#JDSays: World Cup provides a refreshing antidote to toxic club rivalry

John Dykes

John Dykes lists out his reasons to get excited for the World Cup taking place in Russia.

This year, for the first time in many, I won’t be sitting in a TV studio hosting coverage of the World Cup. I won’t spend hours agonising over lineups, researching the correct pronunciation of the names of Tunisian fullbacks or Korean wingers. Also, I won’t be compelled for commercial reasons to sell, sell, sell the tournament as “The Greatest Show on Earth” and hype up a midnight (in Asia) game between Peru and Denmark as being utterly unmissable.

Instead, as I cover the tournament via written and filmed content for FOX Sports Asia’s various platforms, I’ll most likely not watch that game live, nor Croatia v Nigeria later that night either. Instead, I’ll watch games at my convenience, pick and choose the narratives that interest me. That’s not to say I’m not interested in any of the above teams. Quite the opposite in fact, as I’m probably more excited about the potential I see in Croatia’s array of talent than, say, the inevitable soap opera surrounding England.

That’s one of the reasons I suspect I’ll actually really enjoy this tournament and hopefully learn to love the World Cup once more, having quite frankly felt indifferent about World Cups (and international football) for much of the last two decades.

My career has seen me working on European, mostly English Premier League, club football for 20 years now. This has coincided with a strengthening of the game at club level (in financial terms and in its reach to fans globally), to the extent that Champions League football offers better quality than that on show at World Cups and the tribal rivalries built up between clubs tend resonate more loudly around the world. More often than not, I have been disappointed by World Cups, often seeing them as inferior to European Championships in terms of quality. England’s depressing recent big-tournament outings haven’t helped either.

Now, though, things have changed. Perhaps it was the inevitable-but-annoying tribalism surrounding the UEFA Champions League final (Gary Neville and Manchester United fans gloating over Liverpool’s defeat, Sergio Ramos’ challenge on Mo Salah being hijacked by those who love a good La Liga versus Premier League row, naysayers claiming Manchester City bought their title) that did it, but I ended the season sick and tired of the club football narrative of toxic rivalry and endless transfer speculation.

World Cups offer a refreshing antidote to all that. I’ll be more excited, for instance, in a potential Messi-Ronaldo meeting if Argentina play Portugal than in seeing the pair meet in yet another El Clasico. I can’t wait to see how Asia’s strongest challenger in Russia, Carlos Queiroz’s street-smart Iranians, fare. Will Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic live up to the hype surrounding him? Are Senegal Africa’s best hopes? Can Japan put a traumatic run-in to the tournament behind them and produce some of the classy football that makes them, on their day, the best Asian team to watch?

Back when I was a kid, long before we were able to instantly access stats, videos and the opinions of world football experts via the Internet, the World Cup provided a magical glimpse of a football world beyond the limited confines of British club football. The tournament provided a rare chance to see Brazil’s Selecao in action – now they seem to be on a never-ending world tour, thanks to their kit sponsors, like basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters.

So, our focus switches to other fancies: Iceland and their fans’ Viking chant, the final chapter in Lionel Messi’s quest to rival Maradona, Mo Salah’s return from that cruel injury, Russia’s desperate attempt to avoid “doing a South Africa” and leaving their own party before it has even got going.

Yes, there’s plenty to get excited about at the World Cup. The beauty of this one, as with all tournaments, is that it offers something for everyone. I’m looking forward to getting out and about amongst Asia’s fans for the next month as we watch and debate whatever happens in Russia. This is just the start for me in terms of my written and spoken words. See you again soon!