As far as the players on the pitch are concerned, the 2018 FIFA World Cup can be a launchpad, a swansong, or a chance at redemption.
For younger players, the World Cup is a chance to get noticed. Put in that stellar performance against a Germany or a Brazil, score a few good goals, or even swerve in an impossible free kick and the greatest clubs in the world may well be knocking at your front door. (Especially, if you look like good value.)
For veteran footballers, the World Cup is a magnificent stage upon which to bid farewell from. From the wizened old Latin American goalkeeper to the Spanish midfielder in the twilight of his career, the World Cup is one way to go out with your head held high. Will this be the great Andres Iniesta’s final World Cup? If Spain lifts the cup, the chances are that it will be. And finally there are those seeking redemption for disappointments in the past, unmet expectations and past blunders.
The entire England team always seems to come to the World Cup seeking to prove a point.
Brazil will seek to mitigate, if not banish, memories of that horrendous 7-1 loss to Germany four years ago. And Gonzalo Higuain will be desperate to prove that he can, in fact, play football when it matters.
But what about the managers? Here the utility of the World Cup as a platform for self-promotion and career advancement is more complex. Consider the winners of the last few editions.
Despite a few rumours linking him with the Arsenal job earlier this year, Joachim Low remains with the German team that he managed to victory in 2014. Surely it is time the German got a shot at a major club job?
Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque went from the highs of victory in the 2010 tournament to seeing Spain eliminated at the group stage in 2014. He retired two years later.
Marcello Lippi took Italy to victory in 2006, only to go on and get the top jobs at Guangzhou Evergrande and the Chinese national team. Luiz Felipe Scolari has managed a remarkable list of 26 clubs in the last 35 years. This includes the Brazil side that went on to victory in the 2002 World Cup.
Following that tournament, Scolari has had short stints all over the world, including a disastrous one back with Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.
Indeed while the World Cup is often associated with the greatest individual players to ever kick a football, its association with the greatest managers in football is far more tenuous. None of the greatest names in contemporary football management—Alex Ferguson, Rinus Michels, Arrigo Sacchi—have lifted a World Cup. Michels came closest in 1974 with that great Dutch team.
What does this mean?
There are perhaps two ways of looking at the art form that is managing at a World Cup.
Firstly there is that fact that managing a top quality national side is quite different from managing one of the great clubs in world football. World Cup managers usually have very little time to work with their players, or build on a system, and usually have to depend on the force of their personalities and the inherent talent in their squad to put a campaign together. Which is perhaps why a bad manager can single-handedly undermine campaigns by teams that look great on paper. Think Raymond Domenech’s stint with France, or Marc Wilmot’s highly fancied Belgium who got dumped in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Euros.
Secondly, there is the flipside to this situation—why managers who do well in a World Cup might struggle at the club level. Unlike a national team, a club team is a beast that requires a far more versatile set of managerial skills. Managers at the top clubs are required to involve themselves in a whole host of activities--scouting, recruitment, contracts, press, infrastructure, commercials--that national team managers rarely have to worry about. And most of all, they have to manage their squads keeping in mind not just 7 or 8 matches on the trot, but several dozen.
All this means that fans will do well to keep an eye on the dugout in Russia. Managers typically struggle to take their World Cup success elsewhere. But perhaps Russia will witness a reversal of that trend.