As I write this I’m coming to the end of a great week in South Africa where I’ve been watching the World Cup in Cape Town. It’s occurred to me that the World Cup is so successful because it gets the basics right and is so well organised. Here I’ve decided to share a few of the aspects I think are particularly important.
The beautiful game
I’m going to start by stating the obvious: the World Cup is successful because of the success of association football – or soccer. And I believe soccer is so successful because of its simplicity – fundamentally the game has one rule (don’t use your hands) and one aim (get the ball in to the goal). This incredibly simple format makes it accessible to everyone. You don’t need a degree to understand the rules or a vast array of expensive equipment to begin. The “jumpers for goalposts” game of soccer takes place across the world – I saw no less than 5 games of soccer being played as we drove past a township outside Cape Town. It is truly the game of the people.
In my experience FIFA try to keep to this level of simplicity as much as possible – no video replays for referees, no ‘hawk-eye’ 3D replays, no different scoring system depending on how far out you shoot from (an idea I heard once originating from the States). They try and keep the games that take place in stadiums as close as possible to the games that take place in parks, and I fully agree with this.
The competition format is absolutely key to the success of the tournament. The group stage ensures any team that qualifies will get a reasonable number of games (3) before going home, so any visit by travelling fans is worthwhile. The fact that 64 games are played over four weeks is unique in world football, and the clever format of the competition means that only one drawing of teams is necessary to define the matches for the entire tournament (thus making the ‘world cup wallchart’ possible). Wherever possible games are played at individual times (when no other games are taking place) to allow for maximum viewers.
Also, FIFA does not hide the fact that the World Cup does not necessarily feature the best 32 teams in the world. It prioritises the fact that it is a worldwide competition and arranges the qualification groups by continent and global region rather than by the best teams, making it truly a global tournament. This helps ensure a worldwide participation and audience even if the teams are not always the best. However, the qualification system still means that in theory any team could reach the World Cup if they play well enough. This holds true with another fundamental tenet of association football: if you’re good enough you can succeed at the highest level regardless of the size of your club or nation.
The World Cup is expected to achieve a cumulative worldwide audience of 26 billion people. This level of success is largely due to the enjoyment of the game itself, the scheduling, and the broadcast product. A new camera (highlighed in the photograph on the right) was introduced for this tournament, suspended from near-invisible wires above the pitch to achieve fantastic shots from above the players (also shown right). The camera is manouverable to virtually any point within the bowl of the stadium. Home 3D technology is also being pioneered by Sony.
The fact that the games take place across the host nation means that they can be scheduled one after another – enabling the armchair fan to take in 3 games per day during the group stages. It also means travelling fans get to see a number of venues within the host country if they want to follow their team. Significantly, the venue for each match is displayed on the advertising boards next to the centre line so the fans watching on television can clearly see where the game is being played. Without this the games could easily blend in to one experience for the television viewer. This valuable advertising space is given up by FIFA to enhance the overall user experience of the competition – the feeling of visiting a country for the viewers at home.
Related to this, I was disappointed to see the the BBC World Cup home page does not allow the user to browse matches by location – its main navigation is ‘groups & teams’ and ‘fixtures & results’. Neither of these offer the ability to browse by stadium that I can see. I appreciate that the BBC is largely targeting UK-based fans but as a fan travelling to Cape Town I was disappointed to see that I couldn’t find out which matches were being played there.
The travelling fans are the other large audience group for the World Cup, and ticketing is a major operation. Unfortunately there have been empty seats in South African stadiums and I think FIFA need to look at some kind of waiting list system to reallocate these in future. I had a number of friends who stayed at home because they could not get tickets.
The initial ticket sales take place in an online lottery. While this worked well, any online system comes with the inherent restrictions to people without internet access, credit cards or bank accounts. This was particularly a problem for African residents, and eventually FIFA opened up the ticketing to cash purchases. This is a good thing and I think they should try to expand this in future. Glastonbury festival has the same problem with ticketing, while the online lottery is fair up to a point it inherently excludes certain users and Glasto nowadays is far less diverse than it has been in the past.
Another small point relates to the design of the tickets themselves. We were told about problems where fans have presented the wrong tickets by accident and thereby invalidated their tickets for future games. This is a symptom of the fact that the name of the game is printed quite small and tickets look very similar. In the frenzied stadium checkpoint scenario it is easy for an official to invalidate (tear off) the wrong ticket. Simply making the match details printed on the ticket much larger would help fix this.
My first experience at a World Cup was in Germany in 2006. Since then I got the bug – and seeing how excited the entire country of South Africa has been this time makes me feel really happy about what it’s done for the country. Sepp Blatter made it his mission to bring the tournament to South Africa and I think few would criticise him.
Yes, the cynics say it can attract crime, is commercialised, benefits big buisinss and generates a lot of money for a relatively small number of people. But credit where it’s due – FIFA run the world game of soccer with a strong element of control (unified rules) and manage this event virtually flawlessly every four years. And it doesn’t happen by accident.