WELL, now what? For us veterans of this quadrennial month-long daily ritual, who have been watching the World Cup for decades now, we know the drill. For neophytes who are experiencing the post-World Cup doldrums for the first time, dreading the next four years as a soccer-less vacuum, coming down from an intense high, and having to now deal with what therapists refer to as acute withdrawal, I have some great news for you before you plunge into depression – football season never ends.
That’s right, the beautiful game of the world’s masses is played all year long.
For about nine months out of the year, every country in the world is immersed in their respective domestic league competitions. There is never a period of the year when no competitive full-on top-division league is going on somewhere in the world. With its own continental and world championships, the club system is just as intriguing as its international counterpart. Above the domestic professional league competitions, every confederation holds a champions league, in which the top clubs of each continent battle for supremacy.
With hardly a break after the World Cup final, the European club season resumes in January. The European club system is indisputably the best in the world, where all the top stars play or aspire to play. All the other continental leagues are sort of like a second, third, or fourth tier to Europe.
Can you imagine Neymar, Messi, and Mbappe all playing together in the same offense, with a defense that includes Hakimi? That’s Paris Saint-Germain. Coming up on February 15, PSG takes on Bayern Munich in a massive UEFA Champions League round of 16 clash in Paris. Munich is tied for the most players selected by their respective national teams for the World Cup, including Canada’s Davies, Pavard of France, Cameroon’s Choupo-Moting, Netherlands’ de Ligt, and Morocco’s Mazraoui. Along with our favorite player to not play in the World Cup, Sadio Mane of Senegal who will have surely recovered from his injury by then, this match pits two of the biggest and best clubs in the world facing each other on the pitch. If one match wasn’t enough for you, they’ll do it again for a second leg less than a month later in Munich.
On the exact same dates and times, Tottenham’s all-star lineup takes on AC Milan’s. This matchup features Kane, Richarlison, Lloris, Perisic, and Asia’s hope Son Heung-Min against Giroud, Kjær, Dest, and Leão – just a few of the stellar names we are all now familiar with. Is this enough to raise your spirits? How about 180 minutes plus stoppage time of Real Madrid vs Liverpool – Vini Jr., Courtois, Modric, Hazard, Militao, Tchouameni, Rudiger versus Becker, Fabinho, van Dijk, Henderson, Konate… For those who are following the Christian Pulisic saga, he joins Chelsea teammates Mendy, Ziyech, Havertz, Sterling, and Thiago Silva to face his former club Borussia Dortmund with Bellingham, Brandt and fellow American Gio Reyna – a rare European Champions League fixture pitting two US national team players against each other.
We also have an opportunity to catch some megastars in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 whose nations did not qualify for the World Cup, such as 22-year-old Norwegian phenom Erling Haaland, who has scored 18 goals in 13 appearances for Manchester City. Haaland leads a superstar crew that fields 16 players selected for World Cup duty, the most on one club, tied with Bayern and Barcelona. One of the most prolific strikers today, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah headlines star-studded Liverpool. Current Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema was injured right before the World Cup kicked off and was thus dropped from the French selection, but he’ll be well in time to rejoin Real Madrid before the end of the calendar year.
While the European club system is considered the most prestigious in the world, every confederation has its own champions league. The current Asian edition started with a preliminary round last March and concludes with the championship in May 2023. The Philippines’ two representatives in the AFC Champions League, Kaya-Iloilo and United City, were both eliminated in the preliminary round and group stage respectively. United City, our sole direct qualifier, finished at the bottom of their group with zero wins, zero points, one goal scored and a -16 goal differential. BG Pathum United of Thailand topped United City’s group, which also included Melbourne City of Australia and South Korea’s Jeonnam Dragons. BG Pathum in turn was creamed in the quarter-finals 4-0 by J1 side Urawa Red Diamonds. This is just one indicator of how far Philippine men’s football has yet to go.
The winners of each confederation go on to the Club World Cup, typically held every February. There will be at least three Club World Cup tournaments before the next World Cup in 2026.
Besides all the club action going on all over the world, contrary to how it might feel right now, during the four years between World Cups, there is nary a gap in international action. All of the continental confederations contest their championships within this period. The sub-continental tournaments also take place. (For us Azkals devotees, the 2022 ASEAN Football Federation championship is approaching fast – as in the day right after the World Cup final when the Philippines open the 2022 AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup against Cambodia at Phnom Penh’s Morodok Techo Stadium.
All of the continental confederations hold their respective championships in two different formats – the nations league, a protracted round-robin competition, and a cup tournament structure similar to the World Cup. The 48th South American Copa America and the 17th Euro tournament are both scheduled for June-July 2024. The Asian Cup is slated for some time next year. Qatar has stepped up to take over as hosts after China decided it could no longer do so due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation there. The next edition of the biennial Africa Cup of Nations will be held January 2024 in Ivory Coast. The Oceania Football Confederation took a COVID break in 2020. The next OFC Cup of Nations will be held in 2024.
When it comes down to it though, none of these continental and sub-continental tournaments can replicate the World Cup high from which you now find yourself plunging ever deeper without a cure in sight, panicking in the face of four years without your fix. I’m here to allay your fears – there is something to feed your need. In just a few months, the next World Cup Qualification process begins anew, to culminate in Canada-Mexico-USA 2026.
The road to the World Cup is a completely different sort of competition than the final tournament. While the finals packed 64 matches into a one-month-or-so period, the Qualifiers were a much more protracted campaign. For Qatar, 209 national teams played 865 total matches spread out over three years and eight days, with many games being held simultaneously in various parts of the world. While coaches have only a 26-player roster to work with in the final tournament, which they have to submit by a deadline a couple of weeks prior to the start, they have the entire national diaspora to form their lineup for each Qualifying match.
The Qualification system involves bursts of activity, up to two matches at home or away in a one-week span, with months-long spaces in between during which coaches need to monitor the fitness and form of their players with their respective clubs. Qualification is replete with drama and intrigue, star players at times falling in and out of form or favor with coaches. Often, teams change coaches in mid-competition. With national teams playing a series of matches at home, the Qualifiers are attended by typically more rabid, passionate, and rambunctious fans than at the finals, where hooligans are systematically kept away and security is extremely tight, as demonstrated in Qatar. The finals is neutral ground for all teams other than the host and their opponents, but the Qualifiers are anything but neutral. In order to succeed, teams must know how to win in foreign and downright hostile territory.
For example, the Qualification road to Qatar 2022 began on June 6, 2019 with Mongolia versus Brunei in Ulaanbaatar, Macau versus Sri Lanka in Zhuhai, Laos versus Bangladesh in Vientiane, Cambodia versus Pakistan in Phnom Penh, and Bhutan vs Guam in Thimphu. The return match took place in the opposing venue a few days later. The first round of the African Qualifiers started on September 4 and 5, 2019 contested by 28 countries playing home and away to determine who goes on to the next round. For many of these early round participants, this is the World Cup. They may not have the big-name superstar multimillionaire darlings who grace magazine covers and model the latest designer swimsuits, but these lower-ranked teams play with just as much passion, and the matches are just as exciting and meaningful to those nations.
I remember the packed Rizal Memorial Stadium and the loud and passionate crowd on July 3, 2011 when the Azkals blanked Sri Lanka 4-0 in a critical qualifier for 2014. The rain was as relentless as the Philippine offense that afternoon, led by national hero Chieffy Caligdong and the Younghusbands. The euphoria that victory brought about for our people definitely felt like a World Cup match; essentially for both nations, it was.
Many consider the South American Qualification system the most grueling – all ten CONMEBOL members lumped into a single group playing each other home and away. That’s 18 matches over a year and a half during which players must train incessantly to maintain form and fitness.
The qualification process for 2026 is right around the corner and FIFA, whether we like it or not, is adding 16 more qualification spots. For the first time, there will be 48 World Cup places for 200+ countries to vie for. Whereas before, approximately eight percent of entries qualified, now almost the top 25 percent go through – a lot more to fight for in the years ahead.
So you see, the footballing world has plenty to tide you over for the next three and half years. The World Cup final tournament is just the climactic tip of the footberg. In between World Cup years, you don’t need to endure so much withdrawal. In fact, it’s your chance to expand your addiction by learning so much more about the game. And when the World Cup year comes around again, it becomes all that more thrilling, which makes for a much better high…
Kokoy Severino is a career educator and nationally certified youth soccer coach in the United States who now lives in his home country of the Philippines. For over 23 years, he implemented the beautiful game as a gang-intervention program in high-poverty urban school districts in the Greater Houston area of Texas. He has also worked with economically-disadvantaged communities in the Philippines, using football to mentor youths out of poverty. He is on the coaching staff of the Football for Peace movement, of the Elmer Lacknet Bedia Football Academy, and a core member of Initiatives and Hearts for Indigenous People, a collective of volunteer soccer coaches who work with youths in poverty, particularly among the ma