Why the World Cup Will Always Be Bigger Than the Champions League

Sam PilgerContributing Football WriterFebruary 26, 2014

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Next week will mark 100 days until the World Cup begins with Brazil’s opening fixture against Croatia in Sao Paulo. 

Across the globe, excitement is building as final friendlies are staged, squads are beginning to take shape and debate rages as to who will lift the World Cup in July.

Even in my own house, my eight-year-old son has already placed his World Cup wall chart above his bed while he eagerly awaits the release of the World Cup sticker book.

But it has also become increasingly fashionable to declare that the World Cup has lost its allure and has even been surpassed by the Champions League as the ultimate football tournament.

As reported by The Daily TelegraphChelsea manager Jose Mourinho has previously said, “[The Champions League] is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than the national teams, who can’t buy the best players.”

Speaking at a news conference, the former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has also agreed with his old rival and, as reported by The Mirror, said, “The Champions League is the best competition in the world now, better than the World Cup, better than the European Championships, it’s a fantastic tournament.” 

These are, of course, the self-serving comments of club managers given the task of winning the Champions League because, when you look at the raw figures, it is abundantly clear the World Cup remains the biggest football competition in the world. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger of Bayern Muenchen hold the trophy after winning the UEFA Champions League final match against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2013 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Al
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According to FIFA’s own figures, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was watched in every nation and territory in the world, including Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. Overall, it was seen by a record 3.2 billion people, which equates to 46.4 percent of the world’s population.

The most watched game at this tournament was inevitably the final between Spain and Holland, which was seen by 909.6 million viewers. It is believed that this figure would surpass one billion if those watching the game outside their homes in bars and pubs were included.

The Champions League doesn’t even come close to these figures. A mere 150 million people in more than 200 countries, according to UEFA, watched last season’s final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, which increases to over 360 million viewers when the projected global unique reach is also taken into account.

The Champions League has a very long way to go if it wants to become bigger than the World Cup. 

The World Cup remains special because it happens once every four years for one incredible month, as opposed to the Champions League that happens every season and lasts for nine months. Every four years the World Cup has the power to stop a nation and bring it together in front of its television screens.

In England, where I live, club rivalries are largely set aside in a World Cup summer as the nation is decked out in St. George’s Crosses and consumed with that familiar sense of false hope.

Four years ago, my son aged only four and his classmates were allowed to watch England’s game against Algeria at school. 

This has not happened for any other event before or since, and certainly never for a Champions League game.

The World Cup inspires interest in people who don’t normally watch football, and for one month only, they become an expert, and sometimes, particularly in the wake of Italia 90, they will stay with the sport. The Champions League doesn’t have this power.

This new or occasional fan is attracted to the purity of the World Cup and by the teams being assembled by their nationality and not simply by who can afford to buy the best players.

The World Cup also offers more intrigue and romance than the Champions League. While the bigger nations normally win the tournament, there is usually also a compelling subplot of a smaller nation far outperforming their expectations.

It happened with Cameroon in 1990, Bulgaria in 1994, Croatia in 1998 and Turkey and the co-hosts South Korea in 2002.

The World Cup will always be more emotionally intense, colourful and meaningful than the Champions League.

While the fans clearly prefer the World Cup, how about the players who perform out on the pitch?

Winning the Champions League is something to be cherished, but taking home the World Cup will always be the ultimate for players.

The most exclusive club in football is reserved for World Cup winners, with only 399 members in the entire history of the game. It is also the quickest route to sporting immortality and to becoming a national hero.

As reported by ESPN, the current England manager, Roy Hodgson, recently spoke for today’s generation of footballers:

I think you will find most players, at the end of their careers, would say going to the World Cup was their best moment. Not many will be saying it was playing in the group stages of the Champions League against Standard Liege on a Wednesday night.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this debate is about the comparable quality of these tournaments, as the Champions League would probably win that, but rather this is about which is bigger and more important.

Over the last two decades, the Champions League has made great strides, but it remains firmly in the shadow of the World Cup.