Panama, a victor against Costa Rica, will be there for the first time — thanks, in part, to a goal that did not happen. It was such an auspicious occasion for the country that the next day was immediately declared a national holiday. The United States, beaten by Trinidad and Tobago, will not be there, the shining brilliance of Christian Pulisic not enough to prevent the country from missing its first finals since 1986.
Honduras might yet qualify, thanks to a win against Mexico, but only if it can beat Australia, which edged past Syria, the decisive goal coming after 199 minutes of 210. That is one of the intercontinental playoffs for a place in Russia; the other features New Zealand and a Peru team indebted to David Ospina, the Colombia goalkeeper, and an eagle-eyed referee. Peru and Colombia tied, 1-1, in Lima. Peru’s goal came from Paolo Guerrero, scoring direct from an indirect free kick. Had Ospina not touched it, the ball would still have gone in, but Peru would be out. Such are the margins. In recent days, such has been the drama.
So great is the lure of Europe’s club competitions and so compelling are the endless soap operas around their teams, that it is easy for those in the countries that have appointed themselves the sport’s heartlands to be dismissive of international soccer.
The Champions League, after all, is now the game’s gold standard, where greatness is achieved and contested. Pelé and Diego Maradona built their legends at World Cups, back when that was the only place where the very best assembled, and when it was the only time much of the rest of the world could see, and assess, them. Messi and Ronaldo, by contrast, meet their peers every other week in the Champions League, and do so in front of an audience of millions.
Domestic competition, too, is so much more compelling now: the cut and thrust of the Premier League, awash with unimaginable sums of money, and the glamour of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus. Soccer’s rapid globalization in the last two decades has meant that these are the jerseys players dream of wearing, these are the competitions that they dream of winning, and these are the teams to whom fans lend their hearts, every week, every month, every year.
Internationals, by contrast, are an afterthought and an inconvenience. Attendances across Europe, even in Italy and Spain, suggest a lack of engagement: Games are regularly moved to smaller stadiums in a bid to generate atmosphere, but even that cannot always mitigate against the sight of vast swathes of empty seats. In England, which has the national team that regularly draws the largest crowd, the conviction has taken hold that it does not matter that much anymore, that the club game is the sport’s engine.
Such is the privilege of success. Europe’s superpowers qualified for Russia while barely breaking a sweat: England, Spain and Germany all finished the campaign unbeaten. Germany, the world champion, did not so much as drop a point. Portugal, France and Italy lost only once. It is not boring because it does not matter; it is boring because it is easy.
To the people pouring out of their homes to celebrate in Iceland, in Egypt, in Panama, to Kristian Mora, screaming himself hoarse, international soccer matters, in a way that club games rarely, if ever, match. Millions tune in to the Premier League, or the Champions League, or a clásico, in all of those places. Very few national holidays are declared.
And yet, it was impossible to watch all that joy without wondering if it might be for almost the last time. This is one of the last qualification cycles for a 32-team World Cup. In 2026, thanks to FIFA’s ruling earlier this year, 48 countries will qualify.
The rationale is clear. The emotion of qualifying is international soccer’s appeal, its unique selling point, and yet it can be lost. Australia’s late winner and the United States’ eventual defeat were 14 hours apart, and yet few could have taken in both games and all the nail-biting sport in between. The kickoff times were too diffuse; the distances too great; work and sleep and time got in the way.
Far better, then, for all of that drama to be bottled and stored and released in a concentrated form, as part of the finals themselves. That way more people can watch; that way, more people will pay. To FIFA, drama only counts if it can be monetized.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding here. Costa Rica did not explode with joy, or Panama declare a national holiday, or Egyptians flood the streets because they expect to win the World Cup. It was an outpouring of joy simply for being there, for achieving something rare and wonderful.
As soon as being there becomes an expectation, an obligation, that joy disappears. That is when international soccer does become boring. FIFA set out to transform the World Cup because — officially — it felt that the more people invited, the better the party. It just forgot that part of the thrill, part of the appeal, is in receiving that exclusive invitation in the first place.
An earlier version of this article misstated when the World Cup is to expand to 48 teams. It will be in 2026, not “next time.”
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