Why the World Cup will never be the same after Russia 2018
MOSCOW -- Here we go again. Welcome to the quadrennial global water-cooler moment known as the World Cup.
Indeed, as a sporting and entertainment spectacle, nothing comes close. The World Cup unites us across continents and cultures. It's part of our collective DNA, our heritage, even if we support different nations.
You don't need to be of a certain age to have contemporaneously witnessed Carlos Alberto finishing off Brazil's 1-through-11 move in the 1970 final, or Diego Maradona soaring into the heavens and letting the Hand of God push the ball past Peter Shilton in 1986, or Zinedine Zidane planting his forehead on Marco Materazzi's sternum in 2006. But you probably know it happened and you probably know what it meant.
That's the magic of the World Cup. Far from being a monolith, it has evolved with us, which may explain why it has walked side-by-side with us in our journey through time, abandoning us only while we engaged in the folly of a World War. And it continues to do so. Each tournament is at once part of the same narrative thread but also unique in its own right, like a chain whose links vary in size, shape and colour.
This summer will ring in change once again -- and serve as a harbinger for more changes -- to the point that the World Cup as we know it will never be the same.
It will be the first behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain, hosted by a nation, Russia, that spent much of its history providing an alternative narrative to the Western model before, arguably, capitulating (at least in some ways). A country whose last century or so has been marked by bloodshed and repression like few others but equally celebrated for its creativity, pride and scientific, artistic and cultural achievement.
Russia 2018 will also be the penultimate version with 32 teams -- or, possibly, if certain parties within FIFA can muster enough support, the last one -- before the tournament expands to 48 teams, taking in nearly a quarter of the world's footballing nations.
This World Cup will also be the last one staged in the Northern Hemisphere's summer at least until 2026, as Qatar 2022 will squeeze its way into the middle of the European calendar.
It will be the first for Gianni Infantino's FIFA after nearly four decades with Sepp Blatter in either the top seat or pulling the strings as general secretary. Infantino has promised transparency, an end to corruption, more money flowing (with more accountability) to the federations ... all with the goal of restoring the credibility of an organization that had become toxic to sponsors and fans.
History will judge whether he can deliver. In the meantime, it's worth remembering that if we're here in Russia -- and if we'll be going to Qatar in four years -- it's because of a decision made by a body, the FIFA Executive Council, which has seen three quarters of its members indicted or banned for various acts of malfeasance.
There's more change coming. The 2018 World Cup will be the first for Video Assistant Referees (VAR), an innovation which, even after a test run of more than 1,000 top-flight games in half a dozen leagues around the world, continues to attract skepticism. Nowhere are match officials as scrutinized as during World Cups, nowhere are decisions still talked about and dissected years later. VAR is meant to put an end to the most egregious errors, but the nightmare scenario that must keep head of FIFA refereeing Massimo Busacca and FIFA referee consultant Pierluigi Collina up at night is that a whopper of a mistake occurs
Should that happen, this might also be the last World Cup with VAR.
The World Cup has gone from a straight knockout to group stages. From 13 to 16 to 24 to 32 teams. From radio commentary only to black-and-white cathode rays to Technicolor to ultra HD. From no substitutions to three substitutions to four if there's extra-time. The tournament has been played in every continent bar Australia and Antarctica.
It's a living, evolving part of us, ever-changing. Sometimes the changes don't work out, such as the 1950 "final group" or the Golden Goal. More often than not, though, even when change was contested by some -- like when the number of African and Asian teams was increased or when the tournament expanded from 24 to 32 teams -- it only came back stronger and more popular.
And so it will be for 2018. For all the tournament's problems, for all the aspects we dislike and all the changes we fear, those of us who are football fans know that we can no more abandon the World Cup than we can abandon our bloodlines or our past.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.