June and July will find Toronto in the midst of a soccer craze. Bars and pubs will reach capacity, as the streets fill with passionate supporters and plastic flags blow in wind.
Yes, it’s World Cup year.
Every four years, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s illustrious tournament brings people together to enjoy the global game. Hearts are broken, stars are born, and one country will gasp in glory – obtaining bragging rights as World Champion for the ensuing four years.
This is arguably the ultimate sport event. In 2010, 700 million viewers tuned into the World Cup finals between Spain and Holland, while approximately 3.2 billion watched at least one match in the tournament.
Based on viewership, the World Cup is the largest soccer event in the world, but, is it still the pinnacle of the sport? Not for those who follow the Union of European Football Associations Champions League.
Here’s why. Currently, top players in the past who have previously claimed World Cup success are put in a separate category to those still searching for international glory. But with the vast changes in the modern game involving transfer fees, wages and the physical demands of playing for club and country, players would prefer to prolong their club career, rather then endure a career-impeding burnout.
On average, the top sides play 50-60 games a season–when friendlies and international tournaments are included, the numbers increase. Last season, Chelsea playmaker Oscar played 71 games. Since the start of the new campaign he’s featured in 51. Xavi Hernandez, a key cog in Spain’s international success over the six years, has appeared in a minimum 55 games per season, highlighting the physical demands of a modern day soccer player.
With the World Cup held after an excruciating club season, players enter the tournament fatigued, and often find it difficult to reach their best form.
In contrast, the Champions League is an 11-month marathon – including qualifying rounds – in which teams have an entire season to plan how to claim European glory while maintaining energy levels.
Managers are able to turn to the market and build a team that suits their philosophy, whereas international managers are forced to work with the players at their disposal.
Ahead of the 2010 Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, Jose Mourinho stated his thoughts on the European tournament.
“This game is the most important in the world,” Mourinho said. “It is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams, who can’t buy the best players. If you hold it to be important, you have to transmit that to the players.”
Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, also agreed that the Champions League has surpassed the World Cup
“I always said that club football is better than national team football, by far,” Wenger told Arsenal.com. “You have the best players from any country in the national team. In any big club you have the best players of all the countries in the world. It’s as simple as that.”
This year’s World Cup will be missing a few star performers, inhibiting the overall quality of the tournament. The likes of Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba and Arda Turan won’t feature in Brazil this summer, yet they are still involved in the Champions League quarter-finals.
The average career of a professional soccer player has decreased over the years, which explains why many are focused on attaining European glory. The best players are moving to the biggest clubs in the world to increase their chances of winning the Champions League; the tournament has slowly become a goal that every player aspires to.
While both tournaments are dull during the group-stages, there’s a vast difference between the two in the elimination rounds. The Champions League two-legged knockout set-up (employing a combined score from two games) enables a variety of approaches, and challenges managers tactically.
The World Cup has faced its critics in the past due to amount of conservatism in the latter stages. Look no further than Spain’s success under Vicente del Bosque – they have yet to concede in the knockout round during his reign, and average a solitary goal per game. Del Bosque’s approach is logical, but in terms of overall quality and excitement their fixtures have been tedious.
The Champions League provides a platform for the best players and managers to showcase their talents on a yearly basis to a global audience. The level of play is higher, the best players feature on a consistent basis, and the competition is stiff.
Perhaps the World Cup may be the largest sporting event in the world, but it is no longer soccer’s most prestigious tournament. The days of defining a player’s career based on their international success are over.