WHAT’S A WORLD CUP without Italy? Anyone following the draw today, will have been dismayed to see the four-time world champions absent for the first time since 1958. The sort of people who call Gianluigi Buffon ‘Gigi’ will be particularly upset, and, in between staring glumly into their cappuccinos at Bar Italia, will be wondering what on Earth went wrong. After all, Russia was meant to be the legendary goalkeeper’s glorious Russian swansong. The truth is, Italy’s current squad is their worst in a generation, so their absence – and Buffon’s ignominious retirement – was well deserved.
But FIFA’s accountants and apparatchiks will be asking a different, far more pressing question: what’s a World Cup without the United States and China? Although China were never likely to qualify, the United States should have waltzed through a qualification stage it usually dominates. Admittedly, neither come anywhere close to Italy from a footballing perspective, but they will be sorely missed by game’s governing body. Together, they represent the World Cup’s largest television markets.
China’s prodigious appetite for live football cannot be in doubt. Premier League fixtures are greedily consumed – China’s impact on the English and European game is readily evidenced by the Chinese-language adverts that scroll around the side of the pitch at most matches. In March this year, 70 million people tuned in to watch China beat South Korea 1-0 in a World Cup qualifying match, setting a new record. These huge viewing figures will translate smoothly over to the finals, so FIFA will not be too concerned by their absence. But they are keenly aware that these numbers would be bolstered significantly if China were to qualify for the tournament. Expect the inevitable Chinese World Cup in 2034 to be the best-attended and most profitable yet. Just don’t expect them to win it.
The United States, meanwhile, only tends to pay attention when their national team is involved, making their absence a major blow to FIFA. America’s sports fans are uniquely myopic: the so-called ‘big four’ – baseball, basketball, gridiron and ice hockey – are insular, and rarely produce large international tournaments. Their predominance, however, means that football is considered a middle class game, evoking images of pushy, suburban ‘soccer moms’. As a result, most potential viewers and lukewarm supporters – and therefore advertisers – will be turned off by their national team’s failure to qualify. For FIFA – and Fox Sports, whose World Cup programme is their biggest yet – America’s absence is a bigger disaster than China’s.
Compared to Italy, the United States and China don’t offer a lot from a footballing perspective. Of course, they would give the tournament a more global quality, but this is meant to be a meeting of the very best national teams in the world. Italy earned their failure, but, if I had to choose which of the three absentees to send to Russia, I know which one it would be.