it mean the World Cup isn't worth watching? Obviously not. It's worth watching in the same way that the NCAA tournament is worth watching. It may not be as qualitatively good as the NBA, but it's fun, it's exciting, it's a representation of both regional pride and local talent. The World Cup has never actually been about sheer quality (also because sheer quality can equal frustratingly dull soccer). It has been -- and is -- about soccer cultures battling it out. And that's what makes it special.
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