The World Cup crowns the best national team in the world, but it is about more than just deciding who is the best.
The best moment of a lopsided encounter between England and Panama came not from Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, or John Stones. But from a 37-year-old defender with over a hundred caps for his national team.
The seventh goal of the game, a mere consolation, a meaningless occurrence in a match long settled by then.
Try telling that to Felipe Baloy, who will go down in history as the first ever Panamanian to put the ball in the back of the net at a World Cup.
Try telling that to the Panamaniacs (that’s a thing, right?) in the stadium and watching at home, going absolutely apeshit at seeing one of their own score against the bloody creators of this beautiful game at the World bloody Cup. Seeing the crowd throwing all sorts of shapes, losing their minds at that moment, is one of the most charming, delightful moments we’ll see this month.
And yet there are those who rail against the inclusion of these so-called weaker countries in FIFA’s premier competition.
Jimmy Bullard isn’t the only one to hold an opinion like this, so I don’t mean to pick on him, but his tweet Sunday was typical of much of the reaction to Panama’s appearance at this tournament.
The problems with such a take are manifold. No country has a divine right to be at the World Cup. Italy and Netherlands knew the score when the qualification process started almost two years ago. As did the USA, who finished two places behind Panama in the CONCACAF group, failing to even make the playoff spot.
Other World Cup regulars, such as Ghana, did not make it. Neither did Copa America champions Chile, or Afcon winners Cameroon. Sometimes big teams miss out, that’s the name of the game.
This is emblematic of an invisible tension that exists in competitions like this. We consider the World Cup to be the zenith of the sport, where the best of the best duke it out to determine the true number one.
The reality is, in a sporting sense, that’s not completely true. Arguably the 32 best sides in the world are not present in Russia right now. Panama, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia are all weaker than the aforementioned national teams.
But does that make their qualification for the World Cup any less worthy? One can argue the relative strengths of the respective confederations, of the difficulty their qualification processes require from their member nations. Yet if we start taking away spots from these confederations, as suggested by Miguel Delaney, when does it stop being the ‘World’ Cup and start becoming the “Cup Of European Nations And Others”?
The group stages of the World Cup will always feature weak teams. Panama are perhaps one of the weakest to ever feature, up there with El Salvador. The Central American nation have appeared at two World Cup finals, in 1970 and 1982, exiting without a single point on both occasions. Their last finals appearance included a record defeat, losing 10-1 to Hungary in Elche, Spain.
Did their performance really sour anyone’s experience, aside from their own?
There are many, many reasons to be cynical about the World Cup, and there are legitimate reasons to worry about the expansion of it to 48 teams come 2026. It does however, embody one of the great things about football, in that it is a truly global game. It creates the possibility for amazing moments and memories for nations who otherwise rarely feature on the world stage in any way shape or form.
Few competitions grant the smallest nations the chance to compete with the very best in the sport; where else would you get a country with a population of 300,000 putting it up to a side containing the greatest player in the history of the game? Where tiny island nations can eliminate two states with a combined five World Cups, as Costa Rica did to Italy and England in 2014.
Quality is not guaranteed at the World Cup by any stretch, but that’s not even what makes it so good; it’s the stakes of a short tournament, the national fervour it manages to drum up, and the narrative — so often derided in club football — that it creates from game to game.
If we decide that the World Cup is to be comprised of the ‘actual’ best teams, we would be sacrificing inclusiveness for exclusivity. Although we might gain a greater quality in football terms across the board, we would lose something fundamental as to why it is just so special.