When you think of great players of decades gone by, such as Pele or Diego Maradona, their World Cup performances instantly spring to mind. Comparing players from different eras is always difficult, but two of the best of the current generation are without doubt Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo. The crucial difference is that Messi and Ronaldo have reached their exalted status of ‘best players in the world’ almost totally through their performances in club football – Messi for Barcelona and Ronaldo for Manchester United and Real Madrid. Messi failed to score in his most recent World Cup finals in 2010 or the Copa America finals in 2011.
This is just one indication of the rise of the UEFA Champions League and the relative decline of international football. The Champions League, rather than the World Cup, is now sometimes spoken of as the greatest prize in football. Here we examine some of the possible reasons for this shift:
Player motivation. Players of teams able to challenge for the Champions League title are, without exception, rewarded handsomely for their efforts by their clubs. In this era of the super-rich footballer, playing international football has become something of a labour of love. After a career in which he enjoyed massive success with Manchester United but had precious little joy with England, Gary Neville said “There have been times when I’ve reflected on my international career and just thought ‘Well that was a massive waste of time’.” Imagine what effect Neville’s words might have had on a young player just starting his international career.
Club spending power. The clubs in the major European leagues, such as the Premier League and La Liga, are the richest in the world. Their resources allow them to assemble an array of talent from all corners of the globe, from South America to Africa and the Far East. With these resources at their disposal, the leading club sides are arguably stronger than some of the top international teams.
Entertainment value. The Champions League is quite simply, often better to watch than international football. An average of 2.65 goals were scored per game in the group stages of the 2011/12 Champions League, whereas in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup, this figure was only 2.06. With six group games as opposed to three, the fear of the consequences of losing a group match is lower in the Champions League. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson described the last six World Cup finals as ‘like pulling teeth’.
Television coverage. In many European countries, Champions League football is covered by a satellite sports channel, while international football is largely shown on general terrestrial channels. Sports channels thus have more time to cover their events in greater depth.
Supporters’ attitudes. Possibly influenced by the saturation coverage of the Champions League, and other factors, supporters of bigger clubs sometimes have little regard for international football. In England it is often supporters of lower division clubs that provide unstinting support for the national team. The fans of Manchester United have a song which mocks England’s lack of success on the world stage.