Once the hubbub and the desperate hopes of the group stage have died down, the World Cup slowly settles down to normal service: the upstarts fade away and the big guns play on. Now, at the semi-final stage, the match-ups look decidedly familiar: Brazil versus German, Netherlands versus Argentina. (The final could be any one of a set of classic encounters: Brazil versus Argentina and German versus Netherlands being just two of them.) The World Cup is a tournament, which, thanks to its qualification phases, allows for plenty of dreaming–but it is also very efficient in providing brutal awakenings: underdogs can promise a great deal, but not for too long.
So, here we are, down to the usual South America versus Europe line-ups, down to the usual contestations of Best Continent for Soccer. But the hunt for the Best Continent for Soccer is a silly one. For this World Cup will prove, as usual, that European clubs and leagues, are the heart of modern soccer: that that is where talent is given its professional wings, paid an adequate wage, and thus nurtured and developed. South America, Asia, and Africa, still produce talent by the bushel; they have not been able to produce a suitable political economy for soccer just yet. The economics of the sport remain as important as ever–as important as ball control, heading, dribbling, shooting, goalkeeping, corner kicks and all of the rest. It is in the league, in the club team, that the fledgling player grows into the hardened professional; his closest co-workers are his club mates, not his compatriots.
In the world of professional soccer, players are professionals first, not patriots. After the Cup is over, after one nation and one national system has been appointed winner, it will be time again to acknowledge the actual champions of world soccer: the professional leagues and clubs that permit a world labor market of soccer players who ply their trade without regard for national borders. In international soccer, nationalism plays second fiddle to a more local allegiance, that of club.
Realizing this little fact about world soccer helps put the World Cup into helpful perspective: it calls for a temporary cessation of normal soccer conflict, in favor of a more classically staged one; it asks clubs to offer up their most moneyed investments and to subject them to the risk of expensive injury (and as in the case of Luis Suarez and Liverpool. a possible extended suspension); when the Cup is over, national flags will be put away and club colors will be donned again; opponents will find themselves back on the same rosters.
That underlying importance of the club helps highlight the central irony of the World Cup: it is the sporting world’s greatest celebration of nationalism–matched only by the Oympics–and yet, most of all, it helps showcase the importance of the transnational professionalization of a game. Without the modern sporting club, without its free agency clauses, without the modern sporting contract, there would be no World Cup as we know it either.