DOHA, Qatar — The key word of this World Cup is not one that FIFA would be especially happy to plaster on its marketing materials. It has become the tournament’s leitmotif, the focus of countless news conferences and interviews. It has been cast as the sport’s ultimate virtue.
We have been told, again and again over the past month, that there is one trait more than any other that a player must possess, that a team must display, that determines who gets to win and who has to lose: the ability, as almost everyone involved in the tournament has said, to suffer.
It has been used as a warning: Luka Modric, a Croatia midfielder, declared in the round of 16 that his team was “used to suffering, and if we have to suffer, we will.” It has been used as a boast: “We have an excellent technical staff, we know how to suffer,” Croatia’s manager, Zlatko Dalic, said a few days later.
Some teams see it as part of their identity — “We are a team that knows how to suffer,” the French defender Jules Koundé said after a semifinal victory — and some see it as an option of last resort. “We know how to suffer when it is necessary,” as Lionel Messi put it after a semifinal victory over Croatia. Very occasionally, a stray voice arises, wondering if it is all such a good idea. “We know how to suffer,” Messi’s Argentina teammate Nicolás Tagliafico said. “But we must try to suffer less.”
If the word sounds just a touch discordant in English — this expression, it seems most likely, has entered the sport’s lingua franca from the Spanish verb sufrir and would be better translated as “endure” — it fairly neatly encapsulates the nature of the soccer we have seen over the past month.
There has been no shortage of tense, compelling games in Qatar. Whether that quite justified the assertion of Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, that this tournament produced the “best ever” group stage is a little more complex. Tense, compelling games are, after all, the World Cup’s calling card: Its rarity and its unforgiving format mean that this is essentially what it is designed to produce.
A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:
In truth, though, this World Cup has leaned more toward the slow burn than the thrilling. There have been few games that shone for the quality of their entertainment rather than the significance of their consequences: in the knockout rounds, perhaps only the choleric quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Argentina; in the group phase, no more than a handful, generally involving one of Serbia, Ghana and Japan.
Quite why that should be is, strictly speaking, the preserve of FIFA’s grandly titled Technical Study Group, a brain trust of retired players and managers — led by Jürgen Klinsmann and Arsène Wenger — that is supposed to offer precious insight into what the World Cup can teach us about the state of play in international soccer.
Its findings thus far, though, have been oddly untechnical. Its first update, after the group phase, started with Wenger’s discussing the traffic in Doha and how many games he has been able to attend each day. Its second, before the semifinals, offered insights no more sophisticated than Croatia’s “stamina and work rate” being important and “Asian players are less intimidated” than they (apparently) used to be.
That feels like a wasted opportunity. Once every four years, after all, the World Cup offers an imperfect but unrivaled insight into soccer’s direction of travel across the globe, and the evidence proffered by this edition has been, if not conclusive, then certainly credible.
Soccer is rapidly, irrefutably homogenizing, guided by the dread hand of Europe. Regional and national traditions are being eroded to the point of erasure. Longstanding differences in style and interpretation are disappearing. Of the teams at this tournament, only Spain and to an extent Germany had what could be labeled a distinctive, identifiable “style,” and neither fared especially well.
Wenger and his technical study group have touched on this only briefly, early on in that first public discussion of their findings. One of the reasons that most games in the group phase had started so cautiously, he said, was that it was evident “the teams all know each other well,” testament to the “deep study” each team had dedicated to its opponents.
Doubtless, the professionalization of opposition research has been a factor, but it is not the only one. Louis van Gaal, the outgoing Dutch coach, who spent much of the World Cup using his news conferences as a last chance to opine on a variety of subjects to a captive global audience, noted that “results are very tight, even between big teams and smaller countries, because compact defending is easier than attacking.”
Those teams, in other words, who did not have the depth of talent or resources of France, Brazil, Spain and England found that they could make up for that shortfall with tactical acumen, discipline and the all-important suffering. Rather than expressing their own national style, a vast majority of teams have played a baseline version of soccer’s increasingly default approach.
The result, largely, has been parity. Though there was a smattering of rollovers in the early days of the tournament — England against Iran, Spain against Costa Rica — for the most part, even apparent mismatches have been settled by fine margins.
“It is a lot harder to play attacking soccer than it was 20 years ago, when I was coach of Ajax,” van Gaal said. “I received a lot of criticism when I came up with a more defensive system, at the 2014 World Cup, but now half the world plays like that. Soccer has evolved toward it.”
There are differences of interpretation and implementation, of course, separating the way that Morocco and Japan and Croatia play, but the basic principles remain the same. That is true even of the finalists, Argentina and France, countries that boast some of the richest arrays of individual talent in the game.
“I wouldn’t dare to say which team has been the best,” Juanma Lillo, a Spanish coach who has had an outsize impact on tactical development over the past 20 years, wrote in an absorbing column for The Athletic earlier this month. “Because they are all so similar and the players are so identical.”
“Everything is globalized now,” he wrote. “At club level, if you go to a training session in Norway and one in South Africa, they’ll be the same.” He added: “It’s crept into the World Cup: If you got the Cameroon and Brazil players to change shirts at halftime you wouldn’t even realize. Maybe with the tattoos or the yellow hair, but not the performance.”
Lillo rues the fact that modern soccer has coached away “the bad players” at the cost of numbing the “good ones”; he laments the absence of true individualists in the sport, as talent is surrendered to the service of a system; he is, he wrote, “like a regretful father” when he considers the role he has played in popularizing a hegemonic global style.
Whether it is a positive or a negative, though, it is that which has given this World Cup its identity, which has provided not only its defining trait, but its key word. When all of the players have the same coaching, after all, when almost all of the teams have access to the same information and the same ideas, when talent is no longer the great dividing line, what matters more than anything else — as everyone has made clear — is which side, which players, have the greatest ability to suffer.