It probably hasn’t escaped your attention (though you may wish it had) that the World Cup began at the weekend. That’s the men’s football World Cup, of course – which means four weeks and 64 matches of sweaty blokes rolling around with pretend injuries while occasionally scoring a goal or two; this time, unusually, amid the desert warmth of Qatar.
But let’s imagine, for a moment, that the tournament wasn’t about football. Let’s say that it was a World Cup of Travel. Involving the same 32 nations, facing off in the exact same order, only on the simple yet crucial matter of which ranks as the best holiday destination, rather than on who can boot a leathery sphere into a big rectangle more than anyone else.
Who would win? Well, for one thing, it wouldn’t be Italy, because the Azzurri failed to qualify for the actual World Cup – which, rather unhelpfully, rules the land of the Amalfi Coast and the Colosseum out of this parallel (but far more important) competition. The same goes for Sweden, Norway, Greece and New Zealand – and while we’re at it, South Africa, Colombia, Botswana, India, China, Peru, Chile and Egypt. Sorry, we don’t make the rules. Well actually, we do make the rules, but we aren’t changing the rules. So there.
Still with us? Good. The Travel Referee is on the pitch, whistle to his lips. Let us begin…
Countries: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, The Netherlands
An even-handed gathering of four countries; with no continent represented more than once. Who will triumph in this symmetrical battle of equals? Well, Ecuador, obviously – on account of its having the Galapagos Islands, the Avenue of the Volcanos, and its high-altitude capital city Quito on the books; the footballing equivalent of a line-up containing Maradona, Pele and, erm, Peter Crouch.
Can Qatar, the tournament host – which has lots of sand, but no fire-breathing Andean mountains – compete with this South American superstar? Let’s ask Lonesome George, the 100-year-old Galapagos tortoise who, even though he died in 2012, knows all about these things. George says “no”, so the hosts go out, leaving Senegal and the Netherlands to wrestle for the remaining place in the second round.
The Netherlands is a wonderful country; a beacon of art and culture. But it’s too gloomy a time of year for looking at gloomy paintings by gloomy old Van Gogh in his admittedly well-lit Amsterdam museum – whereas Senegal has a brand new flight link (launched on November 7) from Gatwick with Tui Airways, which means cheap holidays to the beach. So that’s Winter Sun 1, Sunflowers 0.
Countries: England, Iran, USA, Wales
The actual World Cup is always a bit of a shock for a country which tends to be the best at sports where you throw the ball really really hard – yet flounders a bit when you have to kick the damn thing (yes yes, caveats about the vast improvement in US football in the last 20 years, and the very valid point that the women’s team are world champions). But this isn’t the Big Soccerball Series, and we aren’t oh-for-two in the goal zone.
This is the Travel World Cup, and the USA has all the major cities, great lakes, national parks and road-trip highways you could want. Which makes it a superb destination, even with all the people who bellow “You-Esss-Ay” every time they win a corner. So through they go.
Iran has centuries of Persian history and sumptuous cultural heritage, but is currently going through a period of terrible internal turmoil which makes even mentioning it in a nominally light-hearted piece deeply discomfiting. So let’s leave it for a time when Persepolis is more accessible and Tehran isn’t full of riot police, and move to the last two.
England or Wales? Wales or England? Yes, part of the same country, but that doesn’t help us here. How to choose? Best beaches? Quality of beer? Tunefulness of male-voice choirs? Highest mountain it is. Snowdon beats Scafell Pike – so Wales, on y va…
Countries: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland
Where do you fancy for your next holiday? Saudi Arabia for sun, sand and human-rights abuses, or Argentina for some of the planet’s finest wines, one of the world’s liveliest capital cities (that means you Buenos Aires; stop tangoing and pay attention) and the wild spaces of Patagonia? Hmmm, can I have a minute to think about it? Fraid not, tick tock, be-dop-be-dop-bibba-de-do, or however the Countdown music goes. Argentina advances.
Now then. Never let it be said that Poland isn’t brilliant. Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk are all fascinating cities, awash with history, and hardly short of options for a beer. Then you have the Masurian Lakes, which are really lovely. You should go. But would you rather have a week cycling in central Europe, or a trip to the beach in Cancun or Baja California, with a few days of Aztec and/or Mayan ruins, and fine food in Oaxaca thrown in? Look, here’s a photo of Chichen Itza, and a bottle of tequila. Good call. Viva Mexico.
Countries: France, Australia, Denmark, Tunisia
Can you have a Group of Death in a Travel World Cup? That doesn’t sound a very nice idea. More death with your holiday choice, vicar? A bit more mortal danger with your destination? A soupcon of fatal peril with your boarding pass? You’re shaking your head and looking like you don’t want to be having this conversation any more. Sure. As Liz Truss said, shortly before she had to resign because she absolutely didn’t get it, we get it.
The point is that all four countries here can be wonderful options for a week or fortnight away. It’s difficult to pick out two to acclaim, and two to discard. Have you seen the way the sunlight dances on the sand dunes at Jutland, at the north tip of Denmark, or been to a restaurant in Copenhagen? Highly advised, in both cases. Have you strolled around the Roman amphitheatre at El Djem in Tunisia? Seriously, put it on your bucket list. It’s as remarkable as the Colosseum, and you will have it all but to yourself.
But then you have France and Australia, where it’s all world-class wines, remarkable cities and big rocks in the desert (all right France, not you) – so the choice probably makes itself. Who wins the group? Well, one of these countries is rather jet-laggy; one is next door. Figure it out.
Countries: Spain, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan
The first rule of football World Cups is that everyone kicks a ball around for a month, then the Germans win on penalties (yes yes, Brazil blah, Italy blah, Germany have never won a World Cup on penalties blah, tell it to the comments box).
But when it comes to the Travel World Cup, one of the first rules is that, while Germany has amazing cities (Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Hamburg), Spain also has amazing cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao), but it’s warmer there, and there’s tapas. Tapas is worth a three-goal start in this battle of mixed metaphors, so in a shock for everyone, the Germans go home.
There is always an unfortunate loser in the group stages; an unlucky nation eliminated via a dubious refereeing decision or an appalling deflection. Here, that nation is Costa Rica, which may be the most welcoming of all destinations in Central America; a friendly soul with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
What more can it do to progress? Well, it can be Japan, which is an everyone-must-go-once travel superstar, all neon gleam in Tokyo and temple serenity in Kyoto. Controversial? Maybe. But there’s no VAR here, so there’s no telling if Nagasaki was offside in the build-up. Sorry Costa Rica.
Countries: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia
Were this the Travel World Cup of 2002, you might have squinted suspiciously at the part of Europe where Yugoslavia used to be, and demanded to know whether there were any direct Eurostar trains to Brussels yet? The reply would have been “yes, since 1994 mate” – and off to Belgium you would have gone.
But now it’s 2022, and while a long weekend in the city of moules-frites and implausible statues of little boys urinating is all fine and dandy, there is a good reason why Croatia is now one of the most popular destinations for British tourists. Its Adriatic coastline. All 1,100 miles of it – if you count islands like Brac, Hvar, Korcula and Vis, as well as cities like Dubrovnik, Zadar, Split and Pula. Which you should, because they are marvellous. Every sunny square metre. Croatia wins.
How to separate Canada and Morocco? Both do great animal, but you’d rather meet an untethered camel than a prowling polar bear, and that has to count for something. A skyscraper in Toronto or a riad in Marrakech? A hike in the Atlas Mountains or skiing in the Rockies? Beachside at Essaouira or whale-watching on Vancouver Island? No, these aren’t fair questions, but who told you this was fair? Heads, tails, lack of jetlag, Morocco.
Countries: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon
Life isn’t fair, is it? On the pitch, Brazil has some of the planet’s most gifted footballers, those iconic golden shirts, and a stylish swagger you can all but touch. On the beach, it has… some of the planet’s most gifted footballers, those iconic golden shirts, and a stylish swagger you can all but touch – and that’s before we’ve got beyond Copacabana and the Rio seafront. Add the Amazon rainforest, Iguacu Falls and the fact that everyone can dance, and Brazil gets to be good at travel as well as football. Off to the knock-out stages please, and if you could try to look just a bit less smug about it, we’d all feel better.
Who does that leave? Ah yes. Cameroon might reasonably be described as “a bit niche”, even if Douala-Edea National Park has wildlife wonders (chimpanzees and elephants) aplenty. Serbia has some of Croatia’s character, but none of its shoreline. Switzerland has skiing, cheese and chocolate. And who doesn’t like skiing with cheese and chocolate?
Countries: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea
Much like Cristiano Ronaldo, strutting into a dressing room filled with lesser mortals in no way fit – he’d like to think – to lace his hand-crafted, perfectly pomaded boots; lesser mortals he definitely won’t be passing to, the fools – Portugal has probably taken one look at the travel version of Group H and thought “yeah, I’ve got this”.
Of course, it has a point. Several points. Gorgeous Lisbon, laid out across its many hills. Porto on its river estuary; the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank. Those soft beaches of the Algarve, so loved by British tourists. Fair enough. Go sit with Brazil in Smug Corner.
The rest of you? Sorry for Portugal’s well-placed confidence. Now, let’s see. Ghana – you’re a slowly emerging destination with important Unesco-listed heritage and a busy, noisy, thrilling capital in oceanfront Accra, but the key phrase here is probably “slowly emerging”.
South Korea – you’re a long way away (from Britain anyway), and while Seoul is a swirling global metropolis, the suspicion lingers that if you want Far Eastern neon glitter, Tokyo calls more loudly. Uruguay – you’re actually pretty cool, with your coastline along the River Plate estuary, surprisingly excellent wine, and capital Montevideo, which is like Buenos Aires with beaches. Go get on the bus with Portugal.
Ecuador v Wales
Did we put Wales through via the highest-mountain metric? [Scrolls back up]. Ah yes. Right. In that case, it’s Chimborazo (20,549ft/6,263m) versus Snowdon (3,560ft/1,085m). That’s a gap that no having a dinky little railway to the top can ever hope to close. Sorry Wales – you live by the random summit statistic, you die by the random summit statistic.
Argentina v Australia
The best way to sort out this “fixture” would be to call in a bottle of plonk from each of the 10 best wineries in each country, gather some friends, and work your way through the lot. Then no one would care about football, or Travel World Cups, or whether Ushuaia has a cooler dial code than Adelaide. What’s that? A winner? Oh yes. Well, if you drink 10 bottles of wine in Australia, there’s a chance of going home with an angry bloke called Gary. Try the same thing in Argentina, and it’s a handsome gaucho called Javier. Onward.
Japan v Morocco
You can have brilliant evenings in Marrakech and Tokyo, but only in the latter can you do karaoke in the actual room of the actual karaoke bar where Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray did karaoke in Lost In Translation. When you frame it like that, it’s really simple.
Brazil v Uruguay
[Brazil acknowledges that Uruguay does indeed have fine urban beaches in Montevideo, particularly Playa Ramirez. Point taken. Apropos of nothing, there’s going to be a party later on Ipanema Beach, where there will be supermodels, rockstars, and a few cool surf dudes. Feel free to drop in at any time. Unless you’re too busy talking about Uruguay…].
The USA v Senegal
Howdy. Uncle Sam here. I just wanted to remind you that Sinatra sang “it’s up to you, New York,” not “it’s up to you, Dakar, which is the capital of Senegal”. I’m not saying this should sway your thinking, but if you’re arguing with Frank then we can’t be friends.
Winner: The USA
France v Mexico
Sure, sure, you can go swimming with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez, and explore the remains of Teotihuacan on the outskirts of Mexico City. But does anything really beat a long weekend in Paris, popping into independent art galleries on the Rive Gauche, drifting into a wine bar at 3pm, nipping into the Musee D’Orsay before it closes, then impulse-buying something regrettably pricey but tres chic in a Marais boutique? I’ll just leave this book of Toulouse-Lautrec sketches and bottle of chablis here while you decide.
Croatia v Spain
Croatia is gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous in summer; gets a bit blustery in winter. Spain sits further south – so it kind of has the year-round thing covered. Andalucia and Seville too chilly for you in November (it isn’t, and you’re wrong)? Tenerife is just down there.
Portugal v Switzerland
Are we still doing the mountain thing? We are? OK. Glance over here at the Matterhorn. Isn’t it impressive? Looks like a cobra rearing angrily, depending on the angle of observation. But unlike an angry cobra, you can ski on it. Or underneath it. At Zermatt. Year-round, thanks to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise bit of the resort. [That’s assuming global warming hasn’t melted the ice in the last half-hour. Can someone quickly check?].
Ecuador v Argentina
The quarter-finals. The place where behemoths meet and titans clash. A clash of the titans, if you will. No, that’s a clunky Eighties movie about Greek warriors fighting plasticine monsters. Where were we? Ah yes, separating Ecuador and Argentina. Very difficult. Two great slabs of South American terrain. Both of which should be part of a lifetime’s travels.
But here’s the rub. You can probably see Ecuador in one detailed itinerary – tortoises, volcanos, lofty capital, big tick. Whereas Argentina – Buenos Aires, the winelands, cool outpost cities like Salta, Patagonia, the far south where it shares Tierra del Fuego with Chile – probably needs three, even four visits, to get the full effect. Lots more bang for your peso, in other words, whether or not you meet Javier the gaucho.
Japan v Brazil
Tokyo feels like living in a dazzling computer game, or perhaps that Blade Runner sequel with Ryan Gosling, which was OK-ish. But Rio can’t be bothered with computer games, because it’s getting ready for Carnaval. Do you like my shiny outfit? Get on the big float.
The USA v France
Hey there. Uncle Sam again. Look, I love what you did in the previous section about doing the Paris thing in Paris, looking at horse paintings and drinking all the Camenbert. Good times, good times. I must do it some time. But what are you going to do when you’ve finished looking at that big pointy tower, and been to that Moulin Rouge cathedral which burned down? Seriously man, hop over the Pond. We’ve got loads of awesome cities where you can hang out. New Orleans, Miami, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle. I mean it. Come out to LA next weekend. There’s some people I’d really love you to meet.
Winner: The USA
Spain v Switzerland
So you’ve finished skiing. You’ve done all the skiing. It’s time for a city break. Do you want to spend a weekend in Zurich, or Barcelona? Yep, that’s the Sagrada Familia. Isn’t it spectacular? Completion date? Let’s not talk about anything as dull as completion dates...
Argentina v Brazil
Crikey, this was an actual war for a fair chunk of the 19th century, so let’s tread very carefully here. Both amazing, crammed with glittering cities, music, food, history and wildlife. But Brazil is warmer, and has better beaches. Did we mention the beaches? Basically, this goes to penalties. Che Guevara and the Pio XI Glacier both sky their kicks, but the River Amazon scores, and Christ the Redeemer dinks a panenka to win it. Scenes.
The USA v Spain
Yeah yeah, Uncle Sam again. No, I don’t ever take any time off. You-Esss-Ay. You-Esss-Ay. Now then. I’m loving this here picture of the Sierra Nevada in… Jessica, honey, how the hell do you pronounce that? Ander-Loo-Seeya? Ander-Losers? Whatever. We’ve got a Sierra Nevada as well. It’s way bigger. Here’s a photo of the Grand Canyon.
Winner: The USA
Argentina v Spain
Nobody cares about the Third-place Play-off.
Brazil v the USA
There’s only one way to decide this. A Waterfall-Off. As Jane Austen almost once put it, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Niagara Falls is a bit overrated. It isn’t just that the town of the same name is somewhat drab, and could do with renovating some of its hotels; it’s that the much-vaunted waterfall only adds up to 167ft (51m) of splash and spray.
Whereas Iguacu Falls serves up 269ft (82m) of roaring, crashing water, and has a brilliant bit called the Garganta do Diabo – “The Devil’s Throat”. And if that isn’t a top-corner volley in the 93rd minute, who knows what is? Quick, give the Brazilians the trophy before Canada and Argentina point out that they share the waterfalls in question, and we have to do the whole tournament all over again, after a lengthy stewards’ inquiry.