The World Cup is the best kind of team play. Here’s why.
My favorite thing about the World Cup is the rosters. I love that countries are stuck with their own citizens—no trades or transfers. This is a beautiful thing.
Top-level European soccer is increasingly consumed by the biannual madness over the transfer market. Forget about action on the pitch; each season’s biggest stories are the transfers. This season, it was Neymar’s record-breaking transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, then the cringe-worthy aftermath of Barça lusting after and getting Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho, followed by Ousmane Dembélé, which then triggered my favorite team, the German club Borussia Dortmund, to fill its Dembélé-sized hole with new players.
Top Euro club soccer practices a Wild West-style capitalism, which contrasts with the relatively “socialist” model of the biggest U.S. sports leagues, where a system of revenue sharing aims to establish some level of parity. Fueled by obscene TV contracts, neoliberal economic practices, the connectivity brought about by globalization and the freedom of the “post-Bosman” ruling world, the movement (or “cartelization”?) of elite players among a coterie of the richest clubs is what grabs our attention. Check out soccer Twitter the next time you are bored at work to see for yourself.
I love that countries are stuck with their own citizens—no trades or transfers. This is a beautiful thing.
Make no mistake about it: This movement of elite players means that the world’s best soccer is played in Europe, especially the UEFA Champions League or when the top clubs clash in league play. I do not watch the World Cup because the soccer is so dazzlingly good. It’s not. Contrasted with the slick Euro outfits, World Cup play can feel awkward, halting, homogenized and frequently boring.
Despite what the World Cup lacks in quality, I watch it for the players, assembled strictly from a given country. These collaged rosters are fascinating—but never cleanly balanced! Some countries have excess talent in a position, others have gaping holes, others have great individual talents but no cohesion. Oddities abound.
For example, Argentina has too many attacking midfielders—Messi, Agüero, Higuain, di Maria, Dyballa, Icardi, Pastore—but is handicapped by an awkward collection of older plodding defenders (Otamendi, Rojo, Mascherano); excess and scarcity on the same roster. Or take Germany, the defending champs. My favorite national team persistently lacks a go-to forward (apologies to Mario Gomez!) or a world-class left back (apologies to Jonas Hector!). Or take Egypt, a side with only one player everyone knows: Mohamad Salah, “the Egyptian King,” Liverpool’s star player and Premier League player of the year.
World Cup rosters are a refreshing alternative to the Bugatti-strewn, monied rosters of Europe’s biggest clubs.
What is so wonderful is that these nations cannot “transfer” their way out of roster problems, like a big Euro club would on the transfer market. They are stuck. World Cup rosters are a refreshing alternative to the Bugatti-strewn, monied rosters of Europe’s biggest clubs. Need evidence? Here are three reasons why World Cup rosters are so refreshing.
First, World Cup rosters can reveal interesting immigration patterns and assimilation choices—or the lack thereof! Take Germany’s roster. In sociological terms, it is pretty heterogeneous. For example, Mesut Özil, Ilkay Gündogan and Niklas Süle are of Turkish descent, a product of Germany’s Gastarbeiter policy. Then there is Sami Khedira (Tunisian descent), Jerome Boateng (Ghanaian descent) and Antonio Rüdiger (Sierra Leone descent). Other rosters are just as heterogeneous, if not more so, like England, France, Switzerland and especially Belgium, with rosters full of elite players with roots in former colonies. Moreover, some players had to decide between two countries, raising interesting questions about assimilation choices. By contrast, there are some very ethnically homogenous rosters, like Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Serbia, Japan and South Korea. In this light, the World Cup is a fascinating four-year ethnographic check-in.
Second, players are more permanent on World Cup rosters. Countries tend to use the same 25 to 30 players, meaning the best players are permanent during most of a career span. This permanence is a welcome relief in contrast to the club soccer, in which even the best players (except Leo Messi!) transfer to bigger, better clubs.
By contrast, the relative stability of national team rosters is a relief. For me, there is something comforting in the core of Germany’s die Mannschaft: Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Joshua Kimmich, Ilkay Gündogan, Sami Khedira, Meszut Özil and Thomas Müller. I learn to love these players and appreciate their national team career without dreading an inevitable transfer move.
Finally, there is something humbling about World Cup rosters. Even the biggest powers (Germany, Brazil, France) have to make do with less. The behemoths must work with what they have. This reality directly contrasts with the financial carnival of European club soccer. To compensate, the best international sides find a way to systematize their players into cohesive units, a trait that defined the success of the two previous winners: Spain (2010) and Germany (2014). The unit must transcend the individual talents.
This dynamic reminds us that soccer, after all, is an acronym for “association football,” a point Simon Critchley emphasizes in his book What We Think About When We Think About Soccer. For Critchley, “association” gestures toward a soft form of socialism—of everyone participating equally and socially—which underscores the nature of soccer. World Cup rosters are vivid reminders that association is what soccer requires and rewards.