The argument that the World Cup would be immeasurably damaged by the absence of either Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo is understandable, but bobbins. While the sublime skills of these players would be missed – but perhaps not as much as their personalities – one wonders if the presence of the best players in the world is actually what makes the World Cup great.
One of the greatest players in history, Georgie Best, never played at a World Cup Finals, yet the tournament during his career moved to the forefront of football’s imagination. Some more modern greats have appeared at the Big Dance on multiple occasions, only to continually disappoint. (I’m looking at you, Wayne Rooney. And you, Ronaldinho).
Throughout the qualifying process both Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (and the French national team) have trod many stages upon which they might shine. Either or both may still do so – probably to the other’s detriment. But the biggest platform doesn’t necessarily require the biggest stars; the World Cup is more about the sport’s unifying force than the paragon of the sport’s performance.
Seeding the Qualification and playoff draw may help ensure that the best players and most popular teams make it through to the World Cup finals, thereby protecting television rankings in major markets like France. But it does so at the expense of smaller nations who have achieved just as much (and, if relative populations are taken into account, more) to make the final phase of qualification.
If skill begets achievement and achievement deserves its place at the Cup, look no further than the minnows.
Put frankly, the 2014 World Cup would be greater for having Iceland – population 320,000 – enter the Big Dance for the first time in place of Cristiano or Zlatan doing so again. While moments of tremendous skill – often, but not always, perpetrated by the game’s greats – help improve the perceived quality of a tournament, this isn’t the reason why people watch the World Cup.
The Cup’s enduring appeal is a result of the multicultural and festive atmosphere that surrounds it, a product of nation playing nation at an event that occurs only every four years. The greatest and most dramatic moments from the last World Cup – which while perhaps not a great tournament technically, but absolutely engaging – were rarely a solo act of brilliance but the product of team play or the high stakes involved.
Moments of incredible technical prowess don’t make a World Cup. They help, certainly, but the reason the World Cup is the globe’s greatest sporting event isn’t necessarily soft-shoed talent – for that, look to the UEFA Champions League or any match featuring Lionel Messi – but the celebration of national pride and the unlikely stories behind the unfolding events.