After draw rehearsals that threw up a nightmare group featuring France and Spain, there will be more than a few international managers rehearsing their reactions to who they get ahead of Friday’s ceremony to set out the 2018 World Cup, but Gareth Southgate reckons he’s just about OK.
“I think I’ve got a reasonable poker face,” the England boss said, “but we’ll find out!”
None will want to give away what they really think because of everything that will entail, but all will of course privately have a best idea, a best-case scenario. All will have seen the various media illustrations of ‘groups of death’ and ‘groups of life’, as all prepare to sit through the ostentatious pomp in the Kremlin State Palace.
Yet, as needlessly overblown as sporting federations seem determined to make what are basically just administrative procedures, the simple question of who the 32 countries will want does for once feed into a more overarching question.
It is a fairly elementary but still essential question, and one with a somewhat elusive answer that makes international jobs so challenging in themselves: what is the exact state and standard of international football right now?
By extension, how much mobility does it allow? Where is the international game at, as it comes to the historic signpost of a World Cup? How far is any one country’s dream for this World Cup an actually achievable goal?
That is what the question of who you want and who you get is really about – not the names, but the issue of what the names now represent.
There is one thing that the 18 years of international football since Euro 2000 – and so many semi-finalists and at least three tournament winners in Greece, Uruguay and Portugal – have made clear. The top levels of international football just aren’t as closed off as they used to be. It is no longer a miracle for a mid-ranking country to get to the last four, as it would have felt right into the 1990s, because the hierarchy just isn’t as fixed.
The major conditioning factor of that of course is something that the international game used to sit so proudly on top of, something that was once subservient to it. It is also something with a very defined hierarchy, due to economics: the club game.
The escalating concentration of money there has also ensured the concentration of quality, tactical ideas and innovations, ensuring that countries just no longer come close to the sporting level of the Champions League. There is also the multifaceted effect of all of this on the more simple factor of time. Since club sides spend so much more time together with all of these other specific advantages, it means they are so much more integrated, so much more fluid, with so much more to them as teams. The very adjustment from that for top players will thereby just make the top countries more beatable than the top clubs. They’re not as cohesive, so more gaps appear in their make-up.
This is not to say the international game now represents some completely pure version of the sport insulated from money in that regard. One key recent development is how the countries with the biggest leagues and the connected economic power have started to effectively industrialise coaching and youth production in the way very few others can. It has happened with Spain, Germany and France – as well as, more belatedly, England – and it is perhaps no coincidence their three squads have the cohesion and standard of play closest to the top clubs. That is what is required. That is the real elite in this tournament. That is what Southgate should really want to avoid, and he is lucky enough to be in the same pot as Spain.
“Spain is going to be a problem, because they’re in pot two,” former winner Laurent Blanc said on the eve of the draw.
A few other countries like Belgium, Portugal, Uruguay football and Colombia have similarly created distinctive football cultures of their own on a smaller scale, and that is why they are all within the next band of sides. Italy have not followed this path and have paid the price, as they now face up to a moment of harsh realisation. There have long been fears that dysfunctional structures in Argentina and Brazil will mean their federations eventually have to face up to similar year zeros, but there have been two main reasons they have not – for now. One could yet prove a real advantage at this World Cup.
The first is the playing pool of both countries remains huge enough to produce a critical mass of good players, and the second is that they now both benefit from very good managers – in Tite and Jorge Sampaoli – that are actually beyond most European sides.
This is something else that has been conditioned by the club game, and could yet greatly condition this World Cup even more. The top managers all naturally follow the connected traits of the quality and the cash, and thereby would much rather work at Champions League level rather than international level.
It at once means that any such coach that temporarily finds himself at a summer tournament – like Antonio Conte in 2016 – can have a significant effect due to their more sophisticated approach, and that those same tournaments mostly involve largely ordinary or outdated managers and ordinary or outdated football ideas. That becomes even more of an issue – especially as regards the entertainment of a competition – when so many of the sides themselves look so ordinary. It is not like their relatively middling squads will be massively improved or enhanced, or become much more than they are.
That is one big argument as to why Euro 2016 saw such limited football, and it is a lingering concern that around 20 of the countries that will be at this World Cup – and that might even be a conservative number – conform to this description. Russia themselves meanwhile go in as the lowest ranked side, the first time that has happened for hosts since Fifa began to actually record rankings.
There are a few flipsides to all this that could yet finesse the tournament as in 2014, but also provide encouragement for both managers and supporters ahead of the draw.
The first is that in a climate like that, a little organisation can go a very long way. You only have to look at Costa Rica in 2014 or Iceland in 2016, who Southgate has made such a point of talking up. A team with a basic good structure can make huge strides in a modern tournament.
Another is that a little innovation can go even further. If any manager can suddenly come up with that little something different, that unexpected element, it can have a huge effect over the course of a month. Encouragingly, Southgate has been tinkering along these lines.
The benefit of one big star, or one big player who is in fine form, can then have the greatest effect of all. That is the huge advantage a country like Croatia can have with Luka Modric or Poland with Robert Lewandowski, and that is what Southgate will hope from Harry Kane as regards goals, what Sampaoli will hope from Lionel Messi as regards the goal of finally delivering that World Cup at his peak.
It’s just it’s the kind of the thing that’s almost an intangible, made even more disproportionate by the short scale of a tournament – and the luck that comes down to.
“You need things to go your way a little bit to win the World Cup,” Blanc said. “That starts right here, with the draw.”
A few managers might make it difficult to read what they think, but that’s also the thing about international football right now, and something Southgate mentioned. It’s never been more difficult to read the real level of sides, as international football has never been so open.
There are about five sides everyone will obviously want to avoid… but after that? Whatever about poker faces, it might well be as random as a roulette wheel.